Problems As an ALT: Why I Switched from Elementary to Junior High School

When I originally made this post on my Blogger, it was the most personal experience I'd written about so far. I wanted to do it because I felt that it was important to show that living in Japan isn't great all the time... Despite what online presences can make you feel.

There are times when it can be hard and you'll face problems that can make you question everything. Since this initial post, I’ve come across many more problems. In retrospect, this was only the first of many. And things only got worse.

But don’t let me discourage you from teaching English in Japan! Every situation is different, and everyone deals with things differently. Use this as a learning opportunity to get to more about the system and make an informed decision.

This post is a bit long, but I wanted to be as detailed as possible. I tried to remain factual while still interjecting a lot of my own opinions and how I felt at the time. Hopefully it can give you some perspective on my mindset at the time.

The Background

When I moved to Kanto, I was excited to start at my new school. The only problem I had with Kansai was the branch. I loved my schools and placement. In Kanto I was given two schools, same as my last contract.

But this time, my main school would be an elementary school. Last contract, my main school was a junior high, and I went to an elementary school on Fridays only.

I loved my elementary school teachers and students, so I wasn't too worried when they told me about this. My former school treated me really well and I really felt like I was making a difference with the students.

The vice principal there once asked if coming on Fridays and seeing the children "healed my heart." I thought about it and I agreed. The enthusiasm and eagerness to learn at the elementary level was so pure that I honestly felt rejuvenated after every Friday visit.

The New School

So, I started my new contract with the same expectations. Now, this is where I started to make a mistake. As much as you and I both hate the phrase: every situation is different. I came in expecting that they would treat me the same way.

The first few days and even weeks were great because everyone was still getting settled. There were a lot of new teachers that year. Things were a bit shaky organizational-wise, but that's to be expected. There was a new Eigo-Tanto (English liaison) so he was new to the process too.

But as the weeks went on, I realized quickly how uncomfortable I felt at this school. At first, it was just a nagging feeling. I thought I was just “homesick” and missed my former placement. I thought it would pass, but it never did.

The Problems

1. No one talked to me

At my last school. I'd make an effort to speak to my coworkers and they'd do the same. At this school, no one would reciprocate. I felt like speaking to them made them see me as more of a nuisance than anything else.

Mind you, these attempts were all in Japanese... I'm far from fluent, but I can get my point across. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to say more than a few words to me. It was weird and felt a bit isolating.

2. I was always compared to their old ALT

Whenever I would talk to the teachers about upcoming lessons and go over the game plan together, I felt like they were just trying to get through it without putting any effort into it. I get that they’re busy, but preparing for a class (even if you hate it) is still helpful.

And when I would suggest changes to the lesson plans, they'd purse their lips and say, "Well Former-sensei always did it this way..." (Classic indirect Japanese no.) I understand in a way, but it was frustrating that no one else understood that I'm not my predecessor and I have a different teaching style.

Now, I say I can understand where they're coming from because my predecessor was at this school for eight years. She had been there longer than most of the other teachers currently working, so she got a lot of respect... Something I didn't have yet because it was my first year there.

But I also know how a normal school functions and there's no reason to just dismiss another teacher's thoughts and opinions. All my other schools worked with me from the beginning. My predecessor did reveal to me in the one time I met her (at a nomikai that my school invited her to and ended up having all the other teachers split her bill) that she cried a lot her first year at the school.

3. There was no guidance

But besides that, an entirely different issue was with my Eigo-Tanto. They’re the one in charge of the English program at school. Everything from making my schedules to being the liaison between the company, myself, and the school, to essentially responsible for me was his job.

He was extremely unorganized. I almost never get my teaching schedule on time, which put me in a difficult and stressful position every Monday mornings. I had to frantically prepare for whatever classes I was scheduled to teach for that day and pray that there was a free period I could throw a lesson together. If I was scheduled for a first period class, I would use the announcement time to quickly prep something.

I ended up having to take initiative. Because of the weird contracting system, I had to call Interac and have them call my school to remind the Eigo-Tanto to send me my schedule. (Remember, I couldn’t just ask the Eigo-Tanto directly because this would be a breach of contract.) It was ridiculous how many time I had to do this, especially since it wasn't my responsibility.

4. English was always an afterthought

And to top this all off, my Monday schedule wasn't even accurate a majority of the time. For the homeroom teachers, the scheduling system consisted of a paper in the back of the room. Teachers, if they remembered, could write their requested classes in blank period time slots.

But there was never a “last call” or anything, so teachers would be changing lesson times and dates the week and even day of! And no one would think to tell me anything.

So I'd either be waiting in the English room for a lesson that was no longer scheduled, or someone would have to get me from the teacher's room for a lesson that showed up on my schedule as a free period, which makes me look bad in front of the VP.

Problems As an ALT: Why I Switched from Elementary to Junior High School

My Breaking Point

Now, all of this so far had been frustrating, but I consider myself flexible. I was starting to get a system in place to get everything organized. At this point, I was on the fence about renewing my contract with this school.

On one hand, I was starting to get used to things there. I was starting to get comfortable. On the other hand, I dreaded going to work every day because of how much I disliked the school.

I made my decision in October. It was Friday when I got a call from Interac. I was at my second school, not the one I had problems with. Of course they were calling on behalf of the problematic school.

They asked me why I wasn't coming to school this Saturday. There was some event that, to this day—even after attending—is still a mystery. On the phone, I had no idea what they were talking about. The only mention about something on Saturday was when the lunch lady asked if I was going to order lunch. I told her no because I'm not scheduled to work on Saturdays. 

Interac then told me that I was actually required to go because the school was giving all of the teachers a Monday makeup holiday. The Saturday was to be treated as a normal work day. Now, keep in mind that they called me on Friday, the day before this Saturday they were referring to.

I told Interac that it wasn't on my company-issued yearly schedule and no one told me anything about this beforehand. No one talked to me about it or confirmed. Interac said that they'd call the school to get more details.

They did and my story was confirmed. So Interac changed its tone from accusatory and instead formally asked if I would come on Saturday. I say asked, but there was way that I could say no.

Thankfully, I ended up getting an apology from Interac and Interac on behalf of the school. So now I was scheduled to sit in the teacher's room for eight hours on a Saturday. The worst part about it all was that a couple of teachers sitting nearby were joking about how I didn’t know the schedule. I understood what they were saying even though they were speaking Japanese. I was fuming.

I should also mention that after all of this, the VP stopped saying good morning and goodbye to me. (He was probably upset that the school lost face with Interac.) It's not like he ever really spoke to me in the first place, so it was no huge loss. But I still thought it was really petty. 

Problems As an ALT: Why I Switched from Elementary to Junior High School

Other Little Things

Besides the lack of communication and respect for my teaching methods and abilities, there was no respect for my personal things either. The English room is always in a state of chaos (materials missing, desks moved or sometimes completely broken down, trash on the floor, etc.) because the room was also used as a meeting area and no one respected me enough to put things back.

My chalkboard with my lesson instructions constantly gets erased without my permission when I leave the room for a few periods and I have to do the work all over again. And it's not just in the English room—my desk in the teacher's room isn't safe either. Things I leave on top of my desk when I head home will end up all over. And my supplies, like pens and scissors, would go missing.

There were a million other little things. The teachers would constantly call me by my predecessor's name, for one. At the beginning of the year, it was understandable since it was a habit. But halfway into the year made me feel as though they didn’t care or respect me enough to remember it.

So Why Did I Switch?

Basically, it came down to the fact that the elementary school was an unfriendly environment. Rather than grind through another year hating my job, I decided to switch schools because of it.

Thankfully, Interac understood and accepted my request. I believe that their willingness was partially due to my constant complaints and issues I brought up between me and the school.

In the end, I switched to a junior high school (only one school!) for the new contract. But that placement is another story altogether.

Problems As an ALT: Why I Switched from Elementary to Junior High School