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Monday, August 3, 2015

9 Reasons I Loved or Hated Being an English Teacher in Japan

As of Friday I am officially an ex-Assistant Language Teacher. It's a weird feeling to think about how I will never again walk the halls of a Japanese public high school, and maybe even never walk the halls of a school ever again. I was an ALT for four years, and in those four years I taught in three different locations at over 15 different schools. I have taught toddlers and I have taught teenagers. I've run classes by myself and stood in the back for 50 minutes doing nothing but trying to stay awake. I think I have a pretty well-rounded grasp of the process of being an English teacher overseas, so I wanted to share what I consider the best and worst parts of the job.

The Students Constantly Compliment You

I wasn't born with a huge ego, I don't think I am awesome, beautiful, or too witty. Most of my humor and jokes comes from the awkward moments that pepper my life and I have struggled with body image for most of my life. Being an ALT in Japan, however, has really, really given me a lot in terms of self-confidence.

When I started teaching at 22 I was always the youngest teacher around, and even at 26 I am still really young and often the youngest teacher in the school. Add this to the fact that I am extremely pale with blue eyes and curly hair and Japanese girls fawn all over me. The secretive whispers of "wow, look at how blue Kaley's eyes are" and "she's so white" definitely are nice ego boosts.

Confessions of love from boys is common, I change my usual hairstyle and it is met with choruses of "oh how cute!" all day long. I wear contacts after weeks of glasses and it's like I'm a supermodel. My name sounds very similar to Katy Perry, so I am often compared to the gorgeous singer since we're both similar in complexion and eyes.

X There's Often A Lot Of Downtime

Now, this one varies a lot based on your location and how many schools you have. The more schools you have, the less downtime you will have. But in my experience you generally have at least one or two hours a day with no classes scheduled, and once you get the hang of making lessons and preparing supplies for those lessons you realize how much free time you have. My ability to read over 50 books in a year is largely due to just how much I am not doing anything, at all, at work.

Elementary school is generally busier, as you're the full teacher 9 times out of 10 and there's just more elementary schools so you are likely to have more schools. And the lessons are usually very high energy and take a lot out of you. Junior high, on the other hand, is usually way more low-key. What you do is largely dependent on what the Japanese teacher who teaches the class wants you to do. You'll have teachers that want you to teacher full lessons, you'll have teachers who want you to do half, you'll have teachers that just want you to read from the textbook and stand in the back most of the class.

I personally prefer the more demanding and busy elementary school over the more relaxed junior high school. I don't enjoy having hours a day with nothing to do. I had schools where I was at 40 hours a week and only did 8 hours of actual demanding work a day (actively teaching or preparing lessons). The rest was spent sitting at my desk or twiddling my thumbs in class.

♡ You Get to Try Many New Foods

If you choose to eat school lunch (and you really should!) you'll be exposed to a lot of new foods that you likely wouldn't eat otherwise. I learned about so many new foods that I now love. I've posted before about my weird food anxiety, and Japanese school lunches really helped me in overcoming a lot of my anxiety issues.

While the lunches are generally very high in carbs, the dishes are usually interesting. Now, this largely depends on your school lunch centers. I've lived in places with VERY redundant menus (miso soup three days a week with fish!) and I've changed schools so often in a week that I've had four days of noodles in a row since Japanese school lunches are generally designed with one day of noodles, one day of bread, and three of rice in a week.

X Eating With Students in Junior High

Okay, I know I just said school lunch was awesome but the experience of eating with students is often very... depressing. Especially with junior high schoolers. In an effort to provide more interaction time with students the Board of Education has this great idea to make the ALTs eat with students. Students eat lunch in their classroom with the homeroom teacher, and the teachers without homerooms eat in the staff room. I've actually had a school or two where the extra teachers eat with classes, but usually the ALT is the only teacher forced to sit within a group of students and eat alongside them. 

Younger kids usually like this, but the older ones view your presence as an intrusion. If you're the type of person to just push through the awkward "what do I do with this foreigner sitting here?" vibes from students and force them to talk to you, this won't apply to you. I'm not this person. I've even had a boy I was supposed to sit next to refuse to sit next to me because I am foreign and sit at the front next to the homeroom teacher to get away from me, and the next time I was in the class and seated by him he forced a friend to eat next to me.

Usually it's just silence. I sit there and try to eat as much as I can in 15 minutes and the students try to convince each other to talk to me. If I eat in the staff room, which has happened at some schools, I get a relaxing thirty minutes to eat my lunch and relax. I much prefer the latter.

♡ Your Japanese Listening Skills Will Get Really Good

Since everyone at school speaks Japanese at a native level around you all day, you'll quickly learn how to listen to Japanese conversations really well. You can just sit at your desk and listen to conversations around you during your free time and learn a lot of very handy Japanese.

If you're doing nothing in a class and the teacher is explaining grammar, you can learn too! I did this often just standing in the back and paying attention to the grammar lesson, trying to make sense of the language from a backwards perspective. I'd even grab an extra worksheet the kids were doing and write along with it.

You can also learn kanji by just looking around the room and seeing what they are using, as it's usually pretty basic. 

X You're Often Not Taken Seriously

Since you're a teacher with very little responsibility it's very common for no one to really take you seriously. You'll be out of the loop for many things and you'll have very little control over how things are taught. You're told what to do and you do it how they ask. While some teachers may value your input as a foreigner with a different perspective, most will just want you to do what they ask of you.

This is also a good thing, because you'll have lower expectations for things and can easily feign ignorance in many situations. They don't expect a lot of you so your responsibilities are low. While this is great for a while it leads to the job not feeling very serious, as there's really very little motivation to be better at it unless it all comes from within yourself, and at times the job can be very unrewarding because you'll get very little praise or feedback on your performance. If you work for a contracting company the schools are literally prevented by law to give your company any sort of feedback on your performance at work. Yeah, they can complain about you but they can't actually say anything productive to what you do.

This fact leads to your job seeming very unimportant in the grand scheme of things to most people, I've found. Unless you have that great self-motivation to be good, you won't be. You have to want to make good lessons and that's what ultimately makes someone good at this job. And it just got to the point with me that I no longer had that motivation, which is why I quit!

♡ You Get to See the "Real" Japan

By being an ALT you are actually in a Japanese public school. Almost every Japanese person went through this system and you become very aware of a lot of things that make Japan what it is. You get to see Japanese people in their natural environment, and not out in public or in a specific setting geared towards foreigners.

I studied Japanese culture in college and I really enjoyed just being able to ask questions about certain things and learn about how a Japanese school works. It's very different from American schools and made a lot of aspects of Japanese culture make sense to me. I learned to appreciate things that had frustrated me in the beginning.

X You Will Just Be An "ALT"

In the staff room I rarely heard teachers refer to me by my name, usually I was just referred to as "ALT". "The ALT is leaving early today" or "The ALT is eating lunch with this class". My shoebox in the school entry is rarely labeled with my name, but just "ALT" whereas all the other teachers have a name there. 

On the program for the closing ceremony at my school nearly two weeks back it just said "ALT" next to the goodbye speech section whereas every other teacher had their name written. I'm sure this isn't meant as a slight to me, but it's insanely frustrating to be nothing but those three letters to people you work with on a daily basis. I was at these schools every day for months as well, so it wasn't like I wasn't a permanent fixture. 

X Teachers are Usually Afraid to Approach You

Since most teachers have very little grasp of English conversation they are nervous to talk to you. This is understandable. They don't not want to talk to you, and I've never been treated poorly by a teacher. Whenever I do add something to a conversation it is usually very encouraged, it's just hard because teachers often won't go out of their way to approach you.

On the other hand those teachers who do enjoy English will be all over you, but those are few and far between. Older ladies are generally the nicest, whereas older men want nothing to do with you. At least if you're a female. I imagine if you're a guy it's opposite.

This can often lead to you feeling lonely when everyone is talking and you're just sitting there hoping to understand Japanese to say something. Teachers are also often very busy so it may be hard to find the time to approach a teacher. Out of all the "bad" issues on this list, this is probably the least bad, but some people may not like the isolation of being the only person not included in things.

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