What Is It Like Being an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan?
I didn’t know about this career opportunity until my Japanese-culture university professor informed me. “Since you love Japan, have you ever considered living and working in Japan?” A criminology student at that time, I told him that it was my dream to do so, but never thought that it’d be possible.
“You should look into working as an ALT and experience it for at least a year, even just to fulfill your dream.”
That was 4 years ago, and I have been in Japan as an ALT since.
For many foreigners who admire this country, being able to work and live here is an incredible feat. For most countries, unless you have the proper qualifications in the right fields, it’s nearly impossible to be hired and live a fulfilling life there.
That’s why the job of Assistant Language Teachers (ALT) is incredibly attractive for those who have dreamt of experiencing Japan long-term first-hand.
As an assistant teacher, you aren’t required actual teaching qualifications or experiences to get the job. But you do get a working visa and a salary to support living in Japan, as well as assistance from companies to bring you here. Using myself as an example, I studied criminology and philosophy in university, and I got the job upon graduation. Many people consider this an opportunity right after graduation to try something new and different for a year or two before pursuing their future careers or further studies. Then there are also people like me who have found their new passion in education after trying out the job.
Qualifications to become an ALT include holding a bachelor’s degree in any subject and being a native English speaker. The low entry barrier has to do heavily with the low level of responsibilities at work. As an ALT, your tasks differ depending on which level of education you teach, but they are never too heavy because you are teaching WITH another teacher who is the one ultimately responsible for the lessons.
For elementary school ALTs, the responsibilities tend to be heavier. The teachers you will team-teach with are the Japanese home-room teachers, who besides English, also have to teach every other subject. They might not be best-equipped with strong English foundations, so communication with them in planning your lessons could be challenging.
Since the homeroom teachers are already so occupied with other lessons, some ALTs might even be expected to plan the lesson as well, and that can truly be frightening for those who have just entered the field. Good (or bad) news is that English classes in elementary schools are only once a week at most, plus homework and tests are non-existent, so you just need to focus on how to help children enjoy English using fun activities.
Being an ALT at Jr. high school and high school levels are even easier, because you are working directly with a Japanese teacher who studied to teach English. Your tasks might involve bringing activities and ideas to help students improve their English, but generally, what you will be asked to offer will mostly be the native English pronunciation and demonstrations of how to use the language naturally besides the situations shown in the textbooks.
Responsibilities of preparing and conducting lessons lie with the Japanese teachers, so you can perform well at this job as long as you communicate with your students outside of work (in English) effectively. Some ALTs may enjoy this laid-back position, but some might find this to be lacking in challenges.
The job of an ALT is relaxing, as you arrive in school around 8 am and head home around 5 pm with very little to worry about overtime work, unlike the Japanese teachers who are working from 7 am to 9 pm. At the same time, the job is extremely rewarding. Watching the smiles of your students and having kids telling you that they are looking forward to your next lessons are both satisfying and encouraging.
Now you might have the burning question of: Would I fit well as an ALT?
It’s easy to do this job, but it does require effort and experiences to be good at it. Not everyone fits this position either.
This is ultimately a teaching job, so having personality traits fitting as a teacher is important. You must like children to enjoy this job, for example, since you job is to interact with them all day. That includes the time outside of classes too, since you will spend time with the students during recess and lunch time as well. Another example is that you need to be able to stand in front of a class and speak with a smile. Having over 30 pairs of eyes on you can be stressful, especially when half of them seem like they don’t quite understand what you’re saying.
As an ALT, however, requires a few more specific things. Can you speak slowly and clearly while tuning your level of English to be appropriate to the class you are teaching? Are you able to explain and demonstrate your activities? Are the activities designed in a way that students will be encouraged to use the language they are learning without falling back to using Japanese? Can you utilize your other communication techniques such as emotions and body language to help students understand you? Are you aware of the cultural differences that might make students in Japan learn differently than the way we are used to? I am sure most people can fulfill the ALT job, but a good ALT must be able to answer positively towards all those questions plus many more regarding how you can use English encouragingly and flexibly.
However, I also believe that a person who is open to feedback and has an open heart and a passion in helping students to learn English will eventually be able to flourish at this line of work. I, myself, started with zero experiences. Some of my lessons failed and even more activities bombed miserably. But the failures turned into my motivation to make the next classes even better.
The job of an ALT ultimately is working for well beings of others. We may not be licensed teachers, but we are educators who are stationed in schools and can influence and make changes in the future of our students. We must care for our students in order to do our job well. In return, it would make the job more enjoyable for us and help us discover how meaningful it is to be a teacher, even if you plan to do it for only a couple of years.
Next time, we shall explore deeper into the day-to-day lives of what being an elementary school ALT and a junior high school ALT are like.