If you are a current, future, or aspiring ALT or someone I don’t know who somehow stumbled upon on this post, please keep this in mind:
Since the humid, blazing hot days of summer are upon us, and with each rise of that burning rock in the sky we are one day closer to welcoming the newbies to Japan, I thought I would write a bit about my preconceived ideas of Japan and my job, and how my hopes and dreams of being a real person in Japan have disappeared as quickly as those 300 yen beers or as fast as I run when the clock strikes 4pm.
Me at 4pm.
At first, I thought my job would involve more than staring at a computer screen until my eyes are so dry it becomes painful to blink (although my new school apparently doesn’t even allow me a computer, so I guess soon I will yearn for the days when I was respected enough to have access to the internet). I imagined myself preparing lessons and interacting with students, spending time with my Japanese co-workers laughing over our previous lesson or sharing stories. Alright, I took some creative liberty here. I didn’t so much imagine myself doing actual work… that’s really not a good look for anyone. But neither is suicide-thought provoking boredom… Wait, what was I talking about? Oh right… Some of what I thought turned out to be true. Kinda. I used to have to plan one lesson 3 times a month for a small elementary I teach at this year. I do that at home and it takes about 15 minutes. I do laugh, although not with my co-workers at school, but rather with my fellow ALTs as we swap stories over beers about the hilarious situations we’ve been put in by our bosses that week. “So, hahaha, so then, I am standing in front of the whole school and everyone’s staring at me, and they’re like ‘didn’t your JTE tell you you’d be making a Japanese speech today?’ and I said ‘no’ and they said, ‘well do it anyway’ and so I made a huge fool of myself in front of the whole school…” We all laugh and say “oh that happened to me too!” It’s really enjoyable to know we all go through similar things.
My boredom has led me to search for our job definition which in turn led me to a quick peak at the ALT Handbook which shows the range of activities and duties an ALT is expected to or encouraged to do. It seems your job has to do with interacting with young children and the dreaded early teen students (I mean, I really didn’t like this age myself, so it only makes sense half these kids cause me to cringe as I recall my own awkward teenage years. Although I’m sure I was more socially competent than some of these kids… I hope…) Interaction with the youth is fair enough and to be expected for our jobs. But the handbook also mentions that co-workers will probably be to “shy” and “nervous” to interact with you. Didn’t realize I’d need a handbook to inform me of how to interact with people my own age… Am I really reading about adults who are genuinely fearful of my existence? Yes indeed. I guess these awkward teens grow up to be awkward adults. It is noted however, that co-workers feelings may change at “enkais” or work parties, where “the same reserved, polite workers lose their inhibitions and often use the informal atmosphere to their advantage, saying what they really mean and letting others know exactly what they are thinking”. If you find yourself in a situation where you think “hey, if this was home, I could sue for sexual harassment” then you’re doing all right. At least they’re talking to you, even if it is about how “your beauty is too distracting” as an excuse to why you are never invited to come teach classes or “the principal is just saying that if he wasn’t married you’d be in trouble!” (This particular gem was said to a friend of mine… slightly terrifying).
Oh but just remember, “The great thing about these parties is that the next day at work things are back to normal, and anything said, done or implied seems to be forgiven, within reason of course.” hahahahahhahha cool. The teacher who confessed his love for you and added his phone number to your contact list will go back to avoiding eye contact and (god forbid) conversation. That just means its time to give him a call! Ahaha Just kidding, he’s probably already blocked your number. That is, if he remembers he added his number to your phone in the first place.
I tried telling them this…
The handbook does dish out some useful advice, such as how to spend your first couple weeks at school, when you have no classes and have to go be at work for 8 hours a day. (Hence my current boredom and this enjoyable rant.) It also gives you tips on dealing with aforementioned co-workers, as well as tips for how to “Adjust your Expectations” during post-arrival confusion.
It also provides some hilarious advice. This one being my personal favourite: “Students all take part in the annual school run. … some schools still have a full (26 mile) marathon course and students have to attempt it … ask if you can train with them in the months running up to it and run the course with them.”
To those of you who haven’t worked our jobs for 2 years, I say “luckkkkyyy”. But seriously, we aren’t taken seriously, and it’s not because we don’t want to be, its because we had unrealistic expectations about what this job would be. The Japanese system doesn’t work like the system at home. There are all sorts of rules and jobs that, honestly, I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t want to arrive at school at 6am and leave at 11pm. I didn’t realize that in order to be considered a real teacher, that would be required. I don’t want to clean the toilets at school. (There are no janitors here, students and teachers take the time every day to clean the schools, and most of the toilets are squatters. You want to clean those? Especially in elementary schools where students can’t use them properly? Didn’t think so.)
My response when asked to clean the toilets or to remain in school after 4pm.
Teachers know ALTs come and go like the seasons, and training us properly isn’t worth their time. Most of us know nothing about Japan before we come, so it takes a good few months before we begin to understand the social norms and how to follow them, if we choose to. Trust me, some of them are ridiculous.
As you can tell by my earlier attitude, I’d rather just not work and yet have access to some sort of unending supply of money. Unfortunately, I live in a world where that is not a reality. And I live in Japan, where my life views on the subject of work don’t quite line up with the native mentality. So I will sit at my desk, “from 8-4 every day” despite having nothing to do.
For the record, I would like to state that I do enjoy my life in Japan. These comments are the build up of two years working within the Japanese school system. Living in Japan can be a true test of ones ability (in what? I don’t know, just go with me) at times, so a little humor and a little rant goes a long way.
In the end, no matter where you are, it all comes down to this one question…