Friday 6 April 2012

Faintly Patronising Advice for New ALTs 3

Episode, Whatever - A New Hope

The end is in sight, people. On Monday you were all eager for the journey. On Wednesday you were starting to get a little fidgety and teasing your brother. Today you’re kicking the back of the driver’s seat and asking, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ five times a minute.

To which I reply, ‘Almost there. It’s just round the next corner,’ and this time I mean it. I’ll round things up today and recommend some reading you can do for extra credit, then I’ll get you all some ice cream for being so well behaved, I promise.

7.    Communication
This is what you’re paid to teach, remember? Given that it’s the fundamental reason for ALTs to have their jobs, it’s amazing how poor many of them are at basic communication. Gaining respect isn’t about going in hard, it’s about being able and willing to go in hard when necessary. If you do other stuff right it’s not necessary all that often.

If you’re working for a dispatch company this is especially true. Your level of performance is rated by the staff you work with everyday, and thus your job security lies as much in your relationships with them as with your actual ability in the classroom. This is a human thing, not a Japanese thing; ‘Who you know, not what you know’. If you think that’s out of whack, then you’re right, but please see point 2 from before for your chances of changing it. You have to communicate effectively with everyone, not just your students.

If you’re asked to mark a load of tests 10 minutes before you’re due to leave, ask yourself if the goodwill gained by doing it will be worth more to you than getting home on time. This isn’t a loaded question as sometimes it won’t be, but if it’s not then find a way to express that without throwing your rattle out of the pram. ‘It’s not my job,’ will make you sound petty and petulant in any culture, but, ‘Ah, sorry, that’s a bit difficult for me right now,’ lets everyone work towards an acceptable solution. Even so, a good rule of thumb is, for the first two or three months at least, never say ‘no’ to anything. Get a bit of personal and profesional capital in the bank first. Don’t rock up and immediately demand an overdraft because – thanks to the dodgy antics of previous ALTs – when you start the job your collateral is distinctly sub-prime.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200.

8.    USP
You may have come to Japan because you love manga or want to improve your Japanese. But they have loads of manga addicts here already and they all speak Japanese much better than you do. When hiring you they didn’t think, “You know what we really need? Someone who can do all the things we can do already, but at a significantly lower level. That’d really brighten the place up.”

The system is flawed, and they know the system is flawed. ALTs are an effort to correct some of those flaws. A badly conceived and poorly implemented effort to be sure, but an effort nonetheless. The closer you get to ‘the Japanese way’ of doing things, the closer you get to replicating the very problems you were putatively hired to correct (or if not correct, at least ameliorate).

So don’t go native, at least while you’re at work. By all means use your encyclopedic if slightly disturbing knowledge of J-pop girl-bands if it helps you connect with your students, but you’re here to improve their English and their understanding of the wider world, not show off how much you love Atsuko Maeda.

While we’re all reminiscing about our former teachers, remember that younger teacher we had who tried slightly too hard to be down with the kids? The one who thought he was cool, but we all really laughed about behind his back? Don’t be him. Indulge your obsessions when you’re not on the clock.

Getting better obsessions would also be an idea.

You’ve been hired because you are not Japanese. Obviously you need to make an effort to adjust – you chose to come here, after all – but don’t lose sight of the fact you’re getting paid precisely because you offer a different viewpoint (and often pointing out the lack of difference will be different enough). Always think about what you can provide that they don’t have already. It’s a balance; don’t adjust enough and you’ll find it unnecessarily hard to do your job, adjust too much and you’ll erase the very reason for your having that job in the first place.

9.    Pancakes
You like pancakes, right? Sure, who doesn’t like pancakes?

Freaks and weirdos, that’s who. What this world is really lacking is some sort of batter-based gulag where the pancake-hating Enemies of The People can be sent for re-education. With some kind of Room 101 involving maple syrup.

And where Commandant Flopsy rules
with an iron fist.

I digress. When you make pancakes the first one of the batch is always pretty shit, but after that they’re fine. If you’ve never taught before, then your first lesson will almost certainly be equally shit. Mine was. Everyone’s was. Chalk it down to experience and move on. If you care you will improve. If you don’t it’s time to consider another line of employment.

(Told you my parables were better).

10.    Spoon
There is no spoon.

Extra Credit –

A purely practical one, this. Be aware that the stuff on this site varies wildly in quality. It does help with the ‘staring at a blank sheet of paper’ problem, though. It also allows me to make one final point, which is that even if every single idea and worksheet on this site was 24 carat solid gold genius, you’d still be an idiot not to adapt it for yourself. Off-the-peg will do the job, but a tailored suit looks, fits, and feels better. You have to give these lessons, not some anonymous poster in internet-land. Until you have the experience to go bespoke, make sure your lesson plans are at least adjusted to you, your style, and your students.

More specific and detailed aspects of the daily grind here. Perhaps overly focused on minutiae in places, but I've gone for fairly broad brush-strokes here and this is a solid, simple (and less pompous) guide.

I disagree with Chris about a number of things, but every single thing he says in regard to teaching is bang on the money. Unfortunately the way he usually says it seems almost purposefully designed to alienate those who would benefit most from hearing it. Their loss. Suck it up, read it all and watch the videos. If you think he’s having a go at you then he probably isn’t, but if you think what he’s saying doesn’t apply to you then it almost certainly does.

Definitive proof that being an ALT can be part of a fulfilling and worthwhile journey. If you’re ever in doubt about the worth of what you’re doing (and who isn’t?) this will set your world to rights. Teaching is about opening people’s eyes, and this is how it’s done.


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    1. Dear Mr. Duck,

      Your 10 point summary is by far, one of the most bestus for laying it all out on the table, batter and all.

      Though, as this is a 'guerrilla blog review', you can't be let off the hook too easily. I mean, who would want to read this comment if it weren't a little, you know, cheeky?

      Biggest complaint... the links were just a wee top-heavy. Heaven forbid (if there is one) that Mr. Duck actually swam through all of those PDFs over the last few days. If you read them all and enjoyed it... about that maple syrup version of Room 101, if you want to go first, I won't try to dissuade you.

      Do you ever get the feeling that academic journals that claim to be peer reviewed aren't just a little sketchy on this side of the pond? Obviously, a person of your educational pedigree must find certain publications more helpful that others, both in terms of theory and providing a person with the practical tools they need for the job, no?

      (Not big on Dark Horse, but really did enjoy D.C.'s Piranha Press endeavor. And have to admit that I'm partial to Guccione's work.)

      What makes this post really worth reading though, is the way it ends. You tie it up nicely, bravely, so boldy stating what many are perhaps not so comfortable with... the simple truth.


    2. Christ, you actually clicked through on all the links? I usually assume they're primarily for my own amusement.

      My working set-up is a little atypical, so I actually have a bit more reason than most to look at this stuff. I'd be lying if I said I'd gone through them all with a fine-tooth comb, but I've looked at most over the past year or so. For me the real eye-opener was the 'role controversy' one from Wednesday. Specifically table 3 (p236), and the claim that only 0.2% of JHS JTEs see it as their role to exercise discipline.

      A lot of these journals are, as you say, sketchy as fuck. Gotta be willing to criticise your sempai for peer review to work, after all...

      For all that though, you're right, I probably have laid it on a little thick. I think ALTs get fed quite a bit of bullshit during recruitment, to varying degrees. This means that when they do discover the problems for the first time, it's easy to believe that they're the first people to do so. The academic stuff is a vague effort to prove that the problems are well recognised by everyone.

  2. "You’ve been hired because you are not Japanese"

    This......THIS seems to have gotten by some folks. Unfortunately bad teachers are the anti-matter to good teachers. I can inspire a person to point un imagined and another can take a dream not yet dreamed away. I fume at half assed teachers. My allowance for them is zero. A half assed cashier can get by without much damage but half assed teachers leave much damage in their wake.

    I'm mad just thinking about it.

    Thanks for the mention.

    She got into Todai and another girl got into Kyoto. I have a pic of them when they were classmates holding their Eiken 2 certificates. That's before I switched to the TOEIC. They both took the TOEIC last year as I said the initial score is not as important as the letters TOEIC on their resume'. They will be seeing that test a lot since one wants to be an international law attorney and the other a Scientist majoring in physics.

    I have made a difference. Therefore I am......on my way to redemption. :)

    "Some say it's just a part of it:
    We've got to fulfil de book."

    1. I was serious about using that post for training. This year is the first in a while I've not been involved directly in training, so I've had to make do with a link here. It's on file though, and I'll definitely be using it in the future, if you have no objections.

      At heart, HR and management are simple. You hire the right people for the job and give them the necessary support to do it. The education system here (and many places, to be fair) fails on both counts.

      This isn't to excuse people who phone it in, but I've seen so many ALTs who were trying hard, and were obviously decent people, but just weren't meant to teach. There's no shame in trying something and realising it's not for you, only in cashing the check knowing you don't deserve it. Some of the worst ALTs I've seen were trying so hard to fit in that they weren't providing anything new at all.

      Making a difference is what it's all about. If that doesn't appeal to you then you need to find another job.

  3. Cool beans, yo. Cool beans. :)

    I tried Englipedia out for the first time recently. It had some cool ideas.

    1. Glad you liked it :)

      Englipedia has been pretty useful for me (more so when I was at JHS, to be honest), but like all wikis it's very much 'buyer beware' when it comes to quality control.