Reasons to be Cheerful: Why Being an ALT Is Awesome

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On May 29, 2018
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Teaching in Japan is a profession many of us stagger into. Very few people who come here actually plan on being English teachers for the long haul. Indeed, the majority of foreigners who come to Japan to teach English will return home within the first three years or so. However, for some of us, something happens that changes this circumstance.

Maybe you meet the partner of your dreams, maybe you have a family. Or maybe it’s something simpler. Is it just that Japan feels safer, more welcoming and easier to live in than your home country? Do you enjoy the food, the people and the culture?

For whatever reason, a lot of assistant language teachers in Japan are here for the long haul and I’m glad to count myself among them.

Our job has been taking a bit of a pounding in the PR department recently, though. Whether it’s former ALTs who, having moved onto better things, feel compelled to talk down to those who still do it or embittered columnists who view every personal slight they’ve ever received in Japan as some sort of personal, racist attack, detractors of the English teaching industry in Japan seem to be queuing up at the moment to get their licks in.

Admittedly, a number of dispatch companies do engage in disgraceful — and sometimes illegal — actions to try and “nickel and dime” their employees.

For the record, the last time I worked for an ALT dispatch company was in 2007. Some of them are noticeably better than others, but I believe the entire business model is fundamentally flawed and as such I’ve gone the direct hire route with every ALT job I have taken in the past 10 years.

However, even if you work for one of the suspect companies, there’s still some silver lining in those clouds, so today I’m here to speak up for my job.

Is it rocket science?

No.

Will it ever make me a millionaire?

Of course not.

However, I love my job, and I’m not ashamed to say so. So, here are my own personal top five reasons why I think that being an ALT in Japan is awesome.

1. I never take my work home with me

An ALT’s working life is a simple one. You show up, you teach the classes, you prep the next set of classes, then you go home. As much as we all like to have a job that is engaging and fulfilling, sometimes it’s good to have a job from which you can completely disengage when you go home. I can honestly say that not a single thought of work enters my mind from Friday evening until Monday morning. That is peace of mind that money just can’t buy. I don’t have some boss calling me to ask, “Where is that report?” or “Why haven’t you done this?” In fact, day to day, I don’t really have a boss. I run my classes as I see fit, and so long as I keep my colleagues involved and follow the curriculum, there’s no problem.

Being a direct hire, the only person I answer to is the school principal, and, on occasion, the supervisors at city hall, with whom we have monthly meetings.

2. I use time not teaching to improve my Japanese

Since I moved to this new job in April, the English-language support I have received — fellow ALTs notwithstanding — has been basically non-existent. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, I find my confidence in using Japanese has grown considerably since I came to Nagano. I haven’t just magically learned Japanese overnight. The knowledge has been within me for some time, I just never had the opportunity to use it. These days, once three or four classes for the day are out of the way, I have some time to chat with my colleagues and this is the perfect opportunity to brush up my conversation skills and also get to know my coworkers better.

Every day, I feel I’m making their world just that little bit bigger, by helping them learn new words and new phrases in English…

Of course, Japanese teachers are busy, too, but I usually manage to get in at least 45 minutes per day of quality conversation in Japanese — or basically, the same amount of time one would pay ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 to a private teacher for conversation practice. I even did a local radio show last week with one of my fellow ALTs, something I never imagined I’d be capable of doing before I came here.

3.The pay isn’t as bad as you think

I’ve heard horror stories of some ALTs being paid less than ¥200,000 per month for a full-time position. Unfortunately, this is no longer illegal, but it certainly isn’t the norm. You also need to think about your outgoing expenses when you decide on your location, too.

Using myself as an example, although my take home wage is slightly lower here than it was in Osaka, I actually have considerably more in my pocket at the end of each month now that I work in Nagano.

Let me throw a few figures at you, so you know what I’m talking about.

In Osaka, my salary was ¥300,000 per month. Tax, pension and other deductions took this down to around ¥245,000. My rent was ¥80,000.

These days, my salary has dropped slightly to ¥285,000 per month, which after taxes and the rest comes in at about ¥235,000 per month. However, since I live in subsidized housing provided by the local government, my rent is only ¥12,000 and my place is actually slightly bigger than what I had in Osaka.

So, when you compare a take home pay of ¥165,000 in Osaka to ¥223,000 here in Nagano, it’s not difficult to see why I’m loving my new job so much!

It’s no coincidence, I believe, that the vast majority of ALTs I hear speaking out about low wages are either working for a dispatch company or working in or near one of the larger cities, where living costs can be more than double what they are in the countryside. Even within the limited sphere of the ALT gig, there are ways to better your lot.

4. I get instant job satisfaction

Think about this: how many jobs do you know, besides perhaps the emergency services, that can give you a daily sense of pride and the feeling that you’re helping to make the world a better place?

Well, for me, English teaching does this. Nothing quite beats the rush of joy and exhilaration that comes from seeing your students give that knowing smile when they understand you for the first time and take what you have taught them and use it to communicate with you. Every day, I feel I’m making their world just that little bit bigger, by helping them learn new words and new phrases in English, however small an amount it may be. As the old proverb goes: “Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

5. I have time to work on other projects

One of the reasons that I’m able to contribute to GaijinPot and a few other sites around Japan on a weekly basis is the amount of free time I have as an ALT. Of course, any outside work you take on besides your job should be cleared with your employer, and of course, your ALT work takes top priority during contract hours.

That being said, almost without fail, ALTs will have an hour or two each day with nothing to do of any consequence. I use this time to research and to consider my next writing projects. As I’ve said before, it’s not hard to be an ALT, and the job affords you some free time each day. Therefore, having a few side-projects to work on during my downtime not only brings in some extra cash each month, but also helps to keep me stimulated mentally. A number of long-term ALTs I know have developed these “coping mechanisms” of sorts down the years.

Some create podcasts, some have their own YouTube channels. One of my friends indulges in his love of amateur electrical engineering, and can often be seen reading up on such things during his downtime. Of course, I’m not saying you should break out the gear and start filming or recording at your desk, one should, after all, always try to at least look busy even if in truth you aren’t,  but you can do some research, prepare, make notes and so on. There’s always something productive you can do with your time if all of your responsibilities in the classroom are taken care of.

All things considered, being an ALT is actually quite a good job. We have flexibility with our work that few of my colleagues are afforded. We have weekends and evenings free. And, if you follow my advice here today, it can even be pretty lucrative, too. Just do your research, make sure you know the full extent of what you are signing up for before you go, and hopefully, you will come to enjoy the job as much as I do.

Do you work as an ALT in Japan? What are some of the positives about the job that you enjoy? Let our readers know in the comments!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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