5 Biggest Complaints Working As An ALT Teaching English in Japan
If you’re reading this, odds are that you want to be an English teacher in Japan and are looking for advice and experiences... Good for you! It's definitely a rewarding job (though I wouldn't say it's a career) and it's a great growing experience.
No matter how much I complain about it, I look back on my teaching days fondly. However, it's not all rainbows and cupcakes and sparkles. There are definitely a lot of things that are fundamentally wrong with the system, but that’s another post entirely...
Rather than talking about why the ALT and native English speaker programs are flawed concepts, I'm going to talk about my biggest complaints when it comes to teaching. These are personal grievances that I’ve come across that are extremely irritating.
You may read about these and think that it’s no big deal. If that’s the case, then great! You’ll probably be facing these problems too, so if they don’t bother you then it’ll make your job a lot easier! Read about my five biggest complaints working as an English teacher in Japan and see if any of them would bother you.
1. Schedule changes
This problem depends on your school and your contract type. Your JTE / Eigo Tanto may be on top of things and get you a schedule weeks in advance. But most likely, they’re going to be busy with other school things (especially if they’re a homeroom teacher) and you’ll be a low priority.
For my most organized school, I'd be given a monthly schedule with the classes I'd be attending every day of the month. It was nice to see my entire month laid out like that, but because everything was planned out a month in advanced, it left a lot of opportunities for things to be changed... And they most definitely were.
Because teachers sometimes get sick or need to take the day off (it happened a lot in two schools I was at), the other teachers would switch subject periods all the time in order to cover that class. Sometimes, there’d be last minute assemblies planned and classes had to be moved to accommodate.
I'd have to estimate that my schedule would get changed 1-2 times a week. Now, I'm a flexible person, so this isn't something that would bother me if they told me in advance. I'm not even talking a week in advance, or even a day in advance. I appreciated it when they told me a period or two in advance.
Unfortunately, a majority of my schedule changes ended up with me finding out by going to the class I was assigned to, and either finding an empty classroom or the actual teacher telling me that they switched English out with another subject.
This happened to me so often and it was so frustrating. Not only did it waste my time, but it was very disheartening to know that I was forgotten about so often because no one bothered to share information with me. And, it always made me paranoid about if I was in the right place or not.
❗When you enter a classroom, their daily schedule is usually written on a chalkboard or posted. Look for the kanji for “English” and confirm that it matches the period!
2. Inconsistencies between schools
If you work at more than one school, you're bound to see inconsistencies. I work in a completely different area from where I started with Interac, and I see a bunch of differences between the regions. But I'm not even talking about that. I'm talking about differences between schools under the same Board of Education, or schools in the same neighborhood.
Obviously, a school is a very organic environment and what gives it its character is the people more than the building or location. But the resources between schools can sometimes be so different. Some schools, despite being in the same BoE, demand things be done a certain way, while others have a completely different style of doing things. (This contributes to the classic "ESID" phrase.)
The lack of standardization between English programs in schools leads to big problems in junior high schools and high schools for the students because they aren't at the same general level. Some schools start their English program in elementary school from 2nd grade, while others start from 5th grade, and you better believe you can see the difference in the level of English and the comfortability of the students.
One first year junior high school teacher I worked with would spend the first month with the students going over basic lettering and phonics in a sort of crash course. This was supposed to be learned in fifth and sixth grade elementary school, but different schools were at far different levels depending on the program and quality of teachers. This put them all on more even ground to start junior high school.
To the government’s credit, when I was leaving the company, there were some seminars about training for a more uniformed English program in the area. I’m glad that the Board of Education finally recognized that was a problem and decided to do something about it.
3. Not being treated like proper staff
This isn't so much a problem with the schools, so much as it's a problem with the Japanese way of thinking. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept of foreigners never being able to fit into Japanese style thinking, no matter how hard they try.
You don't look a certain way or you don't act a certain way which causes you to stand out and become isolated. You may have Japanese friends and the like, but you'll never be truly accepted by society as a whole. Even a lot of my half-Japanese friends who have grown up in Japan face this because they don’t look totally Japanese.
It's very similar in schools. Despite you being a teacher and being hired for that job (with a proper work visa and everything!) there's still going to be a difference between you as a teacher and another native teacher in your school. Of course your fellow teachers are going to try to accommodate and make you feel at home and comfortable, but you'll never be treated as a teacher. (Which is actually a good thing in a way, because have you seen their work schedules?!)
My predecessor at one of my former schools was the closest to this I’ve ever seen. She got pretty free reign to do what she liked with her lessons. But no matter how much they liked her, they would always talk about the funny things she did and the country she was from as a way to differentiate her.
4. Dealing with the BoE and its rules
If it's not the PTA causing problems, it's the Board of Education... My old BoE was especially rough. There were so many rules put in place, and most of the time we never heard the reason why. (Of course, this started the ALT rumor mill, but more often than not, you never found out the real story.)
For example, my BoE had a few rules in place: no computers or technology in the schools; no eating with students; no eating school lunch, just to name a few.
The rumor for no computers was because an ALT accidentally hooked up his personal computer to a projector and showed his students a naked picture of himself...
The rumor for no school lunch was because an ALT was getting away with eating without paying...
The rumor for no eating with the students was something about an allergic reaction, but I'm not too sure.
Either way, the rules you need to navigate through are pretty frustrating. And they’re always changing, oftentimes without your notice. Sometimes, these changes are without the school knowing either, which causes confusion and tension between schools and ALTs.
5. The Abundance of Free Time
I saved this for last, because it's both a blessing and a curse. Generally, you teach 3-4 classes a day at most. And having that daily isn’t even all that common. Sometimes the schedule changes and all 6 periods get dropped on you in a day and then you’ll get days where you don't teach any classes at all.
Sounds pretty good, right? Getting paid for being a teacher even though you're not teaching anyone? That's what I thought at least... And it was great for the first month or so.
But then it just got really boring, especially because my previous BoE didn't allow any kind of technology at all. At that school, I bought so many books at the second hand stores and I'm proud to say that I've read every Jane Austen book thanks to all that free time.
Luckily, my next BoE was more lenient and I would bring my netbook to school and write or browse the Internet under the guise of preparing for lessons. But even that got boring after a while, believe it or not!
Some people fill the time studying Japanese, some people sleep... Either way, there's a lot of free time and it helps if you have a plan about how to fill it. This is why I wrote an entire article on ways to look busy and at work. Your company will probably tell you to "look busy" at all times, but that's easier said than done.
Do any of those things sound like they’d bother you? Compared to some other high-stress jobs, these complaints are probably nothing. I’ve found that I like to plan, and if I don’t, I get stressed out. A lot of my complaints came from not being able to do that, so maybe you’ll have better luck.