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Starting at a New School: 4 Day One Dos and Don’ts for ALTs

Many ALTs across Japan will soon face a new beginning at a new school. Here are four ways to make the most of it.

By 5 min read

We are only a few weeks away from April now and the start of another school year. With this comes a challenge, as many assistant language teachers across Japan will soon face a new beginning at a new school.

For some, this may be their first foray into ALT work, be it direct hire or via a dispatch company. For others, it may be a change of school or a change of employer.

In any case, it helps to be prepared for what lies ahead and understand how to best handle the formalities as they unfold. With this in mind, here are some pointers for navigating the first day at a new school.

1) Present yourself the right way

OK, these should be pretty obvious points, but you’d be amazed how many times I have seen them overlooked. On day one, wear a suit, a good suit. You want to look your very best when you are introduced to the principal. Also, make sure you bring some comfortable indoor shoes with you. Bring two pairs if possible since in some schools you may need one pair for walking around the school and a separate pair of gym shoes for the sports hall, where the opening ceremony is most likely going to be held. Also, only bow when someone bows to you. Going around looking like you’re trying to headbutt the invisible man will only bring ridicule on you in the long run!

2) Use the right level of Japanese

Pretty much every employer, be they a board of education or a dispatch company, will tell you that it’s important to try and speak even a little Japanese when introducing yourself to your new colleagues at school. However, I would advise caution when doing this. Try to prepare a speech that is appropriate to your actual level of Japanese abilities. If you speak little or no Japanese then keep it to a few lines and the content light and not too in-depth.

If you can’t speak the language, but you manage to memorize phonetically a three- or four-page speech and deliver it on day one, it may give off the wrong impression. You don’t want people to think you are fluent in Japanese when you aren’t — especially the students.

I usually prepare around 200 words (about half a page of notes). I don’t write out a formal speech, I just consider the points I want to cover and make a list. Generally, on the first day you’ll give a speech to the teachers’ room and depending on when you start — either later that same day or a couple of days later — you’ll give another speech to the student body.

For the students speech, I recommend mixing up Japanese and simple English. There’s a couple of reasons for this.

First, you’ll want the kids to have a chance to hear and begin to acclimatize to your accent which might be vastly different to your predecessor. Second, and perhaps more importantly, you don’t want the kids to know exactly how much Japanese you can speak or understand. This has a twin effect. On one hand, it shows the students that, unlike the other teachers, if they want to speak to you, they will need to use English, and this is of course something that an ALT should always encourage.

Your immediate bosses will be the head Japanese teacher of English and the vice-principal, who actually does most of the work in terms of day-to-day operation of the school.

From a disciplinary point of view, it also ensures that the students will be careful what they say around you, as they won’t know exactly how much Japanese you can understand. I find speaking mostly English with the students and then just throwing out the odd phrase or sentence in Japanese here and there is a good way to keep them on their toes.

3) Introduce yourself to the right people

When we think about the management of a school we often think of the principal as being the boss. However, schools in Japan are commonly structured in such a way that you will actually see very little of the principal on a day to day basis. Your immediate bosses will be the head Japanese teacher of English (JTE) and the vice-principal, who actually does most of the work in terms of day-to-day operation of the school. Take the time to formally introduce yourself to both of these people and be sure to make a note of their names. In the event that you have any issues with classes, consult the head JTE. Any issues with regards to scheduling, taking time off or such things should be referred to the vice-principal as he or she is the one with the authority to approve such things.

It is, however, also good practice to inform the head JTE if you are planning any time off though, as a common courtesy. In many cases, I would say that maintaining good relations with your vice-principal and JTEs is every bit as important as effective teaching. Come evaluation time, both of these qualities will factor heavily into the grade you receive and whether or not you are offered a new contract.

4) Set the tone for the rest of the year

Of course, we always want to make as positive an impression as possible, especially on the first day of a new job. However, be aware that in Japan especially, you will be judged on your actions from day one. Be supportive, be proactive. At the same time, don’t run around like a headless chicken trying to do everything at once. If you set a tone whereby you take on any and all tasks available, you will soon find yourself given a lot of extra work. Be helpful, be supportive, be cooperative, but just remember that once classes start you will not have anywhere near as much free time as you do on day one.

Overall, the most important thing you need to survive that first day in a new school is common sense. Be approachable, be friendly and be helpful. Stick to this and any unintentional cultural faux pas will be overlooked. Japanese people aren’t really that different from the rest of us. They understand you may be nervous, they don’t expect you to know everything on day one. Relax, be yourself and you shouldn’t have any problems.

Do you have any tips for transferring or starting at a new school? Let us know in the comments!

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