Daily Life of an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan

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I’m currently an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) through the JET Program. I work at a Japanese junior high in a small town in western Fukui, about a two hour train ride from Kyoto.

I didn’t even know this job existed until two years ago.

It’s unfortunate that so many jobs and professions can be overlooked by people just because they don’t know they exist.

So what is an ALT? What’s the job description? What is the average day like? Is it fun?

ALTs teach English in junior highs and high schools across Japan. The biggest misconception about the job is that you need to know Japanese. Besides a handful of words, I have no and this almost never negatively affects my workday.

Different variations of the ALT exist across countries all over the world. But with over one hundred ALTs in my prefecture alone, I’ll attempt to introduce you to our way of life as an ALT in Japan through the JET Program.

The JTE

I work closely with six JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) and schools have anywhere from one to seven. JTEs are teachers who majored in English in university and usually have a pretty good command of the language.

The ALT is dispersed equally to the JTE’s English classes over the course of a week or two. When he or she joins a class it is known as “Team Teaching”. The Japanese students have 3-4 English classes a week so an ALT is present for less than 25% of those classes.

The in-class duties of an ALT depend heavily on the JTE and their experience and trust with ALTs. At first, the JTE is the deciding factor in how the ALT is used. But over time, if the ALT can show the JTE they are capable and trustworthy then often the team teaching relationship can change.

The in-class roles of the ALT vary, but here are the three best known examples:

1) ALTs are treated as full-on teachers and expected to lead classes with almost no help or input from the JTE.

2) Others hold the role of assistant and lead activities, exercises, and games while the JTE maintains control and direction of the overall class.

3) The last option is one I have luckily avoided and is one where ALTs are only used as tape recorders so the students can hear English.

The Work of an ALT

The day before class the ALT usually meets with the JTE and discusses what will be covered for the next day’s class. The JTE tells the ALT where the class is in the textbook and what the JTE expects to get out of the class. After this, ideas for games, activities, and roles for the ALT are discussed.

The team teaching class is a special period for the students because the ALT doesn’t go to every class. Often a listening exercise will occur so the students can hear a native English speaker use the language it’s meant to be used.

On any one day I can be hosting a Jeopardy style review game, reading to students from the textbook, or helping the students with a worksheet I created that matches the lesson for the day.

In a given week, an ALT can expect to go to anywhere from 10-25 classes. I currently have three scheduled classes a day, or fifteen a week. ALTs also help JTEs with grading papers, homework assignment, and tests.

Extra Classes

Some ALTs also get to their own classes. I lead two English elective courses a week – one for 2nd year students (7th grade in America), and one for 3rd year students (8th grade).

Not speaking Japanese is a little bit of a hiccup here, but it usually works out fine and I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the job.

Currently, I have my classes writing letters to pen pals in an elementary school in Illinois. When they’re not writing letters, I bring in games and activities that get the students to speak, listen, and interact with English. The contents of the class are up to me and are just a chance for students to get extra English time and interact closely with the ALT.

Other ALTs who are in charge of their own classes have a more structured set-up. Some have a curriculum for a writing class, or others must follow a textbook with tests and homework.

An ALT led class is somewhat rare, but it is my favorite part of the job.

Outside of the Classroom

Many ALTs also take part in club activities. The schools in Japan are in charge of a majority of the extracurricular activities in Japan. These clubs span from baseball to brass band to computer club. Some schools require an ALT join one club, while others are allowed to roam from club to club on their own time. These clubs are a good chance for the students to interact with the ALTs and not have to worry about speaking English.

Average Day

The workday usually begins around 8 A.M. with an all-faculty morning meeting. Some schools require ALTs to stay till 5 P.M. on Monday-Thursday with a 1/2 day on Fridays, while other ALTs are allowed to leave on their own time once school is done around 3 P.M. on Mondays and Fridays and 4 P.M. on Tuesdays through Thursdays.

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The ALT is a cultural ambassador and gets to not only teach English, but teach culture. My students are more curious about Chicago than they are about me reading their textbook to them.

The job is a great chance to work closely with students and watch their growth as English speakers. On top of that, experiencing working life in a different country is one of the best life experience I could ask for at this age.

It’s a great job and I’m looking forward to discovering even more over the next year.

What questions about being an ALT do you have that I didn’t cover?

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Photo by kiyoshi.be

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