Being an ALT: What do I do?

Shortly after moving to Japan last summer, I was lucky enough to find a job in one of the few fields that will take someone with basically no Japanese language ability. After two and half days of training with a private company, I started working as an Assistant Language Teacher or ALT.

To begin with, I found it really difficult to adapt. I felt very stressed out by the whole experience of moving country, and I found it hard to cope working with people when I couldn't understand a single word of what they were saying. Everything made me feel tense, from eating lunch to talking to students in the classroom. And added to this was the pressure I put on myself to be perfect at the job from day one. But gradually I started to relax, and now I can honestly say that it's a great job and I really enjoy it. 

My role as an ALT is to support the Japanese teachers of English in my school and promote an enthusiasm for speaking English among the students. Perhaps equally importantly, I am also a sort of "token foreigner" in the school, as most students in Japan will rarely, if ever, have encountered anyone non-Japanese. This means I have to be careful to give a positive impression of westerners, smiling and talking to the students, as well as looking smart and behaving professionally. 

ALTs are employed at Elementary Schools, Junior High Schools and High Schools in Japan; I am in a Junior High School in a fairly spread-out rural area with 4 other Junior High Schools. Junior High is for students aged 12-15, so technically equivalent to Year 8, 9 and 10 in the UK, but due to the slightly different organisation of schools and attitude of society in general here, I find that in terms of attitude and behaviour, the students are closer to Year 7, 8 and 9. Junior schools here are also considerably smaller than any school I've ever been to in the UK. My current school has about 180 students in total, on average two classes of 30 students in each year group. The teaching staff is made up of about 15 full-time members of staff including three principals/vice-principals, plus a school nurse, secretary, lunch lady and a handful of part-time teachers, including me. 

I work slightly more than part-time hours, from 8:30 - 4:00 pm, five days a week, which means that I am in fact at school for less time than the students themselves (but more on that in another post perhaps). I have a chair in the teacher's room, which is like a staff room, except that all of the teachers go there when they're not teaching, and have a desk, storage space and a PC of their own. I really like that all of the teachers of different subjects all sit together and get to know each other. I've always thought it was a shame that different departments in UK schools don't have more opportunity to get to know each other and work together. Of course, it helps that schools here are small, as teachers can be much more flexible, for example, swapping classes and timetables around to accommodate different activities is common.

There are 6 periods of 50 minutes each in a school day, except on Mondays, when the 6th period is reserved for the weekly staff meeting. Between each period there is a 10 minute break, so that everyone can prepare for their next lesson. I find this really helpful, as I have never found it easy to switch from one task to another quickly, and it also gives the students a bit of time to transition from Japanese to English or Maths to Art. Unlike in the UK, it's the teachers that move, not the students. Each class has a "homeroom" where they have all of their lessons, registration and lunch, and they pretty much stay there all the time, except for PE, science and arts/music, which all require classrooms with different facilities. The ten minute break gives both students and teachers a chance to pick up what they need for the next lesson and make their way to the classroom without rushing. I would think it makes a really big difference for PE lessons, as students change in their classroom during the break and then arrive at the gym ready to start. It feels much more relaxed and natural to me, and even allows for a bit of chatting with the students before each class starts. There are no bells either, although you'd never guess it from the impeccable time-keeping, and I think this also helps to keep things calm.

In a typical day, I have one free period and five lessons. I either go to the classroom with the teacher or arrive on my own a couple of minutes before it's due to start. In 7th grade, the students listen to English songs on the CD player before the lesson starts, which sets a really nice tone. In 8th grade, the students tend to be engaged in their own interests (often finishing the next lesson's homework) between lessons, while 9th graders can sometimes be coaxed into conversation with the ALT.

The way the lesson goes depends a lot on the class teacher of course, but there are a lot of things which generally take place in every lesson. Each class starts with a greeting to get the kids thinking in English. It goes something like this:
ALT: Good morning everyone!
Students: Good morning Miss Rhiannon (Miss Monckton seems too formal given my role, but they won't call me Rhiannon as it's impolite as I'm an adult!)
ALT: How are you today?
Students: I'm fine thank you, and you? (9th graders or enthusiastic 8th graders may swap in their actual mood here, but mostly it's just a group chant that everyone memorises)
ALT: How's the weather today?
Students: It's....sunny/rainy/cloudy/hot
ALT: Yes, it's very sunny, isn't it?! What day is it?
Students: It's .....Monday/Tuesday etc
ALT: That's right. And what's the date?
Students: It's May 26th
ALT: That's right. It's May 26th. OK, thank you everyone, please sit down.

And then we're off!
After the intro, students usually sit down before beginning some kind of short warm up activity (we would call this a starter in the UK) based on something simple like a vocabulary list or the target sentence from the previous lesson. During this time, I take my lead from the class teacher, Sometimes we both wander around checking students' work, but it can also be a useful snippet of time to check in with each other and make sure we're both clear on the activities for that lesson.

The main part of the lesson is not so different from a typical lesson in the UK. There's some sort of target grammar point, which the teacher briefly explains and the students write down, then the class embarks on a variety of different activities to practice reading, writing and speaking using the target grammar. The teaching is almost always done from textbooks, which are chosen by the local school board, and they contain the content which will be tested in the final exam. In each unit there is a certain amount of new vocabulary to learn, which it is my job to drill with the students, using flashcards. If there is to be a speaking activity in the lesson, it is usually planned by me. And it is almost always my favourite part of the lesson. This is the part of the lesson where myself and the classroom teacher devise all kinds of different games and activities to convince the kids to speak English to each other! I like it because I enjoy the creative aspect of coming up with the game and making all of the resources, and also I like seeing how the students react to different activities and learning which ones work well with which class. The boys in my 8th grade classes love a loud, competitive game, preferably one involving shouting, while I recently taught my 7th graders a simple action song using greetings, and they really seemed to like it.

The lesson finishes with a nice calm writing activity and then the students are dismissed, or rather, they stay where they are, and we head to our next class.

Other activities in my school day, which I feel may be best in a separate post, include cleaning the school, eating lunch, coaching for English contests, and preparing lesson resources. I try to be out in the corridors and around the school as much as possible talking to the students, even if it's just hello and how are you. Most students will answer in English, although there is usually a lot of giggling. I think it probably just feels strange to them to use a different language outside of the lesson.

Well, that just about sums up what I do every day as an ALT. I always find it interesting seeing the differences between my role as an ALT here and my previous experience as both a teacher and a student in UK schools. I hope you do too!


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