Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.

Japanese School Life as an ALT

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I’ve spent a lot of time blogging about life in Japan and my experiences with cultural differences, but I realised that I haven’t really written about what I actually do when I’m at school.  I’ve heard many JETs complain about how being an ALT isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  While I agree that the JET Programme could really do with some improvements regarding how ALTs are utilised at school, on the whole my teaching experience has been a positive one.  In this post I’m going to give you a little insight into what happens at my three junior high schools.

My Tuesday school is the closest to home, a five-minute drive away.  The first years are my favourite class, whom I teach in the morning, and I go to class a little early so that we can chat together.  They’re all really adorable and friendly, and one of the few classes whose students actually come to the front to talk to me before we start the lesson!  One of the boys loves talking about eating meat and tries to use it in an answer wherever possible, which always makes me laugh.  Sometimes I bring in my Mudkip toy (known in Japan as Mizugoro) to throw at the kids to get them to answer questions.  Every morning they run to my desk to see if I’ve brought him!

“Mizugoro”

I get free rein to do whatever activities I like at this school, as long as they correspond with the grammar they’re currently learning in the textbook.  The 2nd and 3rd years finished their books weeks ago, so I’ve been experimenting with different games for general English review.  I’m trying to be more ambitious with my activities, so I made a Mario Kart game which we played last week.  I cut out Mario characters for each team to choose, and made a variety of cards using items from the video game like Red Mushroom, Blue Shell and Banana Peel.  The teams who wrote the right answer on their whiteboards had to janken (rock paper scissors) for a special card.  It was a lot of fun, and refreshing to do something that didn’t involve worksheets for a change.  The last round ended in the most intense Mexican standoff game of janken I’d ever witnessed, with the remaining boys screaming ROCK PAPER SCISSORS at each other and launching their fists into the ring like they were cracking whips.  It ended with the leading team scoring a Red Mushroom (least desirable special card) and getting one extra roll of the dice, which only gave them a 1.  The game finished with them landing on the last space before the finish line which had the whole class in hysterics.  Definitely one of my best lessons!!

My Wednesday school is an hour’s drive away and the smallest with a total of 38 students.  The students here are by far my favourites!  The classes are so tiny and the whole school is like a family.  In fact all my schools are like that; seeing such tightly-knit school communities is really lovely.  There is absolutely no bullying and everyone is friends with everyone.  Coming from a big high school where random kids would insult each other as they crossed in the corridors, it really amazes me how the size of a school can impact student relationships.  Even the low-level kids don’t get picked on like they would’ve been at my school.  But my Wednesday kids are my favourites just because they’re all hilarious and really energetic.  They get to work on my activities with such enthusiasm and always laugh at my stupid jokes and drawings.  One of the 3rd years is seriously amazing at English.  He is one of my regular letter-writers (I have a box at each school) and the other day he wrote something along the lines of “…I wanted to ask you something but I forgot.  Sorry, I’m getting all confused.”  And I was like… where did he learn that?!  Everyone else can just about say which sport they like best.  I also like these kids because even though they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have a lot of entertainment available to them, they have awesome personalities and ambitions.

I like the teachers at my Friday school the most.  I sit next to a teacher who’s about my age and has similar interests to me, so she’s really fun to talk to.  I feel more like I’m part of the gang at this school, as I’ve been to more social events with the teachers here and I feel like I know them quite well.  One of the teachers invited me to her wedding reception dinner (not the ceremony, which happened a few months earlier) and asked me to play the piano.  Even though I didn’t actually play on the day because they all thought my arm was still bad and didn’t bring a proper keyboard, she asked me to play for her after school the next week.  Some other teachers and students came to watch too, so I was rather nervous… the music teacher made me come out of a little side door like it was a proper performance, which I hadn’t done since my recitals at university!

My Friday JTE used to be my least favourite, as we got off on the wrong foot on my first day when I wore a pencil skirt that was too businessy and not schooly enough, and she was pretty cold to me for a while.  But since then I’ve managed to win her over and I have a better relationship with her than my other JTEs.  Back in November she did a lesson on Skype with my dad, which I couldn’t actually do because I’d broken my arm the day before and was sitting in hospital haha.  I took some pictures of the students’ work though which is really sweet/hilarious/scarily realistic/a bit Walter White.

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“We talked to Ms. Ellen’s father who’s in the UK!”

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I really enjoy teaching at these schools and although it’s not something I want to do as a career, I can see why so many people want to be teachers.  For me there are two things that make this job special: the first is when a student calls my name for help.  The feeling of being wanted, of sharing your knowledge even if it’s just how to spell a word, of hearing someone tell you that they understand now because you helped them is a deeply satisfying thing.  The second is the letters that I receive from students.  When I get 30 letters at once all asking me if I know about some kind of video game, I know the teacher has asked them to write to me.  I enjoy reading them, but replying with almost the same answer 30 times in a row gets a bit boring… The ones from students who send them because they actually want to talk to me are the best ones.  Even though they’re usually all in Japanese, I always reply in English.  I’ve had a few portraits done too!!

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I covered all my letter boxes in old Beano comics.  On this one I made sure the Bash Street Kids were on the front!

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*AOL voice* “You’ve got mail!”

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School lunches (kyuushoku) here aren’t bad either.  Most Japanese schools don’t have a canteen, so all the students eat their lunch in their homeroom classroom.  Lunch typically consists of some kind of soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables or salad, fish or meat and a carton of milk (which I never drink).  90% of the time it’s really good!  10% of the time I might get something pretty horrible like a gristly slice of pork covered in oil, or soggy takoyaki.

Standard Kyuushoku (not my photo)

I’m never deprived of snacks either.  Once or twice a week, I’ll be presented with some kind of Japanese sweet as a souvenir of another teacher’s travels.  I like this tradition of bringing tasty local delicacies to the office until I go travelling and it’s my turn to haul numerous boxes of them back for the teachers.

So these are the best things about teaching in Japan.  Of course there are plenty of negatives, many of which I agree with.  I used to find having so many free hours boring, but since I’ve really got into studying Japanese again and putting extra effort into making fun lesson plans, the days go by at an alarming rate!  I’ve heard quite a few stories of why JET is a waste of time, and it may not be something I want to do forever, but I’m only going to focus on the positives for the rest of my time here.  Sometimes it’s far easier to complain about things than appreciate what’s good, and complaining about something only makes me hate it more.  Nearly seven months have passed now and I’m well out of the settling-in phase, so for the next year and a half I’m going to make everything I do count!  With this in mind, I went for a walk during my lunch break in the beautiful sunshine, posted some letters, and finally visited the little cake shop I’ve passed so many times.  The lady only stared at me at first as I browsed the selection of madeleines and manju, but then she smiled warmly and we struck up a conversation.  I’ve made a new resolution to visit more of the little shops and restaurants in my town, even if I am terrified of eating alone and getting stared at by a load of fisherman.  I’m used to it now…

8 thoughts on “Japanese School Life as an ALT

  1. Really good read about your schooldays and your efforts to make them fun! Some very handsome portraits too.

  2. Sounds like great fun! Paper, scissors sounds like it got them up for a challenge! Loved the portrait of you. Dad looks hilarious. X

  3. Lucky pupils having such fun lessons. Great read and love the pictures. x

  4. “Sometimes it’s far easier to complain about things than appreciate what’s good, and complaining about something only makes me hate it more.” I couldn’t agree more! Having a positive JET experience is all about attitude.

    • I completely agree with you, Meg.

      I am an incoming JET this year (haven’t found out my placement yet), but I am determined to tackle everything with a positive attitude, to make the most of the experience. 😀

  5. Thanks for this post.

    Although I don’t know where I am going, as yet, I am an incoming JET this year, and really looking forward to sinking my teeth into the experience. I’ve heard often that there is long periods of down time. However, like you, I am intending to use this time to study up my Japanese, or lesson plan.

    I am glad to see that you have mostly positive experiences from all of your schools, and I am going to endeavour to highlight the positives over on my own blog. 😀

    • I’m glad you liked it! And congratulations on your acceptance!! You’re gonna have an amazing time, 99% of the time 😉
      Yeah the down time definitely gets to you if you don’t use it properly. It sounds like luxury at first but it’s surprising how slow time passes if you’re not being productive.
      Looking forward to hearing about your experiences 😀

      • Haha! Yeah, I tend to be a pretty busy person. I currently work two jobs that has me working anywhere between 40-60 hours a week, depending on one of my jobs (which is at a theatre).

        Learning Japanese is at the top of my list of things to do, and I feel it will be much easier to do, being immersed in the culture. 😀

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