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5 Ways To Set — and Keep — Boundaries as an ALT

Contrary to popular belief, ALTs have a voice. They just need to use it… strategically.

By 6 min read

It’s now more than 10 years since I took up my first job as an ALT in Japan.

With each new school, I have faced the same initial challenge: How much work should a perceived “good worker” do to maintain a good relationship with management, while also preserving your own need to rest and unplug after work?

The line often blurs, especially in Japan, where cultural norms dictate that even the most unreasonable requests are usually presented under a veneer of courtesy and implied collective obligation. You’ll need to decide as an individual the extent to which you are willing to play along with this. In doing so, I recommend considering the following points:

1. Establish a friendly bond where it counts.

From the moment you first set foot in your new school, your colleagues will be judging you. An expectation will be that you put in an effort to, of course,  put on a suit on to meet the principal and learning a few lines of Japanese for your self-introduction in the staff room. Making a great first impression is the first step to setting boundaries.

Making a great first impression is the first step to setting boundaries.

Why? ALTs, by now, know to put in the work to establish good bonds with their teachers, but what about other staff you might not see as much? Having a friendly relationship with your principal, vice principals and office staff will payoff in the future, no question about it. These are the people who, ultimately, hold the power when it comes to granting vacation, or giving leeway in your position at the school.

Be proactive in reaching out to coworkers and getting to know them. This impression will go a long way when you seek to establish personal and professional boundaries later.

2. Schedule meetings to ensure the timing works for you.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in a particularly busy, or uncooperative, school, the teachers may ask you to stay beyond your finishing time to do “uchiawase” (planning meetings). It’s your call whether you agree to this or not, but I would strongly advise against it. Such instances quickly become a habit. The first few months of an ALT contract are often a game of attrition as both your colleagues and management test you to see just how much inconvenience you are willing to take. Insisting that uchiawase be held during your contract hours sets down an important marker that, while you are reasonable, you also have clear boundaries.

3. If you work overtime, be proactive to ensure you are compensated.

This is one of these areas where employers sometimes aren’t quite as forthcoming as they should be with information. Anytime you are scheduled to work over and above your contract hours entitles you to either overtime pay, or in most cases compensatory leave, known as daikyu. Your school should give you a day or a half day off, to be mutually agreed between you and the school, to cover for any days when you have had to work on a regular day off, such as Saturday, Sunday or a national holiday.

Daikyu rules can vary from school to school, so it’s important to be proactive in asking your supervisor or coworkers about what the rules are. Because, there will, inevitably, be some.

In my city, daikyu needs to be taken in either full day or half day increments. Taking a couple of hours here and there generally isn’t allowed. Also, the official guidance is that daikyu should be taken within the same month as the overtime was worked (though some cities may not follow this rule), but it can be before or after the event itself. For example, if a school asks you to work at a school sports day on Monday, Sept. 19 (a national holiday). You could potentially take a day off, or two half days off as compensation anytime between Sept. 1 and Sept. 30. On that note, let’s talk holidays.

4. When it comes to holidays, be considerate, but inform, don’t ask.

Unless you are really sick, try not to take a day off when you have classes scheduled. If you do, and it’s a pre-planned absence, try your best to talk with your colleagues ahead of time, to reschedule or switch around classes so as to minimize the impact it will have on your students. Even something as inconvenient as taking a day off during term time can work in your favour, if you show consideration for your students in how you handle it.

When it comes to non-term time, you will need to be more assertive. I’ve noticed in the past that some employers actively discourage teachers from using leave during summer and winter, though I’m not exactly sure why. One even said it was Japanese custom to always “keep four or five days of annual leave in reserve in case you get the flu.” This is of course complete nonsense and was merely a feeble attempt at manipulation by the middle-manager in question.

As for annual leave during non-teaching periods: inform, don’t ask.

Whether you go ahead and stand up for yourself, well, that’s up to you.

Tell your employer when you will be taking leave, try to have all the relevant paperwork submitted as far ahead of time as possible. The legal position in Japan is that an employer cannot refuse any legitimate request for leave provided that “it does not interfere with the daily operations of the business.”

Since you have no classes, it would be nigh on impossible for a school or BOE to contend that your absence would have any negative impact, so it’s unlikely they would stand in your way. Remember, annual leave is a right, not a privilege. (Here’s a guide to asking for holiday in Japanese if you need more specific advice.)

5. Mistakes happen, so it’s good to be prepared.

Like any new job or any transfer within an existing job, going to teach at a new school presents a variety of potential pitfalls. You will make mistakes, but from my experience, those who last the longest in this line of work are those who are willing to go with the flow and don’t waste time on the extreme intricacies of etiquette or try to “be more Japanese than the Japanese themselves.”

We are employed as foreigners, and most schools accept this and will probably cut you considerably more slack than they afford a Japanese newcomer. Now, whether you go ahead and stand up for yourself, well, that’s up to you. But, hopefully, this advice will aid in that sometimes gloriously awkward task.

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