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Instructor or ALT? 6 Things to Consider

First-time teachers to Japan usually end up in one of two teaching streams. Here are some points to ponder before choosing the eikawa or ALT route.

By 4 min read 7

Most English teachers in Japan start out working as instructors at eikaiwa (private language schools) or in the Japanese school system as assistant language teachers (ALTs).

For those considering teaching in Japan — or crossing from one stream to the other — it’s worthwhile to take a look at the main differences between the two types.

1) Classes

Language schools feature small classes (typically one to four adults or two to eight children) based around a particular topic, usually using material provided by the school, in line with the school’s teaching philosophy. Most schools set a three-part lesson plan that includes target language introduction, controlled practice and student language production. Instructors are responsible for devising complementary activities and adjusting them to meet the needs and level of the learners.

ALTs will deal with larger classes and teach lessons based on the school curriculum, working out of textbooks, by unit rather than by individual lesson in conjunction with a Japanese teacher. The ALTs may be trusted to teach entire lessons, but are often placed in a supporting role through which they lend pronunciation assistance and lead short activities.

Both types of teachers need to be flexible in their approach, but language school instructors must make a lot of small in-lesson adjustments. Since catering to the needs of paying students is paramount, instructors must assess the classroom situation, take into account the age, interests and study needs of the students, and decide which activities will best fit the target language and the topic.

While ALTs also respond to developments during the lesson, there is not the same need to read the situation and weave a lesson to accompany it that is so essential in the eikawa classroom.

2) Hours and conditions

Language schools often open long hours — six or seven days a week — and instructors are required to be available for shift, weekend and public holiday work. ALTs, on the other hand, are at school weekdays from 8 a.m. until four or five in the evening, can maintain normal hours and will not need to work on public holidays.

3) Responsibilities

Eikawa instructors usually have a sales aspect to consider. This may include encouraging potential students to join the school or encouraging current students to renew. Bringing new students through the door and keeping longer term ones happy is part of the package.

ALTs do not have to worry about sales; as the face of English language in their schools and communities, they have other concerns. Being de facto ambassadors, ALTs are expected to interact positively at all times, and there is a responsibility to behave in a fashion that will not embarrass the school or the community.

4) Japanese language requirements

Instructors do not need much in the way of Japanese language skills, but ALTs must be able to speak at a basic level or better so that they can understand the schedule, communicate with the class teachers and make small talk with students. Although ALTs can get by employing common sense, a dictionary and a sunny demeanor, the ability to speak reasonable Japanese helps immensely.

5) Advancement

Depending on the language school, competent instructors who stay in Japan will get pay increases and may be given the option to up-skill and/or move into management positions. ALTs who work for a dispatch company in larger cities and speak Japanese well may also get similar opportunities. For the vast majority of ALTs, however, there is little room for in-house advancement or pay increases.

Those who intend to make a career here in English teaching should spend the first year or two improving their Japanese, learning the trade and making contacts within the industry. This may open doors to suitable positions with Japanese companies, universities, private schools or in management roles.

6) Social life

Instructors will normally parachute into a readymade ex-pat scene complete with enthusiastic beginners, cynical lifers and all stages in between. ALTs will have a different experience: as the only foreigner on the school staff, ALTs will need to develop relationships with locals and will be forced to rely on their Japanese skills to do so.

Life in Japan — as with life everywhere else — is to a large extent what you make of it, but the teaching stream you choose does play an important role in shaping your Japan experience.

For more on life as an ALT, see Liam Carrigan’s article here.

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  • Wabisabi says:

    Korea pays more money for same thing, salaries have dropped out the sky here… It can be as low as ¥1000 for an hour of private teaching or 900 as an ALT, it’s beyond a joke now

  • ja says:

    I will work as an ALT next year. I hope I made the right decision.

  • Tania says:

    I don’t care I just want to be in Japan!!!

  • Jettoki says:

    am i the only one who is a bit worried, about aya`s choice of clothing brand?

  • kietero says:

    Some things to consider and minor corrections to this article.

    4) Japanese language requirements
    Several interviews I’ve participated in when I first moved to Japan all came out the same way, with the bosses of those dispatch companies all saying, “You speak Japanese very well. However, we must ask you to pretend that you don’t speak Japanese.” There are reasons why they say “no Japanese” to a prospective ALT.

    4.1: School Secrets. One Interviewer said to me, “If the teachers have meetings, they don’t want the ALT to know school business – they want to keep that secret. So for privacy reasons, it is best to give the impression that you do not speak any Japanese.”

    4.2: Illusion of Authenticity. Schools will often tell the ALTs to use zero Japanese when giving lessons or talking to students. They believe that this will force the students to use the English they have learned as a practical practice in order to communicate with the ALT.

    The perfect rebuttal to 4.1 is that if you don’t know Japanese, you’ll never know what information concerns you or not. If you work in junior high or high schools as an ALT, your lead Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) will tell you, in English, any information you need to know. If you work in elementary school, you’re s**t out of luck as a good 75-80% of elementary schools don’t teach English outside of the ALT’s visit. Also, most elementary school staff will have a teacher who is responsible for English education in that school, but it is very unlikely that they will speak any English whatsoever. Knowing Japanese is the only way to get any kind of communication going between the homeroom teachers, including the English department head of the year, and yourself as the ALT.

    In argument of 4.2, get ready to proactively distance yourself from the students if you speak no Japanese, especially in junior high school. Kids in elementary school are more high-spirited and will want to try to communicate with you in English. So using no Japanese with your students will get you pretty far ahead, so long as the homeroom teacher supports you. It’s more stressful if you are by yourself and the teacher is in the back of the classroom, grading papers, playing Pokemon Go, drawing, writing bad things about you, etc.

    In junior high, you’ll have a much more difficult time. If you are checking papers and a student asks you a question, if you are totally forbidden to speak Japanese (and you have Japanese skill), my advice is to very quietly speak Japanese anyway to that student in a one-on-one situation. Otherwise, if you try to explain something, that student will become lost and never talk to you again… literally. If they feel they can’t communicate with you, or even if it proves to be a challenge in any way, shape or form, at that age, they won’t even bother.

    As a rule of practice, you should always strive to speak as little (to zero) Japanese as possible during the bulk of your lessons. If students have questions, answer in easy English. If you are in a one-on-one situation, JTEs usually will look the other way if you respond in Japanese (the students may find this fascinating as well, test your Japanese ability and you’ll actually get closer to the students this way). Basic rule of thumb with your Japanese is this: If you are native-to-JLPT1: pretend you are JLPT4. If you are JLPT 2, pretend you are 4. If you are JLPT 3, pretend you a new student to the language. If you are JLPT4, don’t try. This will help your relationships with the schools a whole lot better.

    I think I covered everything. Been an ALT for 5 years in the Tokyo area and, sad to say, I’ve come to learn the good, the bad and the ugly about the business. I hope your experiences if you choose to be an ALT, are fulfilling. It’s a great job and a wonderful way to experience and learn the cultures of Japan, first hand! No matter what negative messages you hear about it, it’s worth the time!

    • Wabisabi says:

      Good for you, I quit ALT work with dispatch companies because they’ll just rob you if they think they can get away with it. That’s not like if they think you’ll notice, they’ll just do something like change your workdays or not pay you for a last minute cancellation by the school because they think you can’t do anything about it. Indeed, it’s hard to actually protest because they might just fire you and replace you with another hapless sap who either doesn’t know or is pretty desperate.

      You’ve got to join a union like the General Union or risk being absolutely screwed over!



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