The Ups and Downs of Being an ALT

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Photo by Beckywithasmile

As I have mentioned in one of my previous articles, if you come to Japan to teach English, as I did back in 2006, chances are you will find yourself working in one of two areas. Either you will work as an English conversation teacher at one of the many English Conversation Schools or Eikaiwa (英会話) as they are known in Japanese, or you may become an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).

Many believe that the life of an ALT is a charmed one. Finishing work at around 4:30pm every day, no weekend work and a salary that is still on the same level as the far less socialable hours of an Eikaiwa teacher.

The job is not without its drawbacks however, and I often think the perspective from which other workers in Japan view ALTs is somewhat skewed. In an attempt to try and redress the balance, I conducted a small survey of some ALTs I know working across Japan. My research took in most of the major cities of Japan from Osaka to Tokyo、up to Hokkaido and even down to Kyushu. Their answers threw up some interesting results.

Firstly, I asked my fellow ALTs “What do you like the most about your job?” There were a variety of different responses given, but a few common themes emerged.

In these economically austere times ALTs were almost unanimous in their appreciation that the relatively short working hours of their job afforded them the opportunity to take on extra work in the evenings and on weekends. Indeed from my own point of view, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write again on a regular basis since switching to an ALT position. The absence of overtime was also a contributing factor to this.

Variety is the spice of life as they say and for some ALTs this was another positive aspect to their job. Most ALTs work at a mix of elementary and junior high schools over the course of any given week, and this means that no two days are ever the same.

Of course one of the main reasons that many of us come to Japan is to enable us to better assimilate the culture and language of this great country. Working in a public school as an ALT does provide a somewhat unique window on daily Japanese life for those new to Japan. Not only will most of your colleagues not speak English, but chances are they may have little or no interest in English either. Hence, if you want to build good relationships with your colleagues, you’re going to have to get your Japanese up to speed pretty quickly.

Public schools in Japan really do provide the “total immersion” environment that is essential to learning a new language.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, being an ALT can provide you with a tremendous degree of job satisfaction. In the average public school, the English level of your typical class is likely to be very low. While this may be somewhat demotivating to some new teachers, for those who enjoy the challenge, if you can engage with your students you will start to see results very quickly.

For an English teacher, there is no greater sense of accomplishment than seeing the spark of comprehension in your student’s eyes when they finally “get it”.

However, not all is rosy in the garden of your average ALT. There were also a number of gripes that ALTs had with their conditions.

Chief amongst these issues was the lack of career progression. Many detractors of the ALT profession say that ALTs should not complain. They are, after all, paid an above average salary for what is essentially an entry level position with little if any actual responsibility. This may be true, however unlike our Japanese counterparts who enjoy yearly salary increases, regardless of performance, our pay remains static no matter how good a job we do.

Indeed salaries across the industry have been in decline for a number of years. Despite the fact that I currently work in one of the best paid ALT positons in Japan, my take home pay is about 15% lower now than it was 7 years ago. It’s not just a monetary issue either, many ALTs actually enjoy being educators and would like to forge a career in this field.

Unfortunately however, the current system does not provide any means of promotion or “upskilling” and as such should an ALT wish to become a fully-fledged teacher, they would have to either return to their home country and formally train as a teacher or undertake an extremely expensive master’s degree program in the hopes of securing a private school job here in Japan.

With each unique school, there comes a unique set of challenges and this creates an unfortunate scenario for some ALTs.

I am fortunate. My class load never exceeds 18-20 classes per week and all of my schools have friendly and supportive staff, and students who for the most part are highly cooperative. This is not the case for some however. A number of ALTs may have to teach around 25 classes per week, or work in schools that have big problems with student discipline. For such schools, violence and intimidation can be a daily occurrence, and support from management is often found wanting. I encountered these issues during my time in Kurashiki City in Okayama, and my Board of Education’s response to my concerns could be described as belligerent at best and utterly incompetent at worst.

Whilst there is a certain degree of variation by prefecture, in principal most Japanese public school teachers have similar conditions and benefits. There is no limit on the number of years a teacher can work, the average amount of annual leave is 20 days. Most teachers enjoy 6 days of sick leave too.

No such luck for ALTs. Salaries and conditions vary wildly depending on your location and also on whether you are employed through a dispatch company or as a “direct hire” with a city education board.

Whilst some ALTs are fortunate enough to get a month off work in summer, this month is often unpaid, and ALTs do not have the option of choosing to work this month. Additionally annual leave allowances are far lower than our Japanese counterparts. In the case of those unfortunate enough to be working for an ALT dispatch company there may be no annual leave or sickpay provision at all. Likewise, many of these companies do not pay teachers pension or health insurance contributions, despite being legally obliged to cover at least 50% of these monthly costs.

A lack of respect is another common issue for ALTs. In short, many people just refuse to acknowledge that being an ALT is a proper job. This last point is one that I personally find particularly infuriating. Sadly, as is often the case in Japan, the most vocal critics of ALTs are former ALTs themselves who rather than simply being grateful to have moved on to the next stage in their careers can’t resist the urge to bite back at their former job.

“It’s not a real job!”

“You’re just a human tape recorder!”

This is the kind of nonsense you will hear these people spout and frankly it has to stop.

Of course there are some lazy ALTs out there. They don’t really care for their students or for teaching in general. Being in Japan is just one long paid holiday for them. However, for every one of those buffoons, there are a dozen hard working, committed educators who really care about their job, who are dedicated to their schools and who take a genuine pride in seeing their students advance their English.

It is important to remember that how much or how little an ALT can contribute to their school is dependent almost entirely on the Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) that they work with. It is the JTE who has the final say on what happens in their classroom, you are, after all, an Assistant Language Teacher.

If you have progressive, forward thinking JTEs like I do, then you can expect to find yourself taking an active role in planning, preparing and executing immersive and engaging English lessons every day. Some JTEs can however resent the presence of another teacher in their classroom and as such you may be relegated to being a mere supporting act. Thankfully, I believe that as time moves on, these old attitudes are fading and JTEs are now coming up with new and more creative ways to maximize the ALT’s role in the classroom.

In summary, being an ALT does indeed have its ups and downs. If you choose to become one you will face a number of challenges, emotional, financial and sometimes mental. However, becoming an ALT is a decision I have never regretted.

I for one am glad to be an ALT, it is a badge I wear with pride.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Juan says:

    I mostly agree with the article, but I think the Japanese teaching staff, JETs or HRTs can really be a problem. I work in a small town and teach at 5 elementary schools. The biggest challenge is have is lack of support from the teachers when it comes to using English with the students. Most of the Japanese teachers I work with aren’t interested in trying to speak or learning English, so they want me to speak Japanese all the time. Which makes my job more difficult when I’m with the students and am trying to encourage them to try speaking English. A lot of the teachers often derail what I’m doing and tell the students, “You don’t need to speak English to him, he speaks Japanese very well! Talk to him as much as you like in Japanese.”

    It’s like the Japanese teachers don’t get why I’m here. They expect me to act like they do and use Japanese 99 percent of the time I’m at school and only use English in the classroom. And even in the classroom they expect me to use a lot of Japanese to explain every little thing. It’s very frustrating. I try to practice as much listening and speaking with the students as I can while I’m in school, but the teachers often get in the way because they are always trying to get me to use Japanese. It feels like fighting a battle on 2 fronts. I’m trying to encourage the children to use English with me, while the Japanese teachers are trying to get me to speak less English with the students and more Japanese. If the government is seriously planning on making English a subject in elementary schools, then the teachers need to start studying English. I’m there every week, but they refuse to practice even simple greetings with me. So I don’t know what else to do. Bringing foreigners to Japan to help teach the children English isn’t a bad idea, but we need the support of the the Japanese teachers while in school because just as the writer of the article says, the Japanese teacher has final say.

  • Goodman Speaking says:

    More fracking downs. Crap from JTs and dispatch company. Impossible to satisfy unreasonable JTs. Jts sometime back stab alts. Perks and salary is crap. Situation exacerbated by spineless alts who don’t challenge a huge pit of unfair labour practices in the sector.

  • Goodman Speaking says:

    Well said

  • Radley So says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog post. It was very informative and I really enjoyed reading it!

  • primalxconvoy says:

    I still think it’s fair to critique the ALT position in Japan, as for many (hard working and committed) ALT’s, their positions are indeed entertainers, tape recorders, or as a piece of imported office furniture.

    Regardless, there are some protective things people can do in such positions. They can take up learning Japanese officially, join a CELTA or DELTA course, or even a semi-online MA course (in EFL, Linguistics, Child Psychology, etc).

    Even if those courses are not viable, studying EFL teaching practices, via an introductory textbook, such as the one below, may be beneficial:

    https://jeremyharmer.wordpress.com/the-practice-of-english-language-teaching/

    Books like this cover most of the teaching ideologies, linguistic theories, teaching activity ideas (teaching) grammar, professional teaching development and lots more).

    Thus, teachers are then able to at least begin to study, and perhaps research their teaching environment, via help from the book. One example would be to monitor and record how their JTE, fellow ALT’s or even themselves approach different teaching methods, such as error correction, checking concepts or instructions, the amount of time the teacher talks (compared to the learner talk time, etc).

    Also, if a grammar book is used for reference or study, such as this one:

    http://www.cambridge.org/us/cambridgeenglish/catalog/grammar-vocabulary-and-pronunciation/grammar-english-language-teachers-2nd-edition

    Teachers could then try to see what grammar and vocabulary aims are in the (usually Japanese explanation only) learners’ textbooks. Combined with the first book, ALTs could begin to try and tailor their own lessons to that of the course (by using complementing grammar functions, etc), or just as a way of researching Japanese English textbook construction and use.

    Furthermore, Harmer has a section on professional development, which includes team teaching, team planning, shadowing and other aspects that can be studied involving a class with multiple teachers’ contributions.

    Hope this helps!

  • Jeremy Brooks says:

    Just so. I was an alt for 6 years. It was one of the most rewarding employment experiences I’ve ever had. Getting students who weren’t interested in English or study abroad interested and fired up about it and seeing those Ah-ha moments when students get was so worth it. If only it were possible to make a career and or support a family in Japan with it. The lack of pension and unemployment insurance contributions and a low child care priority rating even though we work full time hours forced me to look for work elsewhere. Excellent article.

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