Reflections of my First Year as an ALT
Hello! My name is Andrew Ghim. Like Amy Lin (check out her post!), I am a JET working for a local BOE that hires ALTs from the States. At the time of this post, I have been in Japan for about nine months.
The experience so far has been unforgettable and I want to continue learning more about the language, culture, and the people of Japan. It only felt like yesterday when I first arrived here. I wanted to take some time, reflect back and recollect what I learned and observed here.
Before we get started, I’d also like to give a big thank you to David for providing me with a platform for to share my first-year experience as an ALT in Japan with you. I have a lot to say but as this is just a general overview post, I'll keep it brief.
Japan! What a land. On a rainy morning, I had received the email of acceptance
and a placement to teach in here. There was a whirlwind of questions in my mind: What should I do? I should probably learn Japanese, right? How am I going to manage without my local, reliable pizza joint? Thoughts like these swirled in my mind.
We’ve heard all the stories, seen the crazy commercials, and been affected by the Japanese media/culture in some form living in America.
Despite all this, I didn’t really know what to expect. There were a lot of unknown factors that were on my mind.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “But Andrew, this is an opportunity of a lifetime! How could you have doubts about it?”
Dropping practically everything in your native homeland, departing from your own cultural environment, and leaving your friends and family is not an easy choice, but I’m glad I made the decision to go.
Living in Japan is definitely different from America. Transportation, interaction,
food, language, and daily life in general all add up to a different living experience.
I won’t attempt to describe all of the differences between living in Japan and America because that is another can of worms but I will describe some of my thoughts and experiences since coming here.
With every new workplace and environment, you can always learn and experience something new. Japan is certainly no exception.
Many of my different learning experiences can be categorized into communication, school, and daily life. Keep in mind that this is a general overview of what sticks out to me within my experiences so far. Each one of these categories deserves a blog post of its own but maybe that is something for another time.
We use a variety of methods for communication such as email, talking face-to
face, phone messages, and even sending physical letters through a city wide postal system when working with Japanese teachers of English (JTEs).
I found that the important thing is not necessarily the means of communication you use but how you communicate with people.
As an ALT, you have to walk a fine line between not being too forward but being forward enough to sway your Japanese colleagues. Most of the JTEs I’ve worked with didn’t directly shoot down my ideas and lessons but rather implied that they were too hard or just wouldn’t work.
For this situation, you have to read the social cues to measure their displeasure or approval. You have to make the idea seem desirable; for example, you can offer two choices: one which is obviously bad and another that is significantly better with the hopes that your JTE will choose the latter.
There is no definitive guide on how to do this as it depends on the type of
teacher you work with but the concept remains the same: always play to the beat of your main teacher’s drum because they ultimately decide how easy your teaching life is going to be.
Along the same lines, it’s important to develop a good relationship with your teachers. That means building relationships not only with the JTEs but also the rest of the teachers and staff at your school.
Your mood in the teachers’ room will also affect your mood in the classroom. Many Japanese teachers are curious and would like to know more about you but can be too shy or unconfident in their English ability to talk to you. Try and make an effort to say hello and become more familiar with them so they can open up.
Many new ALTs come to Japan with fresh ideas eager to inspire and teach their students. I understand the importance of having an idealistic attitude for teaching English. Keep that mindset!
If you’re from America like me, we tend to have a direct exchange of ideas and communication, but there needs to be some coercing for Japanese teachers to positively respond to your ideas.
Develop that relationship, include their ideas, and most of all, be supportive. I’m sure once your teachers realize that you’re on their side, that you are there to help them and not forcibly change them, they’ll be more willing to try new ideas.
Now that we’ve talked about communication, we should also look at the Japanese schools themselves.
Japanese schools aren’t just schools but a second home for students as well as teachers. It’s no secret that Japanese education is known for its high standards and excellent performance on a global scale.
Despite their stellar record, they only seem to excel in math and science and falter when it comes to globally used languages like English. While this is not reflective of a student’s educational abilities as a whole, it does show that Japan has its problems and it shakes the image of Japan as an educational powerhouse.
Diving deeper into the topic, Japanese teachers seem to cater to more to the lower skilled students so as to not exclude them from the class.
You may be asking, “Well, if the less knowledgeable students are not performing up to par, won’t they just get held back?” You would think so but all students pass on to the next grade each year regardless of their performance.
I can understand this point of view as it fosters some kind of group cohesion but it does divide the class a bit. As a result of the divide, many of the students have to attend cram schools (juku) or self-study to gain an edge in their learning because of the lower standards being taught in schools.
Another big atmospheric factor in Japanese schools is the social aspect of Japanese school life. Social dynamics play a big role in how your students participate in school. The prominent collective mindset that is common in Japan affects how Japanese students act.
Some students can be really shy in the classroom. Being too capable or too incapable can make students stand out which is the last thing Japanese students want. Many students do not participate openly in class even when the answer is obvious.
Although American junior high school students can be the same, the strong individualistic culture in America does result in more students participating in classrooms.
It pains me to see so many silent faces with expressions saying “I know the answer and I want to say it but I shouldn’t. I don’t want to stand out.”
There are exceptions of course but I found that the general tune of the classroom usually goes silent. This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it. I found that persistence, support, and getting to know your students can really help students come out of their shell and be more comfortable with participating in English.
Both America and Japan can be classified as highly developed countries. Despite having the same classification, there are fairly big differences in everyday life. Just to name a few: everything is close together, convenient stores are actually convenient, public transportation is viable, and anime is ingrained in many advertisements and media.
Coming from a more spaced-out and diverse living environment, it took me some effort getting used to living in Japan.
Japan is so novel in many ways that it can be a bit surreal at times. For example, there is a lot of bowing and greetings that I found myself doing. Growing up in a traditional Korean household, bowing and formalities weren’t necessarily a new thing for me but I feel like Japan turns it up to eleven. I’m fairly sure I saw two ladies bowing to each other for a good 15 seconds. It was amazing.
One thing that I think is interesting when comparing countries like America and Japan is how they view nationality.
I remember David telling me that America is a country born from immigrants from different backgrounds and cultures; that it started as an international country. On the other hand, Japan is a homogeneous mono-culture that only emerged from centuries of isolation less than two hundred years ago.
“American” is a national label, not one of ethnicity. “Japanese” can be both a national label and an ethnic label. Anyone who is white, Hispanic, Asian, black, or any other ethnicity can be American. People make strong connections based on this diversity.
In Japan, it is a bit more black and white. You are either Japanese or you’re not.
If you’re not ethnically Japanese, it can sometimes be hard to make meaningful connections and tough to make that first breakthrough with people.
Even if you live in Japan for years, speak on a native level, and know more about Japanese culture than even other Japanese people, you can still be seen as a foreigner. It takes effort to make Japanese friends but it can be done. Keep at it!
I don’t regret coming to Japan. I wasn’t learning much at my old job and being in Japan has taught me not only professional and social lessons but a lot about myself.
While being an ALT is definitely a good experience, you have to look forward to the future.
David also told me, “Being an ALT is good and all but there aren’t many chances for advancement. There are no really meaningful promotions, no big pay raises, and we’re permanently low on the totem pole. You have to come to Japan with a game plan. Think about what you want to do after your ALT contract is up and build up those skills while you’re here so you’ll be ready for the next step.”
If you keep that in mind, then your time here won’t be wasted. You’re showing yourself and other people that you can adapt to a whole new environment, work with different people from different backgrounds, and still function in a professional capacity. With these skills and any others you choose to develop, you will have a productive and fun time here.