Photo:Tim Young

Times of Transition: Changing Schools as an English Teacher in Japan

As I write this article, I am in a reflective mood. Chances are this will be one of the last articles I will write from this particular desk, at this particular school during my downtime between classes.


Tony Cassidy on Flickr

The actual working conditions of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) such as myself differ from my Japanese English Teacher colleagues in a number of ways, as I have elaborated on in previous articles.


Tony Cassidy on Flickr

However, one area where we are all united is in being victims of a system that often presents unstable working conditions. Every year, in March, teachers of all subjects and all grades face the uncertainty of a possible transfer to a new school in a completely different part of the city. If you are unfortunate enough to work for a dispatch company rather than directly for a Board of Education as I do then you may even find yourself being forcefully relocated to a totally different part of Japan, or perhaps even losing your job altogether.


jim on Flickr

Although good teachers tend to be left in their schools for 2 or 3 years, this is by no means guaranteed. So, each March becomes a wait either to find out you’ll be staying put for another year, or face being uprooted.

Unfortunately, as this is my third year I will almost certainly be starting work in a new school from next month. I’m in two minds about this as the school where I worked in this past year is not a bad school by any means. Indeed after a few initial teething problems my colleagues and I were able to do some really positive, innovative things in the classroom. Come what may, I fully believe I have left a positive impression at my 4 schools this year.

So, how does an English teacher handle this somewhat awkward upheaval?

There are two stages to this process. The first step is to make sure that you leave your current schools on the best possible terms. This involves participating fully in the closing ceremony for the students, the goodbye ceremony and party with the other departing teachers and also attending your school’s new year dinner (Shinnenkai) in early April, after you’ve already started work at your new school.


Hideya HAMANO on Flickr

As part of the farewell ceremony for your school, you’ll need to prepare two speeches. Firstly, a farewell speech for the students to be delivered at the closing ceremony for the school year, and secondly one for your fellow teachers, to be delivered in the teacher’s room thereafter.


Alan Levine on Flickr

For the student’s speech it is a good idea to try to blend a mix of both Japanese and simple English. Try to impart some words of wisdom, or easily absorbed phrases into this speech that the students will remember.

For example, this year, I chose to close out my speech by drawing on popular culture.

Invoking the words of the great Master Yoda I left my students with the phrase “Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.”

One of my colleagues translated that last part into Japanese for the students to understand. But I like to think that someday in the future, when their English reaches a conversational level, they will sit down to watch The Empire Strikes Back and when they hear Yoda utter that immortal line they will smile and remember me.

Once that’s done, if you work at a particularly friendly school like I do, you may even be presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers by one of your students.

Japanese public schools may not be in the best financial condition right now, but for sure, when it comes to making departing teachers feel appreciated, they certainly spare no expense.


Angelina Earley on Flickr

Next up is the farewell speech to your teaching colleagues. At this point, it’s best to try to use only Japanese as much as you can. I find, as this tends to be a very formal and sometimes sombre scenario (some of these teachers will be leaving a school they love after several years) then it is best to map out a speech in advance and deliver it from script. Be sure to thank not only the school, but especially the Japanese English teachers you have worked with. After all, whether your experience at the school was largely positive or negative probably hinged largely on how well you were able to nurture a productive working relationship with them.

With that out of the way, it’s then just a case of winding down those final few days with no classes and plenty of time to prepare for the challenge of next year.

From April, you will begin in your new school with a new set of challenges. In that first one or two weeks you are also unlikely to have any classes and you are likely to find yourself performing the inverse of what you have done in the final week or so at your own school.

Again, you give a speech to your fellow teachers, this time as an introduction, and you may also be required to do the same at an assembly of the student body.

As before, with your speech to the teaching faculty I suggest you make it formal, scripted and as much as possible entirely in Japanese.

From here, it will then be time to prepare for your first classes. Of course, you should have some ideas ready to go but also be prepared to change these according to the requirements of each individual school. Be accommodating to your new colleagues because as I said previously the level of enjoyment you will take from this job will largely depend on your relationship with them from here on out.

At the same time as being accommodating, you also need to establish a clear balance and equilibrium between the two of you, so that when you team teach, both of you are aware of each other’s responsibilities and expected level of contribution. Remember though, that as your senior, the final decision on classes always rests with the Japanese teacher.

Above all, just relax and keep doing what you do best. Teach!

Good luck for the coming year to you all.

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