Being an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan : why you’d be better off doing something else
This year, after being sacked twice, I decided to try my luck as ALT. I got accepted at one hakken gaisha (agency) who dispatched me to work in a public school in one of the poorer wards of Tokyo. According to my contract, my work starts 8:40 and ends 15:40. I should be there at least 10 minutes ahead and leave no earlier than the stipulated end time. My work is basically coming up with activities to “spice up” the regular class and be a “person” of interest to make English learning more fun and motivating.
So my first week was, unfortunately, all preparations for the “undokai” or sports day. Almost all my classes were cancelled. Yet I had to stay until 15:40 even though I was just sitting on my brown ass. Question is, why did they even ask me to start that week when they could have postponed it a week later? They could have saved themselves money and saved me my precious time.
Going forward, I find that even if most of my classes were over by 14:10, I still had to stay until 15:40. I spend my time of course, doodling and writing or pretending to work. (Reading a novel or an e-book is probably going to be frowned upon). Why don’t I prepare for classes? Well let me tell you this : the first few weeks I have had some suggestions for class activities. One of the teachers kept commenting that I am “such a hard-worker” that I “shouldn’t work so hard” because he’s the most “easy-going” teacher anyway. When my ideas kept being shot down in favor of the text book, I realized that the praises he was saying was a polite way to say “No, we don’t want your ideas. This is how we did it for the longest time and this is how we’ll continue doing it now and forever more.” I get it. But if we stick to the books, then that leaves hardly any responsibilities for me.
So why don’t they let me go earlier? Because that”s what the contract states. Instead of giving teachers more rest time by letting them leave earlier when the responsibilities are over, they prefer adhering strictly to previously agreed contracts, even at the cost of wasted time. Japanese favor procedure over productivity, wasting time over efficiency.After all, the longer the time you are in the office virtually equates to your being a hardworker; the opposite must be true. So what do I then? Pretend to work.
In Japan, there are these things called “honne” and “tatemae”. Tatemae is, as defined by Wikipedia, “ the behavior and opinions one displays in public.”(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honne_and_tatemae). In short, this is the façade. In the work area, everyone puts on their mask of tatemae and pretend to desire nothing but work. So even though I am not doing anything, I have to stay and pretend for the sake of keeping appearances. Looking at the way their education goes, you realize why Japanese become how they are in all aspects of their unhappy adult lives (with a happiness index of 47.5 according to http://www.happyplanetindex.org/, as compared to Philippines’ 52.4. Or check this other data : http://www.gfmag.com/tools/global-database/ne-data/11940-happiest-countries.html): unimaginative, suppressed, unmotivated, myopic drones . Here are some things I observed in a few days’ time working for the public school :
1) The most important thing is attendance and punctuality. But see #2 and 3 disclaimers!
Disclaimer 2) Even if you are not punctual and miss your morning classes, you’d probably still not fail
Disclaimer 3) Even if you are absent most of the time, you’d still not fail if you promise the head-sensei (head-teacher) you will ganbaru(do your best) the following year (According to one teacher, only 1-2 students fail the grade a year.)
4) No one repeats the same level.
5) Students are not being punished in anyway. Anything can be considered child abuse nowadays, even asking them to remain standing after being unable to answer a question can be considered cruel bordering on abuse.
6) Students cannot be separated in sections according to intelligence or previous year’s grade/ranking because that is a form of “discrimination”.
7) Each class has to slow down to accommodate the laggards. It is a good encouragement for slacking off and a bad environment for the real hard-workers (who end up falling asleep out of sheer boredom).
8) There are hardly any rewards for good performance. You perform well, you pass and make it into the same level, along with the bad students and chronic morning class absentees.
9) The most important is being physically present even if you are mentally absent.
10) Pretending to do your work, even if there is no physical product/output- is the most important thing in the Japanese society- the “tatemae”. It is a way to save your face, keep up appearances and continue riding your moral high horse.
11) Variety is not good. Everyone has to wallow in the monotony of the unchanging sameness. (Example : I have some dietary requirements and as a result, I can only eat the school lunch 4-5x a month. I asked if I can bring my bento to eat with the students, to which they said no, because the food I will be eating is different and the kids may get “bothered”)
12) Having a foreign ALT is just a “front”, another “level” of keeping up appearance. This is another “tatemae” as a proof of the pretext that Japan is now going international and embracing multiculturalism, to the extent of even learning English. The truth – and I can say, the “honne” is that they desire only to be with people like them. They are only open to people completely different from them as long as these people are willing commit identity suicides and conform to Japan – in short, become “Japanese” inside.
13) English teachers don’t really need to have a good grasp of English. Teaching English in English is such a big deal and is considered a totally new, radical concept that I saw a clip on the national news about a public school that started doing that. Wow really?
14) The purpose of learning English is to pass the tests for high school. Otherwise, it’s not really important. Even the teachers don’t think it’s important. They hold English classes because they have to. The teachers go through the text books like robots, without considering the kids’ interest or the lesson’s usefulness.
15) Being an ALT, you’re not paid for your inputs on how to improve and foster learning. You are paid to be there and get along with everybody else. No one cares about what you know or what you can teach. You just have to be physically there as a part of “tatemae”, of keeping up appearances.
16) Like the whole Japanese society as a whole, ALTs – who are mostly foreigners – are treated with ambivalence. You are working with them but you will never be one with them. You are disposable and replaceable – a proof of this is most ALTs are hired through agencies – replaceable through a phone call. Don’t expect for the teachers to treat with you much respect. They will endlessly doubt your every move. For example, they don’t allow me to use the school computer (because they think I will “asobu”) or even the photocopy machine (because they think I will use it for personal stuffs). This is discouraging and counter productive – am I supposed to print (and pay for) the worksheets myself? I am underpaid already as it is!
17) The school is one of the biggest means to polish the culture of same-ness that prevails through Japanese society. No one should think or say anything that challenges status-quo. Using your own mind to form individual opinions is a no-no. In fact, the school is a training ground for turning your brain off , so you end up just nodding you head and agreeing to all the sh*t they feed you.
So do you still want to become an ALT? Do yourself a favor and find something else to do. At the very least, teach those who are genuinely interested.After all, it takes two to tango. Or you might as well teach pigs to fly.