A Day in the Life of an ALT in Japan

Hey all!

My Japan Junior High School!
The Jr. high I work at in Japan

Now that you’ve all seen my average monthly expenses as an ALT, I thought I’d give you a look into my average day as an English teacher in Japan! So many people move abroad with the expectation that their life will automatically change for the better with adventure waiting to pounce like a cat on a laser pointer (don’t worry, I was totally one of them) and I think when you’re changing so much about your lifestyle it’s unavoidable to build up your expectations.

For the first few months those expectations will even ring true; there are new places to go, new foods to taste (and avoid), and a slew of new and unusual ways to go about your daily life. But after awhile, routine sets back in and what was once exciting and new becomes commonplace.

It is then necessary to find the adventure in the little things, like I discussed a few months ago in the post What I’ve Learned So Far. You can’t always bounce coins off freakishly oversized rice scoopers for luck in a market in Miyajima or wade barefoot through the Seto Inland Sea to an oversized torii gate in November. This is an average day in an average month in a job and a country that I have come to truly love.

November 2014

~07:00

Wake up later than I should, turn off the alarm that’s been a constant annoyance for about half an hour and feed the fish that have hopefully lived through another night (as of last week, one didn’t… ‘Twas a sad day). New day…start!

~08:00

Leave for work with a slice of bread in hand because I’m too slow for breakfast. I drive to my school for that day, change into my indoor shoes, and greet kids and coworkers alike (four days a week I go to JHS which is about a 5 minute drive). I leave maybe 10 minutes earlier on Tuesdays for my various ES’s (on a good day).

08:10

Work day officially begins. I spend my mornings drinking coffee until I’m somewhat confident that I won’t snooze on my feet while the kiddos work silently and then check the day’s class schedule in the shokuin shitsu (職員室–the staff/teacher’s room). At my JHS I have my own mug and labeled desk, locker, shoe cupboard, name tag, everything! Now I’ll never forget my name in katakana.

Japan Jr. High School Teacher's Room
Sitting at my desk in my JHS staff room in Japan

08:40

First period starts. Dun dun duuuun…

I teach about 5 classes a day and in that time I see each 1st year class (there are 5 classes for each grade this year at my school) twice a week, and each 2nd and 3rd year class once a week (I am the only ALT at my school so I do all of them). In JHS I team-teach with or aid the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) for each 50-minute class.

I do everything from “repeat after me” new vocabulary and reading passage pronunciation when called upon (this is the most common), act as a CD player (literally, they will leave the CD player in the staff room and give me the script), give examples of grammar points, help students with their worksheets, help with spelling (a lot), grade writing (usually very entertaining), conduct and grade short interviews with the students, answer questions about American culture and daily life there, play warm-up games, stand near problem students as either encouragement or intimidation (as the situation dictates), help the struggling students one-on-one, answer questions the teacher may have about a grammar point or (usually outdated) slang, and any random task that has to do with English.

There is a board in the hallway I keep up to date with American holidays and English help, I helped to read the handwriting of the foreigners the 3rd years had to interview on their class trip (that was tricky), I sang a (horrible) solo of “Edelweiss” for the 1st years so they could learn the tune, and I continuously ward off questions asking for the definitions and appropriate times to use different swear words! Basically you’re a jack-of-all-trades- relating-to-English.

The main job of an ALT outside of class is interacting with the students–saying “hello” in the halls, playing janken (rock, paper, scissors), and just having a good time (generally in English)! While it gets tedious at times, I love my students and I love my job!

NOTE: Elementary schools are a bit different in the setup. Generally you are responsible for the planning, prep, and teaching of the whole 45 minute lesson. I will be writing a post on differences between ES and JHS in the future, but if you have any specific questions before then, please let me know. This is a post by my good friend and fellow Ibaraki Interac ALT on differences between the American and Japanese school systems, it’s very informative and it’s part of a series of 5! Check her out!

I add stuff as I go, but this was my basic Halloween English bulletin board.
I add stuff as I go, but this was my basic Halloween English bulletin board.

12:30-13:25

Lunch time! The time we’ve all been waiting for! This is broken up as follows:

12:30-12:45 The group of students whose turn it is to get the food and dishes from the kitchen area go and come back to serve the food to their classmates. They eat in set groups in their classrooms.

12:45-13:05 Time to eat! Seriously, I was such a slow eater until I came here. You have to learn to wolf down the huge lunches served; as a teacher you have to be a role model and are usually expected to clear your tray, no matter how gross the dish (rare for me, I’ve only disliked a couple of things in the school lunch) or how full you feel. However, if you are rather slow on a certain day, well, you can’t help it if you just didn’t have time to get to the odd-smelling lumpy grey matter (aka natto) on your plate. Oops. It’s just too bad.

(This is me eating natto for the first time in the spring. Sorry for the quality, but I think it gets my feelings for natto across….)

13:05-13:25 The group of students in charge of lunch that week wait until you scrape your plate (into the trash if you were too slow, intentionally or not) and put the dishes back in their holders before taking them back down to the kitchen area. The rest of the students have break time! At my school this means locking each other out of the classroom and wrestling in the halls. This is one of the biggest things I had to get used to coming from America where that would get them in some serious trouble.

13:25-13:30 Normal break period between classes. Actual work resumes at 13:30, to much consternation.

This is a very basic Japanese school lunch. Main course, salad, rice, soup and milk. Sometimes, like here, they add dessert, usually fruit but here it's mochi for Children's Day!
This is a very basic Japanese school lunch. Main course, salad, rice, soup and milk. Sometimes, like this day, they add a dessert which is usually fruit but pictured is mochi for Children’s Day!

15:20

School’s out! But wait, that means 20-30 minutes of the kids and teachers cleaning their assigned area of the school and then club activities start for about 2 hours. Do they ever leave?! No. No they don’t. From May to October I spent this time liberating kids from cleaning duties to help them practice for the English Interactive Forum and then the English Speech Contest. Now, offers of help denied, I putter away at my desk trying to look busy and surreptitiously watching the clock until the liberation hour.

We took a bus with a neighboring Jr. High to the first round of Interactive Forum!
We took a bus with a neighboring Jr. High to the first round of Interactive Forum (an English conversation contest)

16:10

And this is the time my work day officially comes to a close. With kids and most teachers still hard at work I walk out for the day, a whole evening stretching out in front of me. What to do, what to do?

Usually until dinner I check email, check Facebook, check email again and watch some funny cat videos or Jimmy Kimmel messing with people on YouTube. The to-do list I usually create after classes (you know, with all the useful stuff like exercising, laundry, grocery shopping, paying bills, cleaning, etc.) is generally forgotten and my inherent laziness comes to the fore… Tomorrow is a good day for self-improvement right?

~17:30

          Ah, dinner. The natural break to my ceaseless internet searching. I usually put on the rice at about this time or just cop out of cooking a real meal and throw some bean sprouts and pork into my beloved miso ramen. Deeeelicious!

19:00-21:00 (Wednesdays only)

As it’s currently a Wednesday, I thought I’d throw in my only permanent after-school commitment. Once a week I attend a Japanese Class for Foreigners at my local city center (me and a small handful of Thai, Filipino, and Chinese with more than a big handful of Japanese volunteers) and they give me a valuable hour of socialization and grammar.

We have tea with a snack break for even more much needed socialization, and the second hour is dedicated to…wait for it…kanji. Yes, kanji. I’m learning kanji, and it’s actually my favorite part of studying Japanese! I like knowing that it’s not a magic that eludes me, those signs everywhere actually do mean something, and eventually someday I might be kind of able to almost read something that looks Japanese-y. (See cool kanji above when I talked about the staff room, I can read that and should consider putting it down as one of those Facebook life accomplishments!)

Also we do cool things sometimes like tea ceremony and calligraphy and Halloween parties and beer brewery tours!

I love everyone in my class! This is me with two ladies from China.
Learning tea ceremony in my Japanese class with my favorite classmates, two lovely ladies from China

~23:30

This is the time I try to be in bed by, falling asleep. I don’t really know if it’s ever happened but it’s a goal to aim for, like that 6:30 am alarm I set every morning and let ring every 5 minutes until sometime between 7 and 7:30.

As you can probably tell, I’m not the most disciplined person and I laugh a little inside whenever my coworkers tell me I am a hard worker. But honestly, I do teach more classes and work longer hours and more days than most of the other ALT’s that I know (my school actually cares a lot about English).

I do enjoy my job, messing with the students is rather entertaining, and watching them smile when they bravely pluck up the courage to speak in English and chat with me is worth every bad moment. I’d recommend it to anyone who can deal with not seeing other English speakers for a good deal of time, and to those who can’t I’d recommend doing the same thing, just in a decently sized city with more easily accessible social groups.

As always I’m happy to answer any questions, I’m currently about halfway through a list for another Q&A post about teaching and traveling in Japan. If you have any recommendations for this blog give me a shout and subscribe if you like what you see!

6 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of an ALT in Japan

  1. Hi I’ve just recently been hired by Interac and I am highly likely going to be placed in a more rural area. I was just wondering how easy it is to make new friends and meet new people? Also are there many other foreigners around?

    Thanks
    Grace

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    1. Hi! The only other foreigner in my area is the other Interac ALT, but I’ve found the locals are super sweet and very curious about you and where you come from! The ALT community is generally good at keeping in touch and meeting up a few times a month also. It’s nice having those native English speakers to talk to but it’s also a lot of fun to meet new Japanese friends and improve your language skills! I wouldn’t worry too much, people here are friendly and if you’ll help them out they really do want to talk to you!

      Like

      1. Cool thank you for the reply!! Your blog is really informative. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But now at least I have some idea and can prepare myself a little better

        Like

        1. I’m so glad! The biggest thing is to go in and say “yes” to everything. Get involved, try new things, show interest and talk to everyone! Before you know it you’ll be a member of a fantastic new community! Best of luck with everything! 🙂

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  2. Not sure if you’ll even see this but I’m flying out next month to be an ALT and I just want to say this is probably the most helpful and entertaining blog post I’ve seen so far. Just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, you’ve just completely made my day! Thank you so much for this sweet comment, I loved writing about my time as an ALT 😁 I wish you all the luck in your move next month! It’s such a beautiful country and I hope you have a fantastic experience. Update me later on if you can, I’d love to hear how it goes. Cheers!

      Like

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