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What do ALTs do at school? Here are 5 roles you will probably fill as an ALT in Japan

When thinking about all of the things ALTs do it Japan, I'm reminded of one of my favorite funny English quotes from t-shirt, "Life is simple, but it's just not easy." Truer words were never awkwardly translated. The job of an ALT is pretty much the same: simple, but not easy.

One would think the job consists of assisting English teachers (it does!). However, there are many roles that ALTs play at school that will affect your performance. The following is a list of those roles and how to be successful in them so you end up like the confident version of the Rock at the beginning of this post and you don't end up this bad version the Rock. Keep in mind that this mostly pertains to the junior high school level. Enjoy!

(From https://realtalktheology.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/know-your-role/)

1. The Assistant

(From http://www.vatasklist.com/10-things-to-outsource-to-online-virtual-assistant/)

The "assistant" part of ALT can lead to some misconceptions about this job. Most people think that they will go to class and roll out whatever plan the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) has. From my experience, the term "assistant" in this context means that you are an assistant in terms of authority. That is to say that your JTE has most of the decision making power and you assist them with whatever they need.

That means that you could be responsible for planning lessons, carrying out activities, practicing for speech contests, making projects, or grading papers. The ultimate decision on what to teach comes from your JTE.

Communication and team work will be a big factor in how well you "assist" your teachers. Just like everyone you've met in your life, some people are more open than others when it comes to taking suggestions about how to do their job. Most teachers enjoy working alone with their students and don't want to have to share their authority or be judged by someone else. If you build a good relationship with your JTEs, they will be more likely to listen to your suggestions about teaching English.

2. The English Master

Congratulations! You are now the English Master of (insert the name of your school here). You probably possess the highest English skills of any person within a one mile radius. Many JTEs, other teachers, and staff members will come to you with questions about English.

Be prepared for questions like:

Teacher: We teach the students to answer a question with, "No, it isn't." Is it correct if a student writes, "No it's not." on a test?

My answer: Well, if you make the contractions long, they make the same sentence so it's correct.

Or my other favorite:

Teacher: What's the difference between "Would you put this card in the box?" and "Could you put this card in the box?" One is more polite than the other, right?

My answer: "Would" implies will or volition while "could" points more towards ability. Someone maybe "would" put that card in the box but maybe they aren't able. On the other hand, maybe someone "could" put that card in the box but they don't want to.

When some teachers heard these answers, they didn't seem pleased with my explanations. Generally speaking, Japan is a country where people want to know the "right way" to do something. Your teachers will want you to come up with definitive answers to their questions. Other times they will want you to reinforce their beliefs.

The best way to be prepared for these types of questions to brush up on your basic grammar knowledge. As native English speakers, we can use the language without problems but it can be a struggle to explain why we use words and grammar in certain ways.

Also be aware that the English books sometimes teach a mashup of American and British English (some with Canadian pronunciation on the CDs). Something that seems wrong to you may be correct in a different style of English (Defense and defence, what do you mean they're both right!?!?!).

Below are a few examples:

When you answer, remember our goal is to increase the knowledge and abilities of our students and teachers. Be sure to use tact when responding to these types of questions. One technique that works for me is to say, "This is what I think, but I'll look it up and get back to you."

3. The Teacher

Oh yeah, that's what you signed up for right? This is the most important part of the job but it's influenced by so many other factors. Your ability to teach in your schools depends heavily on your relationship with your JTEs, students, and the staff.

One thing I always tell new ALTs is that you want to work with your JTEs to do the things together that you can do on your own. You want to capitalize on each other's strengths and mitigate each other's weaknesses. Try to think about how you can use your knowledge and experience to add to what your JTE does already.

While studying English, you should try to incorporate some of your knowledge and experience. Breaking out of the textbook is a welcome relief to many students (and teachers too!). You could teach the students about your hometown, life in other countries, professional skills, other areas of Japan, and much more.

Think about your areas of expertise, then try to match those with the students' interests. If your students have a math test coming up, see if you can teach them how to do some math problems in English. If your class in into sports, teach them about some popular sports from your country or hometown.

The idea that English is a skill to be used for communicating your own ideas to the world and to learn new information is gradually taking root in the Japanese educational system. It's been described as teaching students "how to learn" versus the current method of "what to learn."

Keeping this in mind, it's good for the students to learn about interesting things in English rather than memorize, translate, and repeat. Your students will generally be excited for class if you can show them some cool stuff or teach them something that will help them do better on tests.

4. The Counselor

All joking aside, try to think back to your junior high school days. Chances are that you or someone you know might have had a few problems with studying, home life, or fitting in at school. Many times your students will appreciate someone taking the time to listen to their concerns. You can also share your own experiences with them or tell them about similar problems in your own country. Keep in mind that your ability to communicate about deep issues will depend on their English ability and your Japanese ability.

Try to remember that most disruptive students probably have some other problems they're dealing with. Do your best to work with your teachers to curb bad behavior and support that student while teaching the rest of your students. In other words, the bad behavior should be stopped, but students shouldn't be punished for the sake of punishment. Try to understand the source of the behavior and what (if anything) can be done about it.

Hopefully you've entered the teaching profession because you enjoy working with people and want to see them grow and do great things. If you keep this in mind while working with your students, you can really help them build their self-esteem and expand their world view.

5. The Entertainer

This is one role that definitely has its ups and downs. A lot of JTEs in the past wanted their ALTs to be an "English Entertainer." When I first came to Japan, I tried to the kinds of activities I did when in my Spanish and Japanese classes. They were interesting but required a high level of comprehension and the students had to write a lot.

The advanced students who already liked English did them without any issues, but the slower ones who really didn't like English struggled. Some students would just zone out and goof around (the powers of ADD are strong in the youth). The way I learned languages is effective, but it's different from the very test oriented education style in Japan.

At times, especially for those who have teaching experience or want to pursue teaching as a profession, the label of "entertainer" or "game factory" can leave one feeling unfulfilled. After my first year of teaching, I felt like I could be a game show host (another round of Jeopardy!, anyone?)!

It took me a while to realize, but being the entertainer isn't always a bad thing. Most of the classes that your JTEs teach will involve the teacher writing a few sentences on the board, having the students translate them, identify all of the different parts of speech in the sentence, and then repeating them aloud. The routine of receiving information, memorizing it, and drilling it some more so they can get the correct answer on a test can get pretty dull. A lot of your students will look forward to your classes if they're fun (and some of the disruptive students will actually want to do them!).

The key point here is to make your lessons both entertaining and educational while trying to have an activity that everyone can do regardless of skill level. I know, it's easy right? It can be challenging at first because it takes a while to learn what the students know and what the teacher does when you're not teaching together. Do your best to learn what your students like. If you can make your lessons fun, you can trick even the most English averse students into learning something.

More reading

These are some of the roles you can fill during your time as an ALT. There are many more, too! What are some of the roles you've found yourself in? Which ones surprised you? Be sure to comment below.

For more info, check out the following sources:

Job duties of ALTs in Japan - Wikipedia

A paper based about the history of the JET Programme and the challenges of ALTs in elementary school - ALT Training Online

A short report from a survey about qualifications and perceptions in the JET Programme - Academia.edu