Today, we turn the tables.
I asked a number of Japanese teachers of English (JTE), some of them friends and some of them current and former colleagues, what have been the biggest issues they have had to deal with regarding their assistant language teachers (ALT) down the years. Their comments should give ALTs plenty of food for thought!
Here are five common problems heard directly from JTEs — and how you can work together to resolve them better.
1. “The ALTs are changed too often.”
One of my former colleagues from my time in Tokyo complained that she never has enough time to get to know the teachers she’s working with.
“For some reason, my board of education swaps out the ALTs every three months,” she says. “Sometimes it takes one or two months just to get to know a new teacher and to build a good rapport with them for teamwork and so on. Just when you feel like you’re developing a good rhythm in classes, they get swapped out and the whole process starts again.”
This first problem is less common among direct hire ALTs, such as myself, where we usually keep the same set of schools for the whole year. However, in cases where the teacher comes from a dispatch company, they are often swapped out every few months, to work at a different base school in the same city.
Ultimately, this isn’t something that the JTE or their ALT has any real power over. It’s down to poor management on the part of the higher-ups at the education board and a lack of consideration for the ALT on the part of the dispatch company.
As I have mentioned many times before: the key to job satisfaction as an ALT lies in making the best out of what you have. You need to take the initiative. Be proactive. Engage with your colleagues as much as you can and be open and willing to help as much as possible. The quicker that your workmates become comfortable with you and your teaching style, the easier it will be for them to teach together with you effectively.
2. “My ALT speaks too fast and uses too much slang.”
I observed a class a number of years ago when my friend was team teaching with a new ALT from the States.
He was a rather brash, loud-mouthed kind of guy, with a thick southern drawl. Despite being asked several times by my friend — a JTE of several years — to speak more slowly and clearly, he continued to sputter on obliviously. What’s more, the kids looked even more confused than their Japanese teacher.
To this day, I have no idea what he was trying to say. I believe it’s what Mel Brooks once termed “authentic frontier gibberish.”
For those willing to listen and learn however, this is an easily remedied problem.
Speaking with your Japanese friends and colleagues and inviting their honest feedback is important. Most important, though, is self-awareness. Look at your JTE when you talk to them. If it’s clear the message isn’t getting through, you need to slow down and simplify your language. They may be too polite to tell you they don’t understand, so you need to read their social cues and employ common sense.
Some common social cues in this regard include continual nodding regardless of what is being said (a sure sign that the message isn’t getting through) and hesitation. Japanese teachers will seldom say that they don’t understand you — after all professional pride is important to us all. Therefore, as a poker player would say, hesitation is one of their sure-fire “tells.”
Once you’ve established clear parameters and know what to expect of each other’s time, working together becomes a lot easier.
Being able to speak English well and being able to understand English speakers easily are two very different things.
3. “My ALT doesn’t make time for meetings and always goes home early.”
This issue is one often borne out of simple misunderstanding but it can become a serious point of conflict if it isn’t resolved quickly.
Japanese teachers, like so many workers in Japan, accrue a ridiculous amount of overtime — most of this uncompensated. So, their notion of what constitutes “normal working hours” versus what constitutes “knocking off early” can be somewhat skewed.
To avoid this becoming a contentious issue, you need to inform your JTEs as early as possible about when you will arrive to work and when you will leave each day. It’s your call if you’re prepared to come in a little early or leave a little late to accommodate them, but I wouldn’t encourage this. Be fair, but be firm. Explain the situation of yours (and other ALTs) work terms as simply as you can.
Although the principal and vice principal will probably be aware of your contract details, in most cases the other teachers will not. Your JTE could mistakenly think you are being lazy when, in truth, you are just following your contract.
Try to hammer down a mutually beneficial time each week to have planning meetings for the following week’s lessons. Once you’ve established clear parameters and know what to expect of each other’s time, working together becomes a lot easier.
4. “My ALT is always making jokes and doesn’t take the lesson seriously.”
This is another pitfall that one can easily fall into, but it’s also fairly easy to avoid with a bit of common sense.
Humor, as I’m sure we all know, is subjective. Some people think Friends is the funniest show ever made. I’d sooner spend half an hour getting a root canal done. Likewise, when I tell some people how much I enjoy Frasier they look at me is if I’ve gone mad. Now, take that feeling of confusion and multiply it by a factor of 10 and you’re getting close to how difficult it is to tell jokes in the English classroom.
Remember, every country and every culture has a different approach to what’s considered “funny.”
In the English classroom, by all means be good-humored and have fun with your lesson, but also maintain your self-awareness. If nobody else is laughing — least of all your JTE — perhaps it’s time to dial back on the comedy. There’s also the danger of the students laughing at you, rather than with you, which is never good for classroom morale or your leadership role.
Skits are a good way to inject some funny into your lessons. When modeling the target language of a lesson, you can map out a dialogue with your JTE beforehand. This way they can also get onboard with your jokes and help them to have better impact. In general, try to avoid going “off-script” during lessons. Especially if you are teaching alongside a new teacher or one that you haven’t yet built a strong rapport with.
5. “My ALT complains too much.”
Yes, a lot of the processes around English teaching employment are fundamentally flawed. However, your JTE has no input into this. They work far more hours than we do, and — when you factor in all the unpaid overtime — their hourly rate of pay probably isn’t much better than ours, either.
It’s not a competition as to who has the harder life. Instead, just appreciate that JTEs have plenty of problems of their own, too. They don’t need to be burdened with yours on top of that. Indeed, a friend of mine who is a former JTE remarked that for her that: “Often, whether I worked with a positive or negative ALT would go a long way to determining whether I had a good or bad day at work.”
Remember that while assistant language teacher gigs are not the perfect job — a little positivity goes a long way!
To sum up, I would say this: JTEs do a wonderful and often thankless job. The vast majority of those I have worked with over the years have been kind, courteous, supportive and willing to listen to my suggestions.
As for ALTs, I’ve met some brilliant teachers and I’ve met some truly awful ones. In a line of work where candidate vetting is — at its best — somewhat scattershot, it’s not unusual for a few “bad eggs” to slip through.
Please don’t become one of them. There’s a reason why it’s called “team teaching.” In the classroom, our JTEs are there to support us and we are there to support them.
Together, we can accomplish wonders.
What have you learned in your time working with JTEs in the classroom? Share your tips for helping both of you succeed in the comments!