Travel Magazine

The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan

By Cubiclethrowdown

It’s been both the fastest and the slowest six months of my life. I can’t believe I’ve been teaching as a JET Programme ALT in Japan for just over six months now.

The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan

Some days I really feel like I’ve been in the classroom every day for three hundred years (usually, that feeling is on a Friday). Some days I feel like it’s still my first day and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

But mostly…. mostly it’s been fine.

I thought it might be a good idea to collect my thoughts and advice from the first six months while it’s still fresh in my head. I know before I came on the JET Programme that I scoured JET blogs for info about daily life. This isn’t a “JET blog” exactly, but I am on JET and can hopefully provide a little insight for incoming JETs or ALTs, and a “me too!” for current ones.

Massive post incoming – you’ve been warned!

How People Treat Me at School

All the teachers have been wonderful to me. All the elementary students are so, so sweet. The junior high kids are a different story, but that’s not unique to Japan. After few months in here after getting discouraged with my rowdy students, I messaged my 7th grade teacher on Facebook and apologized to him for being such an asshole when I was 13. He was gracious about it, but I know the truth. I was a little shit, just like 13 year olds around the world, and now karma has come around to me for it! In a world where so many people love to find differences between people, I can assure you that 7th-9th graders in Japan are just like their North American counterparts.

Proof of adorable elementary schools: my 3rd graders threw me a surprise birthday party. They sang me Happy Birthday in English, and gave me cards and origami that they made. I just about died from cuteness overload. It was the best.

The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan
The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan

I wish I could show you photos with the kids, but posting photos of kids faces online is a huge no-no in Japan. That’s why on my social media they’re always blurred out or have emojis over them!

My supervisor was very nice. Well he is very nice, but he’s also not my supervisor anymore. Teachers in the Japanese school system get shuffled by the Board of Education every few years, so they change schools (and even towns/cities within the prefecture) with less than two weeks notice at the end of the school year. So at the end of March I found out a bunch of my teachers changed, and so did my supervisor. It’s a tough system to get used to, because I had to sign my new August to August contract in January. So I signed saying I would stay until August 2018 without knowing who my teachers or supervisor would be. It’s a gamble and it’s annoying that we aren’t on the the April to April system like the teachers are.

How People Treat Me in My Town

People in my town are generally a bit bewildered by the ALTs here. There aren’t a lot of foreigners around so we really stand out. It’s tough sometimes. I’m pretty “I don’t care what people think” and all that, but having people stare at me constantly like I’m a zoo animal, and make disparaging comments about my tattoos and weight does get to me sometimes. And I swear to god, if people don’t stop coming over in the grocery store to peer at what’s in my cart…

Honestly though, it could be worse. And most people around town and in businesses have been incredibly kind when trying to deal with me and my shitty Japanese. I also think I could kick anyone’s ass at charades now since all I do is wildly gesture every day. We somehow make it work and get it done with a smile and sometimes confused shrugs. People are usually much nicer here than North Americans are to foreigners struggling with a language barrier.

How the Actual Teaching is Going

It’s both better and worse than I expected.

On one hand, I have very low expectations put on me at kindergarten, elementary school and junior high (I don’t teach senior high). I am not expected to plan lessons – the teachers do it at junior high, and the teachers at elementary school just use lesson plans created years ago by the university here. I am not expected to plan activities – they’re already set out in the lesson plan. I even have an English Support Teacher with me at some of my elementary schools who prepares all the materials for the lesson, helps me run the class, and translates for me with the teachers and students. I just show up, act like a clown, try to do the activities on the lesson plan, make the kids laugh and try to cajole them into shouting in English instead of Japanese. In junior high, I get along really well with the two English teachers I have there. My only big obligations there are writing back to students who write in English in their daily school diary, and a rotating English board for both 8th grade classrooms each month.

Thankfully, my schools love me. Like really love me. I got stellar 3 month reviews. Which is great, except they want me to go to ALL THE CLASSES ALL THE TIME. Most of my coworkers have a significant amount of ‘desk-warming’ (ie. free periods at school where you just sit at your desk in the teachers room) and I have almost none. I don’t have to prepare anything for classes (thank god) but I wouldn’t be able to if they asked. I rarely have a free period at school, and it’s exhausting jumping around like a monkey all day and having to do the Hokey Pokey 22 times. Don’t even get me started on the elementary school classrooms in summer with no A/C (thankfully my junior high has them, but I don’t have to do the Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes dance there).

About the School Lunches

Guys, I don’t know why ALTs make such a big deal about the food. IT’S FINE. There’s a soup. There’s some kind of meat or fish. Then there is some kind of vegetable, usually mixed up with other stuff in a “salad”. And always rice or bread. It’s cheap (like $3) and I don’t have to worry about packing a lunch or finding somewhere to eat. It’s not always my favorite, but it’s convenient. If it’s a really weird lunch day (like fried pregnant fish day) you can use it as a conversation point with the kids.

You also get milk with school lunch but I don’t do dairy so I get a lunch without milk. This is one of the only accommodations they make. If you’re vegan, vegetarian, halal, gluten-free or have crazy allergies (especially to seafood), you might be out of luck and have to bring lunch – if you do, you can’t eat with the kids. I have one 2nd grader with an extreme milk allergy, and his mom makes his lunch and matches the food on the school lunch menu every single day so that he can still eat with the other kids. #dedication

It’s fun to ask the kids about what they do and don’t like in the lunch. Lots of kids have food preferences (of course) but they eat things without complaining even if they don’t like it. Coming from North America, it’s a fresh take compared to all the special little snowflakes we have there.

The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan
The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan
The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan

That being said, I don’t love eating with the kids. There. I said it.

I put out a lot of energy at school in my classes. I would rather have a break and eat my lunch by myself in the teachers room. I don’t like that I’m forced to eat with the kids every single day in elementary school and junior high. Most ALTs in my town don’t eat with junior high students but we all eat with elementary students. We are supposed to get a lunch break for an hour each day, but that doesn’t happen. (This is the only thing I’m jealous of senior high ALTs about…they never have to eat with students.)

The lower grades (1-4) are pretty cute and like to ask a lot of questions. When I don’t have my English Support Teacher with me I just guess what they’re saying or sing a song instead or make a funny face or try to get them to give me a high five. I don’t speak Japanese well enough yet to talk to them and the homeroom teachers usually can’t speak any English. It’s super draining for me but I just try to make my way through it.

In grades 5 and 6 the students start getting too cool to talk to the ALT which is fine but it’s pretty awkward to eat in silence. And in junior high it’s a nightmare. It’s like pulling teeth. I’ve been specifically instructed NOT to speak any Japanese to the junior high students and it’s really tough to get past “What color/food/animal/sport do you like?” questions because in 7th grade they can’t really say much else. Students don’t even learn the past tense until the last month of grade 7, so for all of their first year of junior high I can’t ask them about anything that happened prior to that day. It’s a struggle and most kids don’t want to speak English at lunch. They want to talk to their friends or read a book. I don’t blame them, I want a break too. I asked if I could bring my lunch next year (if you bring a lunch you can’t eat with the kids, because Japan… EVERYONE MUST BE THE SAME…) but I got a firm no.

How My Japanese is Coming Along

Short version: not that well, but I can get around okay.

Long version: I actually get very little opportunity to speak Japanese, believe it or not. I don’t have much time at school to sit around and have small talk with teachers, and to be honest most of them are too busy to talk to me anyway. I say my big ohayo gozaimasu when I come in, and my osaki ni shitsurei shimasu when I leave, but other than that I speak English. If I’m in class, or speaking to students, I’m required to speak in English. If I’m at the Board of Education, the other ALTs and my supervisor always speak in English. I only use Japanese if I’m out running errands (ie. groceries or the bank) or I’m visiting somewhere (ie. train stations, entrance fee gates, restaurants, hotels, etc.)

My town has university students that put on a free Japanese class for the ALTs, but I stopped going after a couple months. It was not working out for me. The class schedule was too sporadic to keep me motivated,  and the teachers struggled to teach such a group at such varying levels. It’s not their fault – I have trouble with this at school too! They split us into beginner and advanced classes, but my beginner class with two of my coworkers was still too tough since we are all at such different levels. The class was always either way too easy for me or too far above my head.

Since then, I’ve been working through the Genki textbook and workbook at my own pace, but it’s going slowly. This book is designed to be used in university classes with a language lab, which means there’s no answer key in the books! It’s not really for self-study, though I’m doing okay so far. Photos below are Amazon links for textbook and workbook. (Heads up: they’re affiliate links, which you can use to shop at no extra cost to you, and I receive a small commission.)

The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan
The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan

Now I’m looking for a professional online tutor. I think I will be able to make big strides with a 1-on-1 instructor who has a lot of experience teaching Japanese as a foreign language. I’m quite good at learning foreign languages and I have a good base with Japanese already. I can read and write in hiragana and katakana, and I can read about 40-50 common kanji. Most of the basic grammar I understand already. So I just need someone who can move at my pace and focus on useful Japanese for my life here.

Let me know in the comments below if you have any online language tutor recommendations. I’m looking for a live person, not Duolingo or Anki-style programs – I’m already using stuff like that. I need a live, professionally trained person to talk to – that’s my learning style.

Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before I Arrived

I read TONS of blogs/websites and watched YouTube videos about the JET Programme and working as an ALT before I came here, and there’s still stuff I wish I would have known. I started writing this section and it turned into a huge list, so I’m turning it into its own post. For now, let me leave you with this gem: many older schools don’t have changing rooms for students, so they wear their gym clothes under their school uniform. Don’t panic if they start stripping in front of you!

How I Feel About the Next Six Months

I’m pretty happy with the amount of free time and traveling I get to do. My schools are cruising along for the most part. I hope my Japanese will improve by the time I’ve been here a year. I learn something new every day here and I like that. Overall, I’m giving the first six months an A- and I hope the next six months are more of the same. I’m still happy I came here on this program and I’m happy I recontracted for another year. When I came, I thought I would try to stay the full five years but I’m now leaning more towards three years, but we’ll see how it goes. I’m still surprisingly quite homesick for Roatan and it would be great if that toned down over the next six months. My goals for the next six months are to lose the weight I gained here, to get to the N5 level of Japanese and to take up a Japanese hobby – I’ve been trying to find a taiko (drumming) group that will take me, but I’m running into problems with the language barrier so far. I got to try ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) last week and I loved it, so I might do that again.

The First Six Months as a JET ALT in Japan

So, that’s my massive recap of the first six months! Hopefully I’ll be wiser by the one-year mark


Want more Cubicle Throwdown in your life? Of course you do, you rockstar. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, G+ and Pinterest, if you like. You can also add me to your Bloglovin’ feed, or email me! If social media is not your jam and you just want my posts straight to your inbox, check out the sidebar and put your email address in the “Never Miss A Post” box. No newsletters or spam, just my posts – scouts honor. xo!

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