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ALT Super Powers: From Unexpected to Awesome in the Japanese Classroom

When teaching in Japanese classrooms, inspiration for ways to help can sometimes come from the most unlikely sources — and don’t always involve your English lessons.

By 8 min read

As teachers, we all have good and bad days, awesome classes and classes we’d sooner forget.

If anything, this feeling is more pronounced in Japanese schools and it can certainly be exacerbated by micro instances of culture shock. With ALTs especially, there are often times when you feel as if you are fighting against the system rather than playing into it. However, surviving long term as a teacher in Japan, and hopefully moving up the career ladder, depends on your ability to grab the small victories where you find them. Rack up enough of these victories and you won’t just survive, you will thrive.

I spoke recently about the most difficult experiences I endured as an ALT, such as dealing with the death of a student. While that was, ultimately, an empowering experience (going through the grieving process with students, helping them return to normalcy and building stronger bonds with them and my colleagues) what I’m going to discuss today comes from a decidedly happier place.

Today we are here to talk about awesomeness, about inspiration, about those moments as a teacher when you feel like you’re floating on air. Today, I’d like to share two of my most inspiring and satisfying moments as a teacher in Japan.

1. Father knows best

A number of years ago I was working in a particularly problematic school. Teachers had largely lost hope, discipline was almost non-existent and a climate of anger and despair washed over the place. Imagine Dangerous Minds, minus the awesome soundtrack.

One class above all was particularly bad, with one student (lets call him K) appointing himself as boss and terrorizing the other students almost as much as he terrorized the teachers.

One day, “K” was in a particularly disruptive mood. Unhappy at the score he had been given on a test, he tried to grab at his teacher and intimidate her.

By chance, I was standing nearby and I stepped in front of her, taking a slap to the shoulder from “K” in the process.

Being a big guy, it didn’t hurt, but I was aware the kid was trying to intimidate me. This was only October. If I let this go, classes would be hell until April.

I brushed his hand away and he got right up in my face. I said in a firm, but non-threatening manner, maintaining direct eye contact throughout: “Only cowards try to hit women. I don’t like cowards. Are you a coward?”

He shook his head and sat down. My bluff, it seemed, had worked (for the time being, at least). From that day on, we had our ups and downs with that class, but “K” was never any trouble and was never violent towards the teachers again, at least not while I was there. In truth, I wondered why he had been so uncontrollable. He didn’t seem like a bad kid, just a kid who didn’t have any concept of discipline.

During one of her weaker moments, at a school drinking party, my head Japanese teacher of English (JTE) finally let it slip as to why everyone was afraid of “K”. Apparently, his father was a local gangster, and quite a prominent one. Suddenly, my little show of classroom bravado didn’t seem so smart…

Unhappy at the score he had been given on a test, he tried to grab at his teacher and intimidate her.

The story took an interesting twist on graduation day. After the ceremony, my Japanese colleague came running into the teacher’s room, face white as a sheet, shaking.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Mr ****** (K’s father) wants to talk to you.”

By this point she wasn’t the only one shaking. Picking a fight with a local crime boss wasn’t exactly how I’d planned seeing out my first few years in Japan.

I stepped out into the corridor and there he was, sunglasses, suit, the full getup. The gangster archetype personified. He approached me, took my hand and said one sentence in English: “Thank you for teaching my son respect.”

Then he bowed, I reciprocated, and he left.

An inspiring experience to be sure, but on reflection, perhaps not one I’d be keen to repeat.

Ultimately, this whole experience had a positive impact not just on me but on the school as a whole. It showed the teachers that they will ultimately be better respected by students and parents if they stand up for themselves. Likewise, I hope it showed the students that even if you’re the worst behaved kid around, it’s never too late to change your ways and become a positive contributor to your class.

2. Managing a meltdown

One of the most common criticisms long-term foreign teachers in Japan have about schools here is the lack of understanding and provision for kids with mental or physical differences.

Of these differences, undoubtedly the most common are autistic spectrum disorders. The thing about autism is that it can be really scary — not just for the sufferers themselves but also for their classmates, who (depending on their age) may have no idea why their friend, seemingly normal seconds ago, is now having a violent and seemingly unprovoked outburst.

Typically, students are usually paired with a support worker, who will know their condition and be able to help them stay focused during a class.

Unfortunately, during this particular class in Osaka a few years ago, an elementary third grade class, the helper was absent, and it quickly became obvious that the home room teacher had no idea how to handle the student. My own training on these issues is rudimentary at best.

The student was displaying all the classic signs of an impending meltdown: an inability to sit still, random shouting out, making seemingly unintelligible sounds and a general sense of agitation. The home room teacher (HRT), though meaning well, made a classic mistake: he scolded the child for not sitting still.

Cue a full-on meltdown, complete with things being thrown, full-throated screaming, tears and anger. The other kids were terrified. The HRT froze.

Luckily for me, what little training I had kicked in. I asked the HRT to take the other kids out into the corridor and go get the school nurse. He complied.

Cue a full-on meltdown, complete with things being thrown, full-throated screaming, tears and anger.

By this point, the kid having the meltdown was in the middle of the floor, curled in a ball, thrashing around and banging his head on the floor.

I knelt down beside him and gently held his hand, I said repeatedly: “Daijoubu desu ka? (Are you OK?)” After a few seconds, the head-banging stopped, but the screams and thrashing continued. I squeezed his hand just a little tighter and said “Shinpai shinaide ne, daijoubu yo. (Don’t worry, it’s ok)” I repeated this several times.

It seemed like hours but, it was probably no more than two minutes when he finally stopped kicking, screaming and seemed to return to normal. He looked at me, but his eyes seemed empty, as the nurse took him away to make sure he was OK.

That afternoon, as I was preparing to leave, a visitor came to the teacher’s room. It was the kid from earlier, with his mother. Apparently, he was refusing to go home until he could say goodbye to me.

He came in, sat by my desk and we chatted for a couple of minutes. Until I left that job, about three months later, every Thursday when I visited that school, this boy would insist on coming to see me in the teacher’s room each day before he went home. People with autism do, on occasion, use routines as a coping mechanism. I’m honored to think that this little boy thought highly enough of me to make me a part of his routine.

Ultimately, this was my most personally satisfying moment in teaching to date. Hopefully, it also taught the rest of the students and their teacher that autistic kids aren’t to be feared or contained. Like the rest of us, they bring something unique to the classroom, and that uniqueness should be embraced and celebrated. We’d all get on a lot better with each other if we could just learn to understand each other’s needs a little better.

I guess it’s kind of ironic that my two most personally satisfying moments in teaching didn’t actually come from teaching itself, but rather from how I dealt with the situations that arose from while I was teaching.

And this is perhaps the most salient point of what I’m trying to say here today: Your work as an ALT is whatever you choose to make of it. The classes largely take care of themselves.

If you really care about having a positive impact on the future of your students and making a lasting impression on the schools where you work, then you need to seek out the areas where you can make that impact. I saw a gap in awareness on disabilities and mental illnesses, so I taught myself about them. I studied child psychology in my free time so I could understand why the so-called “bad apples” did what they did.

We all have something special inside us to offer our schools and our students, all we need to do is look for it.

Have you had an unexpected, inspirational moment teaching in Japan that required thinking “out of the box” in order to take care of a situation at hand? Share with other teachers in the comments!

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