First-Time English Assistant Language Teacher in Japan? Here are 5 Things You Should Know!

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  • More and more people are planning long-term overseas experiences in Japan that involve teaching English as their vehicle. After speaking with a current Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), it inspired me to share some of the valuable lessons she’s learned along the way, which might help others embarking on the same journey. Although experiences may vary, there appear to be some common patterns among the ALTs I have spoken to recently. So, let’s take a closer look at those five lessons to help prepare future ALTs for what lies ahead.

    1. A whirlwind of introductions

    The first day at school is usually a bit of a blur and one thing that many do not anticipate is just how many people you will meet and introduce yourself to on day one. So the first lesson is – be prepared to meet a lot of people (and quite possibly forget a lot of names). The most important introductions you will make are to the principal, vice principal, and head teacher, so make sure there’s good depth on your bow when meeting the ‘important’ folks of the school. Also, if you know little or no Japanese, then it really pays to practice the following:

    • “Hajimemashite.” – polite greeting when meeting someone for the first time
    • “Watashi wa [name] desu.” – “I am [name].”
    • “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.” – “Pleased to meet you.”
    2. Speak slowly

    As was the case with the ALT I spoke to recently, accents, like a New Zealand one, can be tricky to understand even for a native English speaker, so regardless of where you’re from, remember to speak slowly. After a week or two, students and staff will be more accustomed to having you around and will begin to understand your accent and regular talking pace more.

    3. Accept the differences

    Okay, let’s just state the obvious – Japan is like no other country in the world. It’s an amazing place with a culture that focuses primarily on harmony, beauty, hospitality, and discipline. Yet, there are plenty of quirky and strange aspects of the Japanese culture that you will also notice during your time here.

    In terms of schools, the Japanese take a very traditional approach. The schools all have a very similar look to them – big (often white) concrete buildings that are usually at least three stories high. Inside the classroom, the desks are all separated in single-file and the focus is always on the blackboard. Some schools have a bit more technology on hand, like smart boards, whiteboards, or projectors, but don’t be surprised to find only a blackboard and chalk in your classroom.

    It appears that for some ALTs, one of the biggest obstacles with the transition into Japanese schools is the different approach that some schools take to education. The focus is on quantity, not quality; memorizing is hugely important and there is a set way of doing things, so don’t even think about deviating. So if anything, please remember, you are a visitor into their system, this is a system that has been in place long before you arrived, so don’t be offended or surprised if your ideas or suggestions are not received favorably. Respect the system and enjoy it for what it is.

    4. Learn to understand the unspoken

    This lesson can take some time to get used to especially for those that come from previous jobs or teaching roles where being informed about everything that is going on within the company or school is the ‘norm’ and is somewhat important. It is also important to understand the unique manner in which things are communicated in Japan. Things are not always said verbally (or at all for that matter), so you have to be very observant and ask plenty of questions. Initially, some may struggle with being told about events hours or even minutes before they occur, but just roll with it and go with the flow. However, if you really struggle with not being made aware in advance, then chat to one of the staff members and politely arrange a way to be made aware sooner.

    5. Enjoy!

    It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity teaching in Japan and who knows, it could potentially become an experience that lasts you a lifetime. So, always make sure you enjoy and make the most of the opportunities that are presented to you. The ALT that I spoke to was lucky enough to attend the musical Aladdin, sumo wrestling, day trips to Kamakura, and even school festival days as part of school activities. Remember, you are unique to the staff and students of the school as for most, it isn’t often that they have the opportunity to learn from teachers outside of Japan. So make the most of it because there is so much you will learn from this experience and as well as from your students.

    So there you have it, five valuable lessons to keep in mind for those who are planning a teaching experience of a lifetime as an ALT in Japan. It truly is a unique experience that you will cherish forever so good luck on your teaching adventures and remember to enjoy every moment for what it is!

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