Ask James: How Can I Play A Bigger Role in the Classroom?


Photo by Yasushi Matsuoka

Our resident working-in-Japan writer, James Winovich, answers your questions on everything from finding a job to networking to having more fun during school lunches and more. Got a question you’d like to ask James? Email it to

ALT or scarecrow?

Hi James,

I work as an ALT in a small school with two Japanese teachers of English. I have an amazing working relationship with one of them, but the other treats me like I’m invisible. What can I do to be a bigger part of her classroom?

— Class Scarecrow

Dear Scarecrow-sensei,

This is a very common problem for ALTs. It seems like a fair number of schools have at least one teacher who just refuses to make room for the ALT in their agenda.

The first thing to remember is that it’s almost certainly not personal. Maybe it’s because they’ve had a bad experience with ALTs in the past. Or they might just like to do everything themselves, and prefer to have total, hands-on control over everything that happens in their classroom.

Regardless of the reason, if you’re not happy being a potted plant in the classroom (as I assume you aren’t since you’re asking this question), there are a few things you can do.

1. Greet this person, and talk to them properly, whenever you can

If you’re going to work together, you need to first talk together. This is a basic step that sometimes gets forgotten by some people looking for more of a role in the classroom. The more comfortable a teacher is with you as a person, the more likely they are to be open to your ideas for the class.

2. Share your ideas every chance you get

You’re going to need to prove to this teacher that you are an asset who will make their life easier. To do that, look in the class textbook every once in a while, see what grammar points are going to get covered in the next week or so, and (before or after class) show this teacher some of your ideas for activities. They don’t have to be fully-fledged activities with hours of planning; in fact, they probably shouldn’t be. You don’t want to come across as over-aggressive. The goal is to just let them know that you often have activity ideas for upcoming grammar points. Be the person who just always has an idea; when they need one, they’ll think of you.

3. Interact with the students in their class even more than usual

If you have nothing to do during the class, you need to do more outside of it. Eat lunch with these students, join clubs with them, and just become friends with his/her students (this is a good thing to do with any class, by the way). If it becomes obvious to the teacher that the students want more of you in the class, he or she will be more willing to let it happen.

With enough repeating of the steps above, even the most ALT-phobic teachers will have no choice but to give you a shot. At that point, it’s up to you to nail your opportunity. Make sure that first activity rocks, and they will be begging for another in short order.

Before I let you get to work on the steps, I should add that there are some situations that are just unsalvageable. Some teachers are hard-wired to not use the ALT for a whole magnitude of reasons, and they won’t move off that position. If after a few months of trying you don’t feel like you have gained any traction in the battle for more responsibilities in the classroom, it is totally okay to wave the white flag and concentrate on having positive interactions with the students outside of the classroom.

Remember, you are an “assistant” language teacher, and if your teacher’s idea of “assisting” is being the best “ALT scarecrow” you can possibly be, then stuff your shirt with straw and hop on your post.

Good luck.

Do you sometimes feel like a scarecrow or human tape recorder in the classroom? Got any advice or tips for ALTs looking to establish a bigger role for themselves? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 


Refusing to be a bitter gaijin since 2007.

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