If your contracting organisation is the Saga Prefectural Board of Education (BOE) then you are what is called a ken-ALT, and will be teaching mainly at Senior High School (although some ken-ALTs teach at junior high school as well). Being a ken-ALT also means that you’ll also have the opportunity to occasionally do other exciting activities as well, such as judging English speech contests, and participating in English camps and international days. While teaching at high school might sound intimidating, it’s a lot of fun because your students’ English will likely be at a high enough level that you can actually communicate with them. Who knows what things you’ll have in common!
One of the perks of being a Ken ALT is that you will live near high schools, which are mostly in cities. Although Saga doesn’t have any really big cities, you won’t be living in the complete inaka (countryside). Chances are you’ll be near a railway station that serves multiple train lines. You probably won’t need a car, since you should be able to get everywhere you need to go by train, bus, bicycle, or good old-fashioned walking (plus the occasional taxi-ride if you’re drinking or the weather sucks). You’ll have your own apartment to personalise on your arrival.
The Senior High School System
High school in Japan lasts for three years; your students will probably be between fifteen and eighteen years old. Unless there’s a need to go to a special room (like a science or language lab), students stay in one classroom all day and the teachers move from room to room. The school year starts in April and consists of three terms, which means you’ll be arriving in between the 1st and 2nd terms. When you first get here, it’ll be summer vacation. As a result, you’ll be spending a lot of time at Kencho (the prefecture’s administrative headquarters) in the Board of Education’s offices, or at your base school. Your base school is the school you’ll teach at most often and where you’ll go on days when there are no classes or responsibilities at your visiting school during school vacations. Fortunately classes don’t start until September, so you’ll have plenty of time to get acclimated!
You might teach all the students at your school, or only certain grades/classes. Chances are most of your classes will have around 40 students each. This might seem like a lot, but keep in mind that Japanese students are mostly very well behaved and there’ll be at least two teachers in the classroom – you and the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English). Because there are two teachers, these classes are often called TT (Team Teaching) classes. You’ll probably work with a few different JTEs at each school.
In addition to your base school, you’ll teach at one or two other schools for at least one day each during each week. Schools vary widely; they can be college-preparatory, vocational, or special needs for various ages. Also, some schools are combination junior-and-senior-highs, or even include all ages (particularly in special needs schools), so you might also be teaching younger students. It also means you’ll be teaching students at various levels – ken ALTs may be asked to teach anything from the ABCs at special needs schools, to debate prep at high-level college preparatory schools.
Students usually have English classes at least a few times a week, but chances are you’ll only see the same class once a week or once every other week. During the classes that you are not there, students learn English grammar, vocabulary, etc. from their JTE. What you do in your classes is up to you and the JTE. At about half of the high schools, students are prepared for university entrance examinations in their regular classes, so the TT classes are a nice change of pace for them and a good opportunity to let the students have fun and practice communicating in English. TT classes are often called “Language Labs”, and should be a time when students can use the language they’ve been learning. As such, get them talking and writing! High school students tend to be more shy/quiet than younger students, so it can be a challenge, but you will quickly learn how to get through to your students. To help you along, older ALTs can share ideas that work in their own classes.
The role of the ALT at Senior High School
ALTs in high schools generally play a more active role both inside and outside the classroom than junior high school ALTs. Some ALTs will be asked to act as the primary teacher, planning and implementing lessons with the JTE serving as backup. At the other end of the spectrum, some ALTs will be asked to simply read dialogues from a textbook or walk around the room and check students’ work. The situation will differ depending on your school, students’ level, and your JTE.
There is definitely a learning curve, but with a little bit of time, trial-and-error, and the support of your JTEs and fellow ALTs, you will quickly adapt and find a style that works best for you.
Daily work structure
It’s difficult to generalise what your school life will be like, but your school will probably have 6 or 7 class periods a day, and you’ll most likely teach for 3 or 4 periods a day (although sometimes you will teach more and sometimes less). Classes are usually 50 minutes long with 10-minute breaks in between classes, with changes to the schedule occurring as needed for ceremonies, meetings, etc. Most weekdays you’ll be at school for at least 7.5 hours (including lunch) starting at about 8:30 in the morning. Although you’re not required to work longer than your contract states, many ALTs volunteer to do extra work after school. Senior high school ALTs often help out with English clubs and coaching students who are participating in English speech contests or have English interviews. These are great opportunities to get to know some of your students individually, and can really make a difference in your classes because these individual students can set the tone for the rest of the class to follow.
In addition to your regular days, there will be plenty of irregular days. Events such as Sports Day, School Festivals, National Holidays, exams, etc., will mandate schedule changes that will affect your work. Keeping up with these schedule changes can be daunting, but once you learn to check the daily announcements and be a little bit proactive you will experience few problems.
Finally, you won’t be at school all day every day. Once a month all the Ken ALTs gather at Kencho for an afternoon work-related meeting. You’ll probably also take part in fun special duties like judging English speech contests, and participating in English camps and international days. Although many students and teachers have classes on weekends, consider yourself lucky – except for a few very rare occasions you won’t work on weekends. These rare occasions might be for an English camp or when you demonstrate a class for your students’ parents; they’re usually quite enjoyable and you’ll be compensated by being given a weekday off in its place. Another perk of being a Ken ALT is that although you’re required to go to your base school during exams and school vacations, you’ll often be allowed to leave after noon to study Japanese.
As of 2014, all prefectural high schools have interactive whiteboards in homerooms. Many ALTs find that working out of the homeroom with the interactive whiteboard is preferable to using the (often outdated) LL room, usually located in a separate part of the school. However, you can make this decision with your JTE. You will probably have your own desk at each school, and a collection of teaching materials that previous ALTs have used. These are worth looking through for ideas and to gauge the level of your students’ English ability.
Schools are asked to give you access to a computer and the internet, but the equipment and quality will vary. Your predecessor will be able to give you some idea about the situation, and your supervisors can help if there is a problem. If you wish to bring your own computer, make sure you check it is okay with your school supervisor – but be aware that for security reasons you will not be able to connect to the school network, which means no internet and no printing from your computer. If you want to work from your own computer, you might consider tethering from your smartphone.
High school teachers are expected to dress more conservatively than junior high school teachers. This means that for most of the year. Check out the What To Wear page for more information.
High schools usually don’t have school lunches, but you usually have the option of ordering a bento (Japanese style boxed lunch). The menu may be posted ahead of time, and there are usually two or three cheap options (￥300-400). If you don’t want to eat a bento for lunch, consider bringing your lunch from home, but be prepared to field questions about what you’re eating from passing students and teachers! Occasionally you may be able to run to a conbini or go to a restaurant, though you shouldn’t rely on this option.
Check out the rest of the resources on this website to find answers to any questions not covered here, and don’t worry too much! You won’t be expected to remember all of this information right away or settle in immediately. Things will fall smoothly into place as time goes on and you settle into a routine. You will have plenty of support in the form of a predecessor, your CO, other ALTs, and school supervisors and JTEs. We’re looking forward to your arrival!