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Building Bridges as an ALT with Your School’s Board of Education

Bureaucrats everywhere aren't always that easy to deal with, but here are three handy tips to help you do just that where you teach in Japan.

By 7 min read

For as much as I sometimes moan and groan about the daily grind of being a direct hire assistant language teacher (ALT) here in Japan, the reality is: this isn’t a difficult job. Most of the time it is relatively low stress. I seldom take my work home with me and — as this article proves — I have plenty of free time to engage in other pursuits.

One of the primary benefits of working as ALT through a dispatch company is that you don’t need to deal directly with the bureaucrats at your school’s city board of education. Their own staff act as a buffer between you and the BOE executives.

Being a direct hire (or considering the option in your next ALT job search), where there is no such buffer, you have to learn to handle face-to-face dealings with BOE managers.

So today, I hope I can impart a bit of advice with some of my own experiences, thoughts and reflections on what I’ve encountered — and may have done differently — in my dealings with the city board to help keep them onside.

1. Respect the chain of command

One of the key aspects to consider when seeking to build good relationships with your board of education, lies in recognizing the difference between what you are legally entitled to do and what the BOE considers to be acceptable.

My own current contract, for example. Legally, I am entitled to 20 days of annual leave, to be taken any time.

However, if you decide to take two weeks off in the middle of a term, your BOE won’t be happy. There is, however, some room for negotiation in this regard — provided that you are reasonable about it.

Take my winter travel plans as an example. Officially, my winter vacation this year does not begin until Dec. 27. However, since this will be the first time in five years I will go back to Scotland, I want to spend Christmas with my family.

So, I booked flights that will see me fly home on Dec. 20 and come back in the new year on Jan. 10. Before I did this however, I went through the chain of command. Here’s how I did it.

He appreciated the consideration I had shown for the school and the students in my planning.

First of all, I asked the kyouto sensei (vice-principal) at my base school if I could have a meeting with the koucho sensei (principal) to discuss my vacation plans. About 10 days later, we arranged a 15-minute sit down meeting. At that time, I explained to him my intended travel plans and my reasons for doing so.

I also showed him how I planned to make up the classes I will miss by taking on some extra lessons in the months of December and January (I had also had a quick chat with the home room teachers of the classes affected to make sure they were on board).

He appreciated the consideration I had shown for the school and the students in my planning. He said he had no objections, but it would need to be approved by the board of education.

Next, I sent an email to my manager at the BOE and informed her of the discussion with my principal and my travel plans.

The fact that I already had my fellow teachers and my principal onside before I made the request meant it was much easier for the BOE to approve it. Even if they said no, I could still force the issue — since legally they have no right to deny my request. It’s always better, though, if you can achieve things through diplomacy rather than threats.

2. Being in the right, doesn’t mean you’ll win the point

This next lesson, unfortunately, I learned the hard way. When I worked for the Kurashiki City board of education back in 2008, the program manager there already had something of a reputation for bullying, petulance and egomania.

It wasn’t long after I started working there that we started butting heads. I was 24 years old, headstrong and I firmly believed that I was right. After all, his job was to support his ALTs, as he himself had said during our month-long initial training. He had been program manager for more than a decade and believed he was untouchable. It was never going to end well for either of us.

After several abusive phone calls and threats from this manager, I filed an official complaint with the BOE about him.

Again, I was thinking along European conventional lines. A manager of mine was harassing me, so I complained to his manager. At the very least, I hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with him directly from there on out.

I was asked to attend a meeting at the BOE with the superintendent to discuss my concerns. I expressed concern that my weak Japanese ability would make it hard to communicate. I was told not to worry as a translator would be provided.

It’s fair to say that the BOE backed “their man” over this young upstart with a bad temper.

When I arrived, guess who my translator was?

I flew into a rage. I said that I was the victim of bullying and I didn’t want this man in the meeting at all — let alone acting as my interpreter. He then said: “Do you think my Japanese isn’t good enough?”

I should have just left it there but I had to fire back at my gaijin counterpart: “I’m not questioning your ability. I’m questioning your honesty and your integrity.” The meeting was promptly canceled. It’s fair to say that the BOE backed “their man” over this young upstart with a bad temper.

In the end, myself and a dozen or so other teachers formed a union. We petitioned the local city council — essentially the BOE’s bosses — and the program manager was finally removed the following spring. Unfortunately, for me, the damage was done and when I took some time off the following summer due to depression and anxiety, it gave the BOE all the excuses they needed not to renew my contract.

The lesson here — even if you are in the right — is that you still need to play the game. Direct confrontation doesn’t work (as with most things in Japan… ). On reflection, we should have ignored the BOE altogether and gone to the city council right from the start.

3. Make allies wherever you can

I’ve noticed down the years in Japan that there’s a very fine line between building good relationships and sycophancy. This is a line you need to tread carefully.

I am not, as you’ve probably noticed, the type of guy who keeps quiet when he sees something that isn’t right.

That being said, it’s good to keep people onside, if you can. I make a point of picking up some omiyage (souvenir gifts) for my managers at the BOE whenever I go on a trip and I do my best to engage with them in Japanese rather than English as much as I can. Apprehension toward using English seems to be a common theme throughout the different boards I’ve worked for down the years. Do whatever you can to put them at ease and it will go a long way.

… Japanese managers aren’t as emotionless toward you as we sometimes make them out to be.

At the end of the day, your Japanese managers aren’t as emotionless toward you as we sometimes make them out to be. It’s human nature that you’re more likely to have empathy with someone you like than someone you don’t. You can — provided you balance things carefully and build friendly, productive relationships with your managers without being a proverbial “brown-noser.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest takeaway I can offer from all this today. Yes, my former bosses in Osaka and Kurashiki were arrogant and vindictive, but in hindsight I didn’t handle the situation perfectly, either.

Japan is no different from any other country: you will encounter great managers and awful ones. You need to adapt and develop the flexibility, assertiveness and occasional hardheadedness to deal with both the good and the bad. It takes time, and you’ll have your ups and downs, but ultimately you’ll come out on the other side a better person for it.

What have your experiences with boards of education in Japan been like —  overly positive or negative? What tips do you have for dealing with them constructively? Let us know in the comments!

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