Local Boards of Education in Saga Prefecture employ town and city ALTs to work in elementary and junior high schools. Every BOE is different, so ALTs’ schedules and the BOE’s expectations can differ greatly. You may be the only ALT employed by your BOE, or there may be other ALTs. You may only see a school once a month, or you may go several times in one week. You will only work at schools in your area, so you can usually count on a short commute.
There will be times when you are not required to teach due to long school holidays, exams, or teacher meetings. Though the students don’t have school, you (and all other teachers) do not get the day off. On those days, you will go to either your base school or your BOE/town office.
Staff at schools work out of a number of different rooms, including the school office, the principal’s office, and the teachers’ room. Your desk will likely be in the teachers’ room with all the other teachers (commonly referred to as the “staff room”, or the 職員室/shokuinshitsu). The vice principal and head teacher will be in the front of the teachers’ room, with other teachers’ desks grouped in blocks. You may have your own desk that you can use to keep materials, or, at a school you don’t often go to, a desk that is shared by a number of teachers who only visit occasionally. The teachers’ room will usually have a few computers that the teachers share. Feel free to use these for lesson planning but don’t plan on sitting at them all day. Different schools have different policies on bringing your personal laptop to school so ask someone before you do.
If you are teaching elementary and junior high schools, you will probably be expected to eat kyūshoku (school lunch). You pay monthly and it works out to something like 250yen per lunch, depending on the BOE. Kyūshoku usually consists of rice or bread, a vegetable/salad, some kind of meat/fish, noodles or soup, and whole milk to wash it all down. If you have any allergies, be sure to notify your BOE and/or your schools.
If you are an extremely picky eater, or for whatever reason do not want to eat kyūshoku, you can ask if you may bring your lunch instead. Do not expect to be able to leave for lunch or order delivery. You may be asked to eat lunch in the staff room, but you should make an effort to eat lunch with your students to spend more time with them. They may stare at you for a while but it gives you a good chance to talk to them outside of class and get to know them better.
English education at the elementary school (ES) level was made compulsory in 2011 for grades 5 and 6 with plans to start even earlier at grade 3. Below this, English education is optional. Most of the home room teachers (HRTs) you come across will most likely have very limited English, if any.
In theory the HRTs are meant to lead English classes with ALTs acting as assistants, but in practice you may find yourself expected to plan and lead all classes. If you feel you shouldn’t be the main teacher and it is becoming a problem, speak with your BOE as it is not technically your responsibility.
At ES, lessons mostly consist of speaking and listening exercises to build vocabulary and form simple sentences. English instruction at the elementary level is focused on making English fun and building a rough foundation for more standardized junior high school instruction. Hi, Friends is a popular English textbook series among elementary grades 5 and 6. You can read a review of the book here. They are very similar to books used in the past called Eigo Noto so if your predecessor or schools give you Eigo Noto-based activities, they are very easy to tweak to suit Hi, Friends.
Having this textbook is very useful if you are nervous about teaching on your own. Depending on your schools (or even yourself if you are in charge of the classes), you can either strictly follow the books or use them as a loose structure to plan your own activities around.
The books are accompanied with teacher guides written mostly in Japanese, so work with your HRT if your Japanese ability is not high enough to read them. The books contain many activities, chants, and songs, and are accompanied with an interactive DVD. Find out about your school’s facilities before including the DVDs in your lesson planning as you may find your school doesn’t have a projector in every classroom, or has limited access to the computer room. You can always copy the audio files onto a CD and use that in class as most classrooms should have a CD player.
If you are teaching in grades 1 to 4, there will be no books to guide you, although again ‘Hi, Friends’ can be a good source of ideas. Generally at this level, HRTs will most likely think of a theme for the lesson (e.g. colors, numbers, animals, fruits, etc.) but then you may be expected to come up with some or all of the lesson material. Remember that at ES, it’s all about making English fun. Plan lots of games, songs, and activities that involve movement to get all students involved.
Always bring your genki, and don’t worry if you are new to teaching–your students will be as enthusiastic to learn as you are to teach.
For your first few classes, you will most likely be giving your self-introduction. You may be asked to fill the whole class time, so you should prepare up to 45mins worth of material. Remember too that students may want to know more about you, so allow time for them to ask questions. Class sizes can span from about 7 to 40 but you will hear more details about your schools from your supervisors.
Junior High School
Japanese Junior High School (JHS) is 3 years, equivalent to American/Australian 7th~9th grade (about 12~15 years old). Like elementary school, the students stay with their classmates in one classroom the whole year. However, there is a different teacher for each subject and it is the teachers who move around from classroom to classroom. Those unfamiliar with the school system may be surprised at how large of a role school plays in their students’ lives. Students go to school every day (usually even weekends), and often spend long hours studying and doing club activities. In addition, they rarely get more than a couple days break, and often find themselves in school during breaks for supplemental lessons, club activities, etc.T
In the classroom, your role will fall anwhere on a spectrum from ‘human tape recorder’ to planning and teaching your own class with the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) as support. Expect to be somewhere in the middle, but don’t be disappointed if you’re not asked to play an active role in planning or teaching lessons.
Each class will have around 3 English classes a week. Depending on the size of your school(s), you may find that you go to all the classes each week for each grade, or you may only see each class once per week. In the latter case, the JTE might teach the text book/grammar work when you’re not around and save the listening/speaking/worksheets/games for the lessons you attend. In this sense, you may find yourself as the provider of light relief from the more serious study required to prepare students for their exams.
The more classes you go to, the more likely you will find yourself as the human tape recorder for at least some of the time. Remember that although this may seem boring to you, part of learning English is pronunciation and as native speakers we are the best models.
Whatever your role in the classroom, be sure you establish a good relationship with your JTEs as early as possible. Try to get together with your JTE a week (or at least a day) before a lesson and see if there is anything they want you to prepare. Something reasonable to expect would be them asking you to make a worksheet for a certain page of the textbook or practicing a set grammar point; designing an interview or other speaking activity that lasts for 15-20mins; making some flashcards; preparing an oral introduction on a particular subject; etc.
The better your relationship with your JTEs, the more receptive they will be to your ideas (see Tips on Communicating with JTEs for more information). If you are looking to get more involved in your classes, think about designing/making activities proactively and then showing them to your JTEs. In most cases they will be more than happy to use your ideas, but more often than not they may forget to approach you in advance about preparing something simply because they are very busy people. When you first arrive and throughout your time in Japan, you will have opportunities to learn and share many ideas with current ALTs within Saga Prefecture. There are also many great online sources to help you, so if you are not sure what a worksheet should look like, or how to make a good activity, just ask someone! You can also check out the online database of Teaching Resources for ideas.
Outside the classroom
Outside of the classroom at JHS, ALTs are often asked to help in other capacities such as English speech contests held each autumn. As native speakers of English, we are usually asked to coach the students to develop their pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm in spoken English. This may mean you are asked to stay after school to help students over the course of several weeks, for up to 2 months. Although not strictly within your working hours, this is an expected part of your role as an ALT here in Japan. If the hours are getting to be too much, talk to your supervisor about it – sometimes you will be let off early afterwards to make up for your extra time given helping after hours. At least some of the speech contest students will probably also perform at the school’s culture festival; you will need to prepare for this too. In some cases, ALTs are also asked to judge speech contests in other cities within Saga.
In larger schools ALTs may be asked to work with the school’s English club, which usually meets after school once a week or so. How active you are in your English club depends on the teacher in charge and their openness to your involvement, as well as on your own level of enthusiasm and effort. English clubs can be a lot of fun, because you can play games and use English in a non-threatening, low-pressure environment, allowing you to get to know students on a more personal level.
Some ALTs have done field trips, watched movies, etc. with their English clubs. Ultimately most of the content of your club activities will probably be up to you, but should reflect the students’ interests, too. Find out what they want to do/talk about.
Apart from English club, all schools will have a number of other clubs to which most students belong; mainly sports, art, and music. As an ALT, it is up to you how involved you become in your schools’ club activities. If there is a sport you are interested in, or have particular expertise in, then the students and teachers are generally going to be thrilled if you want to practice with the students. However since clubs generally extend beyond ALTs’ standard working hours, you are not obligated to join these groups. You don’t have to make a huge commitment to a club-and in fact, if you do attend a club regularly than your absence will be noted. Consider this, and make your level of involvement clear from the start. Although not a mandatory part of the job, many ALTs find the opportunity to interact with students outside the classroom like this a most rewarding experience.
If you have any other questions about what your job and specific situation will be like, your predecessor is your best source of information. If you are straight out of university or have never taught a class before, you are not alone. Most JTEs will not expect you to be a prodigy on your first day, and you should not expect this of yourself either. It may take some time to get the hang of your job as an ALT and fit in with the routine of school life. Most ALTs start off with little to no formal teaching experience, but quickly adapt as time goes on. As such, the ALT community as a whole is another great resource.
A final tip would be that if you ever feel lost or confused, ask your supervisor or another teacher for help! At school, you will find that there are often special meetings, ceremonies, or timetable changes that you don’t know about. In every teachers room there will be white/black boards that show the schedule and lessons for each day, as well as noting any changes or special events. If you don’t have the Japanese ability to be able to read these boards, be sure to befriend someone who can! Establish a good relationship with at least one of your JTEs and ask them to tell you when anything changes. They may not remember to keep you informed all the time, but if you don’t ask them you may find yourself in an empty staffroom wondering where everyone else has disappeared. If in doubt, ask questions, and stay close to the teachers who speak English!