Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Faintly Patronising Advice for New ALTs 2

Episode II – Attack of the Drones

Still with me? Well done you. We’ll kick off the second period with a biggie, second only really to Point 1 from Monday, though frankly they’re just two different ways of talking about the same thing. Repetition is not without pedagogic value.

 A good point, well made.

4.    Respect
If your students and colleagues respect you, they will eventually like you. It does not work the other way round. You are not being paid to be your students' friend. That doesn't preclude being friendly, of course, but don't confuse being liked with being respected. The former is preferable, the latter is essential.

As an ALT you’ll be told repeatedly that it’s not your job to enforce discipline in the class, and it’s not. Don't count on the JTE seeing it that way, though. The students don’t know this either; they see you as a teacher, remember? If you go into a class thinking that discipline is not your problem the kids will pick up on that very quickly, and then it’ll be everyone’s. This is not about being a hard-ass who rules with a rod of iron. It’s about caring enough to make sure your students get it, and sometimes that will mean dictating your position in a less than fluffy manner. You are an authority figure for the students, and as such are both expected and required to exercise that authority.

How you are able to enforce discipline will very from class to class and JTE to JTE. But never undermine the JTE in front of the students, no matter how tempting it is or deserving they might be (and some are very deserving). These teachers will teach these students nearly every day, and a challenge to their authority that you would find relatively easy to deflect could screw them completely. A weakened JTE also makes it harder for you. Like children of a failing marriage, students are very good at sensing cracks in your partnership and some will play off those mercilessly simply for the sport. You must stand united against the forces of idiocy and/or evil.

Just by your presence you throw the whole power dynamic of the classroom. You’re a little bit strange and a little bit foreign, and thus something of a wild-card for both the students and the teachers. This means you can cross boundaries which the JTEs cannot, and it also means you can absorb some hits which would be fatal for a JTE’s authority. Sometimes you’ll just have to suck it up and take one for the team.

Cut n' paste erotica, the gift that
keeps on giving.

So pick your battles. I’ve heard of ALTs who refuse to enter the classroom before all the students have taken their seats. Fine in principle, but if the JTEs are unable to enforce this then you’re unlikely to able to do so either. You have to bluff, but always be aware of what might happen if it gets called (see point 6). In some rougher schools there are more important issues to address and you have to cut your cloth accordingly.

5.    The Long View
I occasionally bump into some of my former students. We’ll talk about where we both are now and reminisce about the scary PE teacher. A couple of them are currently studying English at university, and have told me that it was in part because they loved the lessons they had with me. This is obviously very flattering, even more so because I have no real memories of them doing so at the time.

We all have specific memories of teachers we had. Maybe one teacher said that one thing that one time and it’s always stuck with you. I can almost guarantee you that they have no memory of saying it. As a teacher you have the opportunity to influence people’s lives for the better, in ways you may never know about. As a foreign teacher this is even more true, as you may well be the single most tangible contact these students have with the world outside Japan. It’s why you always have to be ‘on’, because you never know what your students will take away from their time with you. Make sure it can only be something good.

'Cos little acorns grow n' shit.

6.    Diamonds in the Rough
The corollary to point 5 is that you can’t let the bad students or colleagues drag you down. Every school has weaker teachers. Every school has problem students. Equally, every school has teachers who care about their job and every class, no matter how badly behaved, has kids in it who want to learn.

The moral being, even bad kids have a heart. Also, conform
to prevailing cultural norms if you want people to like you. 

Senior High School is optional in Japan, but below that it’s compulsory. Every student must receive an education, even if they disrupt it for others. This means that discipline at Junior High and Elementary school is essentially a bluff by the staff. In most schools it works but if the students do decide to call it, it’s not pretty. But even in the ‘worst’ schools (which are still pretty tame in comparison to what most of us grew up with), there will be those kids who want to be there, and they fucking loathe the bad kids.

Obviously you want to reach as many students as possible and the bad kids are still your students, so don’t write them off too quickly. But if your patience is wearing thin, and everyone’s does on occasion, remember not to let the good kids down. These students want to be taught despite circumstances which are difficult for them as well, remember. Failing to teach students who want to learn in the face of obstacles is an unforgivable dereliction of your professional duty.

If you feel that by talking about ‘dereliction of professional duty’ I’m overstating the case, or being ridiculously naïve or arrogant about the importance of ALTs, then go back and read Point 1 from Monday. If you still feel the same after doing so then you can fuck off - you’re part of the problem.

Bonus Hint 2 – People will remember the last and first things you tell them. The rest isn’t just filling, but load your main points at the start and at the end. It would appear that today my main points are ‘respect’ and ‘fuck off’, which should be enough cognitive dissonance to keep us all happy until I wrap up on Friday.


  1. Love it!!
    The "Respect>Like" is the fundemental equation to the whole thing.

    1. Absolutely. And just life in general, but especially so here.

  2. There is one student who is stands out as a bad apple in an already spoiling bunch of 2nd years (so to speak). Once the JTE told me about an experience she had with him: "He (the student) told me (the JTE) that I am the only one who knows he is kind."

    This has stuck with me - and even when I see this kid jerking around in class, I try to give him the benefit of the doubt and talk to him about the things he likes - like his X-Box and such. Reading your post here makes me feel like this "EVery kid gets an education" thing in Japan is a good thing - everyone deserves a chance - some kids just got screwed up backgrounds or emotional issues. I know I had both growing up. We shouldn't deny a kid an education just coz they act up. Although it may not be my duty to discipline the kids, as an ALT I obviously have power an presence in the classroom. Gotta work it the right way.

    I dunno...I just thought of that, reading your post now. ^^

    1. That's the sad thing, as an ALT you're never really going have enough meaningful contact to reach all the kids who need it. You can lead a horse to water and all that. Sometimes the least worst option is making sure the kids who do want to know don't get let down.

      "Every kid gets an education" is a glorious principle, but is implemented incredibly badly. As is so often the case.