Friday 28 September 2012

In Defence of the ALT IV

Book Four – Larry Cotter and The Tediously Bloated Franchise:
The One In Which I Give Up On Pretending Larry Isn’t Me.

Well, not entirely me. I’m considerable fitter and better looking than he is. And I’ve conflated my experiences with those of a few other ALTs I’ve heard about first hand. But everything I described in part two really happened to someone, and should help you realize just how much unrealistic bullshit gets thrown at new ALTs before they ever set foot in a school. This means that in addition to coping with culture shock, they also have to deal with the fact it may very quickly become apparent this isn’t what they signed up for.

You could rightly argue that falling for the sales pitch is a little naïve, that five minutes on Google would be enough to disabuse a prospective ALT of any notions they may have had about swanning around Japan in their copious free time, interacting with the locals, mastering whatever martial art they decide to learn, and generally righting wrongs and standing up for the oppressed like a latter day Zatoichi.

Morning meetings could be a bitch.

But really, who isn’t a little naïve in their early twenties? That’s pretty much the whole point of being that age; making questionable decisions and finding out that the rest of the world owes you fucking nothing. If you’re going to recruit primarily from that age bracket, you’d better be prepared to put some serious effort into their training to get them up to speed. Needless to say, that’s not what happens.

Aside from some functionary from the Ministry or Board of Education making an absurdly panglossian speech on how ALTs are going to get all Japanese students speaking fluent English simply by their presence, JET training sessions are almost entirely organized and conducted by other JETs. Imagine if a group of people who couldn’t see very well decided to give directions to another group of people who also couldn’t see very well. It wouldn’t be very effective, would it?

I'm sure there's a snappier way of phrasing that.

Teaching is consistently presented as just one part of the role, weighted equally with other, less tangible parts involving ‘exchange.’ So it can come as a bit of a shock to get into schools and discover that your Japanese colleagues don’t know the JET Programme is co-sponsored by three ministries (really, that fact got shoved down our throats so fucking hard we all started calling ourselves ‘Debbie’ and wondering if we’d gone to the wrong city by mistake), and that they don’t know that ‘International Exchange’ is an explicitly stated part of why you’re in Japan. They think you here to teach English, and only teach English. So when you ask for time off to go and see a festival, you think you’re fulfilling one of the main aspects of your job description, and they think you want a holiday because you’re lazy.

Of course, both may be true. But it still remains that you were lured to Japan with several stated goals, and the reality is that the people you are answerable to on a day-to-day basis only care about one of them. And one you’ve received maybe a maximum of ten hours training on prior to trying to execute.

Now, there are some wonderful ALTs, and there are some absolute jokes, as with any large group of people. But it’s not just the odd bad apple, unfortunately. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the bulk of ALTs are naïve, inexperienced, ill-prepared, and improperly incentivized. It’s not an exaggeration because that’s exactly the kind of people the system’s set up to attract. Look again at the list of horseshit I detailed in part two, and then realize that I left out much, much more because even I was getting tired of the easy sarcasm.

So it’s not that there’s the odd bad apple, so much as that the barrel’s half filled with onions too. Nothing wrong with onions by themselves, but you don’t want to mistake one for the other when eating them raw. And if you don’t want to keep doing that, then the obvious solutions is to stop buying fucking onions.

Especially from anyone as suspiciously French
as this. I live to break down stereotypes, me.

The average ALT’s salary is fairly generous in comparison to a newly qualified Japanese Teacher. Being able to shift yourself halfway across the world and still operate effectively isn’t actually that common a skill, so a decent salary isn’t unjustified for the position. But that newly qualified Japanese teacher also knows that if he keeps his head down and doesn’t fuck up then he’ll get regular raises just based on length of service, twice annual bonuses, insurance, pension for his dotage, and, if he’s any good, a shot at promotion and more responsibility and influence.

ALTs get none of that, which is what I mean by ‘improperly incentivized’. While you’ll get more influence as your colleagues learn to trust you, your official job description will be exactly the same at the end of your tenth year as at the end of your first. Your wage will be equally as fixed, in all probability. That’s if you’re going to hang around that long. The Japanese teacher’ll have a job for life, but ALTs have to make do with a series of rolling annual contracts. It’s almost as if they don’t want us to stay…

And so to get properly personal about it. I’m actually pretty well qualified, just not in TEFL, and in purely economic terms there’s no incentive for me to change that situation. The possible benefits of any extra training I might be interested in (and I am interested) can’t possibly cover the time and money I’d have to sacrifice to get that training. It just doesn’t pay.

This isn’t a complaint about my specific situation. I should make that clear. I love most of what I do and like to flatter myself that I’m pretty good at my job. Actually, fuck that. I am good at my job. I’m good at it in large part because I understand the parameters and constraints on everyone involved and push against them as little as is necessary in order to educate my students. I’ve learned how to pick my battles, which means I’m allowed to do the parts of my job that actually matter in return for tolerating idiocies that don’t. Welcome to the real world, kids.

Nobody on either side comes into this purposefully planning to do a shit job, but in general the ALT system seems almost deliberately designed to fail at teaching English communication. Any ALTs or JTEs who manage to actually work well together and measurably improve their students are outliers, and owe their success far more to blind luck and individual character than any kind of conscious process at the organizational level. That is the sad and inescapable truth of a project that has consumed billions of yen over the course of decades.

"Do I really look like a guy with a plan?"

I’ve now spent four weeks outlining how the ALT system is fucked. In a series entitled ‘In Defence of the ALT’. Next week will be a doozy, I promise you.


  1. I remember taking a trip in November of my first year as an ALT, from where I was stationed in Kyuushuu, to Iwate-ken where this girl I liked was stationed. When I got back, I no longer liked her, and considered myself really lucky to be in Kyuushuu because every foreigner I knew there seemed pretty satisfied with life for the most part, and everyone I'd met in Iwate-ken was fucking MISERABLE.

    I kind of feel like that again, after reading this installment. Granted, I agree with you 100% when it comes to the english-teaching side of things, and am really enjoying this series, but when it comes to the "they lied to us" bits about how Japan wasn't as fun/magical/internationalizing as we were told, I start feeling bad for you.

    A lot of the people I knew (myself included) did have copious amounts of free time, and swanned around Japan and South East Asia. We did a lot of interaction with locals, via sports, festivals, and recreational alcohol use. Many of them got a really good grip on the language and (leave me out of this one) mastered the martial art of their choice. No one righted any wrongs, of course... but still. Other than the job part, being an ALT was a pretty good deal.

    I also dont' know anyone who was under the impression that they could shirk school duties to go to a festival because that counts as internationalizing duties, but I often shirked English classes to do other school related stuff...

    Maybe I was just really lucky, but I really don't feel like that particular aspect of the ALT experience needs to be addressed when "defending" the ALT. The unrealistic expectations as a teacher, the lack of resources and support, for sure. Improper incentivizing? If you're one of the handful of people who are real teachers and not just a grad on a gap year or two... fair enough. But don't you think in terms of salary and benefits (the Japan experience included) that most of us got more than a fair shake?

    1. Hmm, it wasn't my intention to come across as a miserablist. Maybe after all the clever clever stuff of the past few weeks I went a bit overboard with the transition back to the first person.

      It's not that I think 'they lied to us', so much as recognising who 'they' really are and what they want. Just about every group involved with this has their own expectation as to what it's meant to achieve. That being so, it's inevitable that most will come away less than fully satisfied. Obviously I can speak most clearly to the ALT's perspective, so I might have laid it on a little thick.

      Personal, cultural, and systemic faults are all at play here, but some more than others. Crucially, I feel a lot of people often get them confused and so draw inaccurate conclusions about about the worth of specific people, cultures, and systems.

      For what it's worth, I actually had a pretty good time on JET, I certainly wouldn't have come back if that hadn't been the case. I think I was fairly middling in terms of 'perks' like unofficial time off and rent subsidies as well. I know people who had far more lenient positions, and those with far stricter. I know I would have had a better time if I'd known beforehand exactly what to expect, and I know I'd have had a much, much better time if my first supervisor had known what to expect as well.

      Sorry it didn't work out with your ladyfriend in Iwate. That's a hell of a way to go for a fruitless booty call. But that fact that seemingly the entire ALT populations of two different prefecture could have such disparate experiences kind of proves my point about it being a crap-shoot, no? Maybe there was something in the water in Iwate (or more likely someone in the BoE), or maybe they really were all miserable bastards. Either way, you were just a roll of the placement dice from being there too.

      One more week of this nonsense to go...

    2. Oh, yeah, the incentives. Again, from the point of view of an individual JET in their early 20s, it's great. But those incentives are quite clearly not going to help Japan develop a core of competent and effective native EFL teachers, which is what a lot of people seem to expect ALTs to be (those expectations again).

      Some of those people I'm 'defending the ALT' against are those who think they are all short-termists who think of their job as a paid holiday. Undoubtedly some are, but under the current structure even those who'd like not to be have little choice in the matter.

    3. "Crapshoot" is exactly what it was, and is. The CLAIR/prefectural/BOE clusterfuck means nobody knows who should do what and what the rules have to be, and that suits the Japanese 'nemawashi' method of problem solving perfectly (deferral, avoidance, ostriching), right?

      I had what seemed then a fair shake. In retrospect, considering how FOB* I was, it was a great deal. A few had better than in my town. More than a few had worse. Certain things should have been as standardized as the pay: maximum rent and minimum furnishings to be provided, minimum days off, maximum teaching hours per week, guaranteed assistance with translation related to visas and other work related needs, etc. I cannot complain about any of these, as my BOE showed us good will, even if we did not always like the way they showed it. Nobody should have to rely on good will half a planet away from home; however.

      'Fresh off the boat'

    4. Is it still about four million yen a year? That is great for fresh meat from uni', but wouldn't keep me, as you say. Mind you, the second-tier 'international schools' pay little more for 'local contracts', for far more work, let me tell you! No wonder I get hired her by them so readily: with housing allowances and travel costs, the 'foreign hires' cost them at least 20% more.

      As 'kamo' says, JET rates didn't keep me here then, and wouldn't now. When my parental leave is done I go back to a payscale that maxes out at $90K CAD which, given the exchange rate and cost of living, means a far higher standard of living. I also have a better health plan for my family, a pension plan, and a union for my back if some kid or parent has a vendetta. All of this is very convincing when I am earning for four mouths.

      Bye bye Japan.

    5. JET was 3.6m when I was on it. Think it might be a touch lower now, though it looks like they've actually started giving pay rises for longer service.

      It seems to get tweaked fairly regularly now, usually downwards. I was a year too late to get the business class seats :(

    6. Business class seats! Wow. Pretty bubble-esque.

  2. I was looking forward to more whacky tales about your pork-pie eating friend.

    I have never been on the JET programme, just to clarify. I did do a stint for interac for one year where I studied a lot and managed to get another job, so that worked out well. I am a registered teacher in Sydney and so found the whole experience here to be a little demeaning and a tad vacuous, but it was a good experience for one year.

    I think getting told one thing and then the reality being a whole different kettle of fish is more of a introductory lesson in culture for this country, rather than something specific to JET. The last company (manufacturing) I worked for said on the recruitment section of their website that everyone gets one payrise a year, yet people who had been working there for 10 years were still on the original 200000 yen a month. Shit like that, it's everywhere to more or less of an extent, even in the nice companies.

    It would be ideal to have teachers within the system proper if the goal was to actually teach kids English, but I'm sure if it is yet. The exams are all ROTE based as I'm sure you know and this just repeats itself as their career progresses. Not to mention that any post or national qualification involves an exam, which even if it was done in English it would be difficult as none of us are really used to pure regurgitation for an exam, I know I am not and would certainly fail. Think of those poor Filipino and Indonesian nurses a while back.

    I'm pretty sure as you move up the continent from Osaka, it just gets more and more miserable, however I've never been past Tokyo so how the fuck should I know. Kyushu and Shikoku people are great, people in the Sanin area are good value too (don't go in winter, fucking depressing,) and Okayama people are pretty conservative, but there are tons of mountains and I have a motorbike/bicycle, so that makes it ok.

    Anyway you have to post about Larry again, I want to know if he finally loses his virginity and loses weight on a diet of miso soup.

    1. Agreed on prefectural generalizations. I like Tokyo, but not for its people so much. Of what little I know: Kansai friendlier, Shikoku and Kyushu friendlier yet. Can't understand a bloody word mind you.

    2. Haha. I started out in Hiroshima, so the dialects are for the most part pretty similar, especially in Shikoku. I get the opposite problem of having a input-delay in understanding Tokyo intonation, even though I studied it all through uni. I must also sound like a bit of a sailor too when I go there occasionally.

      My Tokyo friend who lived in Hiroshima for a bit reckons that Tokyo is the best place to meet people as people come from all over the country to be there. Other areas are meant to be the opposite because everyone has their family home and land and so there is no need to expand ties. I can vouch for this as down here for the most part no one could give a flying fuck about you (unfortunately includes women), but it's good in a way if you like to be left alone and initiate social encounters as you wish. Kills the charisma man stuff too.

    3. Larry's gonna end up like my Sherlock, isn't he? A character I grow to loathe but can't kill off due to fan pressure, ah well, at least that means people like it, I guess...

      Interesting that you say that about Japanese companies. I'd assumed it was a factor of large scale foreign recruitment more than any cultural thing. In general I think Interac and the other dispatch companies are more direct about the work aspect, and put more effort into training. Of course they're commercial companies so that's driven by commercial considerations, which definitely cuts both ways.

      Hiroshima-ben's rough (apparently). I think there was a fairly famous Yakuza film set in Kure a few decades back, so now everyone associates the accent with criminals. I can believe your friend about Tokyo; bright lights, big city. Same the world over. Thanks for the comment.

    4. From my experience, Interac were shit and their idea of training is probably worse than JET. They are getting 400 000 or whatever price per ALT depending on their negotiations with the BOE and then they aim to profit as much as possible from that. They couldn't give a fuck about training or anything, I think that goes along with most of the ALT dispatch companies out there. They are very tight and don't want to pay all of your transportation, basically any trick in the book. Your contract finishes a couple of weeks before the end of March and a little bit after the start of school in April, so they make a bit more out of you that way too.

      A lot of people working in small to medium size business here I would imagine cop the same shit to be honest with you. I really felt sorry for some of those people at that company, their lives were pretty tough due to how they were worked. I know the interac people and so forth don't get treated the best, but there are tons of natives copping it even worse.

      Yes, the movie is called jingi naki tatakai (war/fight without benevolence/jsutice or something). it's worth a watch, you can download it with English subtitles, I at least did a few years ago. The dialect is considered scary for some reason, but for the women it is apparently not the case.

  3. Weird about being an ALT... Few Japanese teachers or school or BOE administrators have any respect for ALT's it seems, which can be good if you have a strong work ethic because you stand out. Of course, that isn't going to help you climb the ladder. The downside of that collective lack of respect is that you automatically get lumped in with the working holiday group of people who are loving the 'paid vacation'...

    1. That's it, right there in a nutshell. It's fine with the English teachers, as you speak to them everyday. But in terms of the other staff, especially the other senior staff, they may only ever need to know about the ALT when something goes wrong, so they assume that's all an ALT is good for.

  4. What kind of freedom do you get with the lessons? If you are looking to create positivity towards yourself then do a bit of self promotion. Maybe make a video of some skits and plays in English, or songs and get them watched at some kind of public event.

    1. A fair bit of freedom, to be fair. I generally have a pretty good time of my job and the goods far outweigh the bads. I might not always create that impression, but it's true.

      Self-promotion isn't really the point, y'know? I generally try to create positivity towards myself by taking my job seriously and doing it well. Seems to be working so far...

  5. Good then Im not gonna tell you what to do! What I mean though is if I ever had a problem where I wasnt getting respect or getting noticed teaching Id do something like get em to make posters and show em to all the staff. Or get them to write little thank you cards to the other teachers/ memebers of staff.

    1. I think I understand your point, by I have to be honest in that if it ever got to the stage where I felt I had that kind of problem, then the horse has probably already bolted and a couple of attention seeking gimmicks aren't going to get the stable door shut. Get the basics right and the rest should follow, y'know?

      If you click on the 'Advice for New ALTs' link at the top left there I bang on about this at greater length. I realise I'm not really selling it all that well. Hey ho.