One of the most interesting things for me about being a writer is the wide range of thoughts and opinions I can elicit from others through my words. It’s amusing when you sometimes have one person praising you for “telling it like it is,” while the very next person could brand you a “Japan-hater.”
As an assistant language teacher (ALT) there are some situations where, no matter what you say (or do), it’s difficult to see anything other than a negative response from your peers. However, whether you ultimately end up recalling these events as negatives or as opportunities that you took to do something positive, largely depends on one’s own perspective.
With the right approach — and appropriate actions at appropriate times — we ALTs can (and do) make a positive difference. Here are some teachable moments for other ALTs based on a couple of my own less-than-positive experiences in the classroom.
1. Bereavement at work
I had a very unpleasant experience a few years ago when one of my junior high school students died. The student in question had a number of health issues and their passing was not entirely unexpected, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
I came to the school in the morning to find my colleagues — understandably — very upset and weeping openly. I was told what had happened and that the student had passed away at home the night before. I was then further informed that all the students would be gathering that afternoon to pay their respects to their friend. They asked if I would join them and, of course, I accepted.
Come that afternoon, we all lined up outside the school and the student’s body was wheeled past everyone, in full view for all to see.
Now, I don’t want to sound overly sensitive here, but I’d never seen a dead body up close before that moment. Judging by the distress many of the students showed, neither had they.
We are uniquely positioned to empower our students and bring a little extra light into their lives even at the darkest of times.
Speaking to friends and family about this experience helped me to deal with it.
But my biggest worry was for the students themselves. As an adult — and given the current situation of the world we live in — we are exposed to violent or disturbing imagery on a daily basis and I have learned to cope with it. Japanese kids, generally speaking, are far more sheltered than kids elsewhere. Many of them, I could see, were not prepared for this at all.
A couple of days later, I had my first lesson with the class since their classmate had passed. The students seemed distracted, the teacher was still a bit of a wreck and given the rather chaotic nature of the previous few days at the school, my Japanese teacher of English (JTE) and I hadn’t had time to discuss our plans for the lesson. I made a split second decision.
I tossed the lesson plan aside and I did a series of games, quizzes and simple review activities with the students. We played, we laughed and incidentally — we spoke more English than usual.
After that class, I apologized to my JTE for going “off script.” Instead of a rebuke, she said this: “Today the kids needed to laugh and they needed to feel good at school again. Even if it was just for an hour, you gave them that.”
Ultimately, my small effort helped the students begin their return to normalcy and it brought me closer to both my students and my colleagues, too.
Many like to put down the role of the ALT, and say it isn’t a “real job” and that your work is, ultimately, futile. But if there’s one thing you can take away from this story, it’s the belief that we can make a difference. We are uniquely positioned to empower our students and bring a little extra light into their lives even at the darkest of times.
2. Undiagnosed learning issues
Before we go on, an admission: I am dyslexic. I was diagnosed when I was 21. Luckily for me, the only issues I have are with writing at high speed and having generally untidy handwriting.
For one of my students however, the issues were far more debilitating. He struggled to read and write at all in Japanese, let alone English. He would often get frustrated and lash out, violently, at classmates.
Traditional discipline methods didn’t work. When I raised the issue, the senior English teacher — my supervisor — said incredulously: “What do you want me to do? Tell his parents that their child has a disability?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do,” I said.
Of course, she didn’t and the classroom chaos continued.
One morning, lacking a colleague to go through the target dialogue with me, I invited this “problem student” to be my speaking partner. Of course, he didn’t want to at first, but I persisted. He stuttered, he made numerous mistakes, but I didn’t scold him. I supported and I encouraged and I was quick to crack down on any other students who mocked his efforts. He got through it.
It took a lot of encouragement, prompting and sometimes even pleading, but we did this a few more times in class. The other students came to accept it as routine and this student came to realize that, if he did what I asked of him, he wouldn’t have any more hassle from me.
There was, however, still the underlying problem of his learning difficulties.
Then I stumbled upon a bit of good luck. One night in the local supermarket, I heard a now all too familiar shout behind me: “Hey, Liam sensei!”
Don’t sit back! Get involved. Help out where you can.
My student was out shopping with his mother. The boy enthusiastically told his mother who I was. To my surprise, the boy’s mother engaged in a conversation with me. She said: “Thank you for teaching my son. I know he is often troublesome.”
“No, he’s not troublesome at all,” I replied with courtesy more than honesty. “I understand how he feels because I used to be like that when I was at school. I hated schoolwork and I often got frustrated.”
She seemed genuinely surprised at this realization that her kid wasn’t the only one.
What happened next probably oversteps my professional boundaries, but I don’t regret it.
I said: “I didn’t find out why I was different until I was 21. If I had known earlier, school would have been much easier for me. It’s up to you, but maybe you could go and see a doctor together. I think he could help your son.”
She agreed to do so. I gave her my details and said she should contact me if she ever has any questions.
I left that job a few months later. A further 18 months after that I got a mail, in very broken and barely legible English but with an important message.
It turns out dyslexia was just one of several behavioral and learning disorders my student had. He’d been to the doctor, got treatment and decided that school wasn’t really working for him. He was now working in a local shop part-time, really enjoying talking to the customers and was saving up the money to go to college next year.
For him, the future is now looking bright — and all he needed as a push in the right direction.
Again, never let anyone tell you that the lowly ALT can’t make a difference.
The stories I’ve presented here are hardly unique. Every day we help our students. We have the power to make their lives better. My one piece of advice to you all would be this: Don’t sit back! Get involved. Help out where you can.
Every school has students like these: the ones who have fallen through the cracks in a fragmented and broken system. Sometimes, what’s needed is an outside perspective. This is something that we, as ALTs, are uniquely able to provide.