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4 Struggles of an ALT in Japan and How to Overcome Them

As an ALT you must be adaptable. You are a guest within a school and you’re there to help.

By 5 min read

In this edition of “ALT (A Little Training) for ALTs” we look at four struggles of being an ALT and how to overcome them by someone with firsthand experience in the classroom in Japanese schools.

My name is Alexander Eloi and I have been with Real Communication Solutions (RCS) for the last two years as an ALT in Saitama Prefecture. Before that I was an ALT with another dispatch company teaching junior and senior high school in Okayama Prefecture for two years. I hope my experience shows you that the most common complaints as an ALT can be dealt with — and that by going the extra mile, the position can be a truly rewarding experience.

1. Low income

The pay rate is one of the most common subjects of discussion when it comes to talking about being an ALT. To be honest though, I haven’t had a problem with it. I made ¥250,000 in my first company and now ¥230,000 in my current company. I took the latter position (and salary) in order to get closer to Tokyo — which is where I wanted to be. With deductions — rent, company car, health insurance, taxes, etc. — that money goes fast. However, in both situations I was able to do the things I wanted, pay bills back home and survive. To make up for the pay cut, I found additional part-time teaching positions in Tokyo that have given me great connections and beyond that — allowed me to make great friends. Also, RCS is constantly offering me extra work should I have the time and inclination to accept it. I still live frugally, but I can survive and still enjoy myself.

2. Overtime

In my former company, I was told that I wouldn’t be getting paid for staying later but that I could leave early some days, because I went over my scheduled time. However, I never really wanted to leave early to balance things out. Some of my best memories at my schools have been staying after school. I was asked to help students with English, play sports in after school clubs or help teachers with extra work after school.

Honestly, it’s not a problem. If I’m free, I do what I can to help. While some teachers in Japanese schools may have it rougher than others — in terms of the workload for grading papers, supervising after school clubs and acting as both parent and educator to students — if I can pitch in a bit, I’m happy to do it. Also, you’re able to connect with students in a different way outside of the classroom that proves to be very valuable during lessons. Let’s face it: Most English teachers are here for the the cultural experience as much as they are for the work opportunities — and after school is a great way to enjoy that culture within the confines or activities of the school.

To make up for the pay cut, I found additional part-time teaching positions in Tokyo that have given me great connections and beyond that — allowed me to make great friends.

3. Little feedback or attention from the company

When I first arrived in Japan, I lived in the countryside of southern Okayama. I received my training, got situated with the help of some company staff and then was kind of left on my own. I didn’t want to trouble other teachers and I wanted my students to have fun. So, I adapted. I developed closer relationships with my colleagues and eventually learned what they expected of me. I got to know my students and planned activities that fit their level yet allowed them to have fun, as well.

Again, RCS has been great with the feedback, support, training and letting me know about things I can do to improve as a teacher — and get the most out of living and working in Japan. So, I think it depends on either the company, or the area of the schools when it comes to evaluations. As an ALT you must be adaptable. You are a guest within a school and you’re there to help. Despite not getting a lot of feedback from your teachers or company over time you’ll know how to help your teachers and teach your students.

4. I’m replaceable

As with any job, if you’re not that good — you can be replaced. That’s always my mindset. I know that I may not be the best ALT out there, but I do believe that I’m a good one. My students enjoy time in with me in my classrooms as much as with the other teachers. And if you can tell how much joy you bring to students, then it’s most likely that your company will find out what you’re doing, too. That’s why I do my best for the school that I’m at, hoping I can stay there as long as I can and finish teaching with the students that I started with. Companies come and go. ALTs switch for better opportunities and locations. Teachers move on to better places because they weren’t a good fit with one company but find they get on well in others just fine.

I’m on my second company now and things are going well. Great communication and feedback as well as a young and experienced staff that’s easy to talk to.

I honestly believe the teaching life is what you make of it. I’m a really easy-going guy and I know my experience may be different than others, but I have enjoyed myself thus far. As with anything, don’t let other people sway your decision. Come and experience teaching in Japan for yourself.

I may not plan on doing this forever, but for now — it’s exactly  what I want to be doing.

Stay tuned to the next addition of “A Little Training for ALTs (ALT 4 ALTs).” If you have any topics or questions you’d like to know more about — let us know in the comments! We’ll do our best to share our personal experiences with you to hopefully help along or jumpstart your ALT experience in Japan.

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