Posts Tagged ‘ALT’

Mr I and the classes of doom

Now that I’m a safe distance from my job as an Assitant Language Teacher (ALT) at a Japanese public junior high school, I’m feeling inclined to share some of my stories from that time.

Don’t get the wrong impression from this post, I do also have lots of really good stories from that time, but I’m afraid the first thing that comes to mind is Mr I and the classes I had to take with him.

A lot of ALTs have to travel between 4 or more schools each month, but I was lucky enough to be stationed permanently at one school. And it was a good one. The students were generally well-behaved and friendly, and they had four and a half Japanese English teachers and one ALT (me). Mr A and Mr T (heh) were the best teachers in my opinion, and were really good to work with. They were good at building rapport with their students, and making the classes interesting, but were also quite strict and didn’t accept any misbehaviour in their classes.

But unfortunately Mr I turned out to be a really awful teacher. He was incredibly uncharistmatic, his classes were boring, he never even attempted to discipline his students, and last but not least… he’s really bad at English. He would actually speak to me in Japanese instead of English most of the time, and my Japanese sucked so it’s really telling that communication was smoother that way. His lessons were riddled with mistakes to the extent that I wouldn’t have known where to begin correcting them. And his teaching style was horrendous. Here are some examples.

At the beginning of every class, Mr I would put on an English language song. Of course, his choices were always daggy and ancient. Examples: “Top of the World” (The Carpenters) and “All I want for Christmas is You” (Mariah Carey). (I will not provide links! Count yourself lucky if you’ve never heard them!) He handed out the lyrics and made us all sing along (/shudder), but even though we were doing the same song every lesson for weeks, he never actually taught them what the song meant! There was no discussion at all of the lyrics, no translation, no summary, not even help with reading and pronunciation. Did he actually not notice that he was the only one in the room singing? Who knows!

This is a dialogue from the textbook that we had to teach.

After teaching it, he tested the students’ comprehension with some questions. Here’s one of them: “Does Yuki like her sweater?” Answer: “No.” … D:

But wait, there’s more! Yuki’s story continues over the page…

This time, to check their understanding Mr I made some True/False statements. Here’s one: “Americans always say nice things to each other.” Answer: “True.” I tried not to laugh but it was hard.

The thing is, this really needn’t have happened. Mr T is actually not terrific at English either, but he can recognise his own limits so he used to get me to make up 3-5 True/False statements for every dialogue. It’s harder than you’d think to come up with questions that are actually challenging from such a short dialogue, but I was actually quite good at it, if I do say so myself. Using your ALT for this sort of thing is exactly what team-teaching is about, but Mr I really didn’t get it. Guess what sort of things he did use me for though… Well, one time when he was teaching the word “encouraging” he got me to say it for the students 5 times in a row as fast as I could! … …yeah.

Which brings me to another one of his crazy teaching techniques. I can only guess he felt that speed (however unnaturally fast) is what makes you good at English, because after “teaching” them the dialogue from the textbook (read: getting them to repeat it after me a few times) he would “consolidate” it by getting them to stand up and, all at once, read it out loud as fast as they could and then sit down. The first to sit down “wins”.

OK here’s one last example. Mr I was telling the kids one day about how westerners appear older (for their age) compared to Japanese people. Why he felt compelled to teach them this offensive stereotype, I really don’t know. But he told his (14-year-old) students that if they were to meet an American their age, they would think the kid was 20 years old. And conversely an American would think they were 10. And as if saying all this in front of me wasn’t a big enough insult, he went on to give the example that when he had first met me he’d thought I was 30! (I was 27.) Thank you.

I felt really bad for all the students that got stuck with him. They were much too well-behaved to ever complain, but I could tell they hated his classes as much as I did. And if they learned anything at all that semester, it could only be due to their own merit.

Anwyay, it’s a shame that teachers like him exist, but as I said they weren’t all this bad. Next time I’ll write about some of the good stuff that went on at my school…


As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, Alan and I have fled Japan and are now safely back in Australia. So what happened?

On Monday 14th March (3 days after the earthquake), the trains were all down at Omiya station (which is the 3rd largest station in Japan, by the way, so that was a big deal in itself) so Alan and I couldn’t go to work. Instead, we stayed at home all day watching the Japanese news and reading the international news, and consulting with friends and family back in Australia. We were scared enough by the worsening situation at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima that we went to see our bosses to tell them we were leaving. I think the idea in our heads at the time was that we could escape back to Sydney for 2 or 3 weeks, and come back once the reactors were under control and things had calmed down a bit. With the option, of course, of not returning at all if the situation got out of control and dangerous.

I should explain here the way things stood with our jobs. At that time, there were only 2 weeks left of the school year, so classes were winding up anyway. After that, the students and teachers have a 2 week holiday before the new school year starts (on April 8th). So we could give Japan up to 4 weeks to prove to us that it was habitable. Predictably, our bosses did everything they could to try to convince us not to leave. They said we were far enough away not to be at risk no matter what happened, and that the situation at Fukushima was under control. They also said that if we left now we would lose their trust and most likely will not be welcome back. Alan and I took this all on board and, after a discussion over Ventrillo with some of our cannier friends back in Sydney we decided the risk wasn’t high enough yet to throw away everything we’d worked so hard to set up in Japan.

The next day was the graduation ceremony for my 3rd grade students. Ceremonies like this are a big deal in Japan. They had already spent a couple of days practising for it. For this reason, and because I knew it would be my very last chance the see my 3rd years, I made a big effort to get there, in spite of transport problems. But checking the news at work after the ceremony was over, I found out that reactor #2 had exploded. Reactors #1 and #3 had both had explosions over the weekend, but the reactor vessels were still intact so there was no radioactivity leak. But this time, there was a dramatic increase in radioactivity, indicating that the containment vessel had been breached.

Fortunately I had no classes for the rest of the day, so I spent the afternoon reading international news reports. This is when I read that radiation levels in Saitama (where I live and work) were now 40 times the normal level. Alan and I were on the phone to each other a lot while we were at work that day to keep up-to-date, and so I heard that his school had been sent an emergency safety notice from the Board of Education telling them that even though there was nothing to worry about, they should avoid letting the kids outside for the time being (!!!). His school was also receiving calls from panicked parents asking if they should come to pick up their kids. My school hadn’t heard anything along these lines (that I know of), so I told another teacher who then told the principal. He said it was an overreaction and our school wouldn’t do anything like that.

By this time, Alan and I had made our decision. He called our bosses and quit on the spot. I contacted our travel agent in Australia to get flights home ASAP. And then I only had half an hour to say a stealthy farewell (stealthy because I hadn’t told the principal yet) to the English teachers that I worked with.

That was really the worst. For one thing, they were all so incredibly surprised. They didn’t know that I had even been considering leaving, so it was really sudden. And I think they couldn’t really understand why I was leaving. I think the general feeling amongst the teachers at my school was that the problem was serious and terrible, but also far away and very unlikely to affect them. So I think they couldn’t really see the need for me to leave, and certainly not so suddenly. And of course, Japan is their home. So I think they felt that if something bad was going to happen, then it would just happen and there was nothing they could do about it. I guess I can understand that (although I would still consider taking a holiday to southern Japan if I was them), but I’m not Japanese. I had somewhere I could run to.

Alan ended up having to stay in Japan a couple of days longer than me because I had bought a return flight (for visa purposes) and only had to change the date, whereas he had to buy a ticket from scratch and it would have cost over $5000 (!) to get the same flight as me.

So we packed as much as we could into our luggage, posted a few boxes off to Australia, and (with heavy hearts) threw a whole lot of stuff in the dumpster. This was all the stuff that we didn’t love quite enough (like my work shoes that were a bit too big), bulky items (like our fold-out table and the futon) and stuff you can get back in Aus (like the iron). We also had to abandon our bicycles (T_T). Of course, we had known all along that we’d have to abandon all this stuff eventually, but we spent a lot of money setting ourselves up in Japan because we thought we’d be there for a couple of years. The investment is much less sensible when you’re only there for 6 months!

On top of these hassles, Alan had to take care of the mundane stuff like settling things with the utilities companies and cleaning the apartment for inspection. Of course, the real estate company we rented from charged us every fee they could think up (2 months rent plus cleaning – about 200,000 yen (more than $2000) all up).

The final time we went in to our company to tie up the loose ends they were generally pretty helpful (although one of the Americans that we had liked was clearly furious at us). They got me to write a letter to my teachers and another one to the students. I’m sure they will censor them though. I only alluded to my reason for leaving in my letter to the students, but the bosses might think even that is too much. After all, those kids have to stay in Saitama so they might freak out if they knew I was leaving because I didn’t think it was safe! I understand that, but I’m still sad to think that my students will think I left for no reason. Maybe they think I didn’t care enough to say goodbye 😦

My biggest regret about leaving the way we did is leaving my students, especially without a chance to say goodbye. A lot of them were really awesome. I was especially fond of my 2nd year students. Those classes were split in two so I only taught 20 students at a time, and consequently got to know the students pretty well. I hate to think that they might think they weren’t important to me, because they (especially my favourite students: Akashi, Ookahata, Morita, Hakuri, Yoshida, Sakai, Isobe, Sate and Sudo) were a big part of why I loved my time in Japan so much.

Anyway, that was that. I left the country only about 30 hours after we made the snap decision to flee. I don’t regret the decision to leave. We had said we would leave if things got worse, and they got worse. In fact in the week that followed, the situation got progressively worse and worse, and every moment I felt more justified in my decision. But at the time it wasn’t easy, particularly with all the Japanese people around us telling us we were being paranoid and overreacting.

I still feel pretty down when I think about everything we left behind. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve lost something I can never get back. I had a really good relationship with each of my English teachers, and I still can’t believe I’ll never see most of them again. Saying goodbye to my two favourite teachers was distressing. In one case because he had tears in his eyes, and the other because the last expression I saw on his face was… I don’t know… disapproving? And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Shimizu-sensei 😦

Anway, that’s the whole story. I’ll write later about what we’re thinking of doing next. But one way or another I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back to Japan in the future.

oh my got

In Japan, there are three terms in a school year. At my school, the students have mid-term exams and final exams every term (so, six exam periods a year). This week we had final exams, so I spent a bunch of time marking papers. The 3rd year students were asked to write a 5-sentence paragraph about one of the following topics: the school trip, club activities, the sports carnival or the choral festival. I just have to share this student’s answer because it made me LOL:

Hello! I’m [edit]. I like school trip. I like bolling. I like sukiyake. oh my got. egg!! egg!! egg!! I like “shimauta”. Do you like okinawa music? Oh yes. why? why? I like Harry Potter. Harry is so cool. I like Harmeryoni. see you. no time no see.

… continue reading this entry.


We’ve decided to write in a blog for our time in Japan so that we have (i) a record of all our experiences, (b) a forum for discussing the interesting stuff (and whining about the lame stuff) and (3) an easy way of keeping in contact with all our peeps back in Australia.

I’ve been pretty exhausted since I arrived in Japan just over 2 months ago. I had to go straight into frantic job hunting and interviews, and ended up having my first day of work only 2 and a half weeks after arriving!

Of course, I’m really relieved that we got jobs at all. The school year starts in April here so we didn’t come at the best time of year, but that couldn’t be helped.

The job I ended up taking is an Assistant Langage Teacher (ALT) position in a small town in Saitama prefecture. For those who don’t know, Saitama is the prefecture directly North of Tokyo. Confusingly, Saitama is also the name of the capital city in Saitama prefecture. From Saitama city (which is where we’re currently living) to the centre of Tokyo is about a 30 minute train ride.

We looked at apartments in a few different areas in Saitama, but ended up choosing Omiya because the vibe is really similar to Tokyo. I'll put up some photos of our side of the station later.

I’m working at a Junior High School, so the kids are about 12 to 14 years old. My working hours are 8:20 to 4:20 Monday to Friday. There are 6 periods in a day and I usually teach for 4 or 5 of them, although recently there have been plenty of disruptions to the normal schedule and I’ve often ended up with very little to do all day (yay!).

All schools look practicaly identical in Japan, but this is mine 🙂 And, y'know, some students and stuff.

So what do I do in my free periods? I usually study Japanese, because I feel like I can at least vaguely categorise it as “work” (as opposed to playing Plants vs Zombies on my ipod, for example). Occasionally I also have actual work to do, like marking or helping students with their English speeches for interschool contests.

But basically I feel that my job is pretty breezy. Inside the classroom the Japanese English teacher (JTE) leads the class and I “assist”. That means I read dialogues with the teacher, demonstrate pronunciation of new vocab, lead games and that sort of thing. I rarely have a class that requires me to do any preparation. The exception, of course, was my first lesson with each class where I had to do a self-introduction (じこしょうかい).

All in all I’m pretty happy with my job. I’ve certainly got it much easier than Alan, who’s at an Elementray School and has a much bigger workload.

Now if they would just pay us already…