5 Challenges of Working As An ALT

Moving to Japan as an American black women I already anticipated things being different than the average foreigner experience, but it’s not nearly as damaging as existing in Western culture. The biggest “challenges” I’ve faced when it comes to my race are questions about my hair and the staring. It is very rare for someone to ask to take a picture of me. Seeing as how my hair was also a point of discussion in America, it’s obviously not a different experience for me as a black women living in Japan. Therefore, in today’s post, I’m just going to be speaking of general challenges I’ve faced as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan. 

When I initially thought about how my experience teaching in Japan would be, I was quite hesitant. This would be my first time teaching and, admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of children. Little did I know, that the biggest problems I’d deal with wouldn’t have anything to do with the children (they’re pretty okay). Below are a short list of challenges I’ve faced while working as an ALT…

1. Exhaustive Work

I completely underestimated how much energy was required to teach a lesson. I’m lucky that I only teach junior high schools instead of elementary schools because you definitely need a lot more energy with ES….more than I’m willing to give consistently. When teaching, you have to make the lessons fun  or interesting for the students or else they’re not going to pay attention. As an introvert I also find having to be “on” all the time as just the worst for my mental state. In terms of physicality, it took me such a long time to get adjusted to being on my feet all day. I think the phrase “too much of anything is not a good thing” fits well into this problem. My feet were killing me for months and had me phoning home to be sent running shoes to wear indoors. Gotta get that arch support!

2. Broken System

When it came to working with my schools, I found all the schools, my subtractor company and my city’s Board of Education to be lacking mainly in the communication department. It was as if they had never worked with an ALT before and was never informed of what the schedule was when I came for the week. When working with my JTE (Japanese English Teacher) I often experienced confusion due to the differences in ideas and expectations. When they would try to explain a lesson to me and what they’d like me to prepare, they wouldn’t exactly share what they wanted outright and often seemed hesitant to share anything at all. This was so frustrating

There would often be times where I would be late for a class that I wasn’t aware I had because it wasn’t on the schedule because there was a change and the JTE didn’t know so he couldn’t tell me and blah blah blah. It’s all just so cyclical and obviously stems from lack of communication. What was so problematic for me was that these issues didn’t just occur in the beginning of the school year as we were getting used to each other, but persisted throughout the year and even as recently as TODAY. This is how you know the problems are deep-seated.

bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and jet-lagged on the first day of my Orientation in Japan

3.  UNDERPAID

This section should really be first, but let’s be real Jamera. You knew when you took this job you were doing it for the experience and not the money. This is true, but it doesn’t make the fact that ALT’s are underpaid more bearable. We’re getting paid chump change because let’s face it, ALT’s are at the bottom of the barrel, yet they’re expected to produce all this energy and work for next to nothing with no safety net depending on the work situation. Read this article from a few months ago to get more of idea of what I’m talking about. I think if you’re doing this alone and have no dependents it’s alright temporarily. However, it’s important to me to feel like my work is valued and have that sentiment is reflected in my salary.

4. NO REAL AUTHORITY

As an ALT, your job is technically to assist, however when you’re leading classes and preparing materials for the lesson in all your schools, it definitely doesn’t seem much like assisting. Yet, this is of course less than what the full time teachers do. In any case, you have no real authority and everybody knows this. There have been numerous times in my classes, where students may be a bit rude or too loud and the JTE just stands there and allows it and I can’t do anything because it’s just my job to recite english words or just focus on the kids who are paying attention. Not being able to discipline the kids in your own way and always having to refer to the JTE is frustrating. and don’t even get me started on correcting the JTE’s English…

5. Rigid Work Conditions

When I first arrived to Japan almost a year ago, during training I was told I wouldn’t be allowed to use my personal laptop for work and would simply have to work on things like researching images/games for lessons when I got home. This is despite the fact I would have blocks of time free to “Prep” for classes, yet was unable to access the resources required to actually prep anything. You’re also not allowed to touch the school’s computers or other tools, which is more understandable (liability). It was almost as if they didn’t want me working. .  . Everything seems to be so structured and if you dared step a toe out of line, rest assured there would be problems. After a while I’ve come to just accept the fact that while the schools were a stickler for timeliness, in the same hypocritical breath, without fail, there would be a scheduling mishap or forgetful error that would result in my being late or unaware or something. Thus, making me look like the bad girl. Oy, vey!

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. These are just a few challenges I’ve experienced while working as an ALT and while things really managed to piss me off at first, I’m glad to say I’ve learned to accept that this is the way it is in Japan. I used to be so upset about the lack of organization and directness here, but once I realized my role and stopped taking myself so seriously, I learned to just accept things as they came and roll with the punches. That’s life!

I will be the happiest girl on my last day!

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have questions! Really interested in getting different perspectives on this.

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