Thursday, 25 March 2010

Letter to the next ALT at my school

[The following letter is rather long, and for that I apologise. For budding ALTs, however, it may prove an interesting read.]

March 25th, 2010

Dear New ALT,

First off, welcome to Matsubushi Junior High School. You're a very lucky person to be working here, as the past year I've spent here has been very fun, and I'm sure yours will be too. The reason I'm writing to you is to let you know a few bits and pieces, give you some info on how this school runs &c. If you've any experience as an ALT already, most of the stuff I talk about you can probably ignore. Although, having said that, I guess you could ignore most of what I say anyway, whether you have experience or not. You see, the thing is, I started out here with no prior experience as an ALT, but I got along just fine. I didn't necessarily understand exactly what I was supposed to be doing every day, but, as I'm sure you'll find out, if there's anything you really have to do, or any place you really have to be, someone will probably tell you. If you will indulge me, however, I will try to explain summarily the workings of this school, what is to be expected of you as an ALT, and how best to use your time when you are not teaching.

Your Teaching Duties as an ALT

I had to teach 13 lessons a week: Four first, second and third year classes, and one “A Gumi” class. This means that every week, in theory, you will have to prepare four classes (where the first second and third year classes are taught four times each week, and the A Gumi class once). I say “in theory” because every week is different from the next (a teacher may want to cancel a class one week and have two the next) and each English teacher will ask different things of you too. (Taniguchi sensei, for example, the first year teacher, would most weeks expect me simply to turn up to class and help out with activities she had made herself, or might ask me to prepare an activity which she had already thought up. Ozawa sensei, however, the second year teacher, would expect me to plan a full lesson every week, of my own choosing and design. Hojo sensei, the third year teacher, would usually ask me to prepare a lesson or an activity on varying topics such as “Mother Theresa” or “Irregular Verbs”. So you see, each teacher has different demands.) Preparing a lesson shouldn't take more than an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more, and you can use a variety of media in your preparation for and execution of the lessons. Matsubushi has a school iPod with accompanying in-out lead which you are free to use in lessons (for music, slide-shows, movies &c), a bunch of computers with internet connection, photocopiers, printers, a laminating machine, the contents of the stationery room &c &c. I ended up bringing my own personal laptop into school every day, since I used it quite a bit in my preparations.

All told, you should be spending 17 hours, give or take, preparing for and teaching English lessons.

Outside the Classroom

Work for you begins officially at 8:10 with the first chime of the school's bells, and the beginning of the morning staffroom meeting. After the meeting you have free time (which I usually used to prepare for lessons or make photocopies) until 8:45 when first period starts. Each lesson is 50 minutes long with a ten minute break; 4 lessons before lunch; one or two after. Lunch is at 12:35; fifth period is at 1:40. School will end for you from 4:00.

Every day, on your desk, you should find a largish piece of paper with all the day's and the next day's schedule on it, made by Mr Nagai. If you can read Japanese, this sheet is incredibly helpful for knowing what's going on in the day, if there are any meetings you have to attend or anything. If you don't, you should get in the habit of asking somebody every morning, “Anything I should know today?” For example, often one day's lessons might be changed for another's, there might be an all-school meeting before first period, or the first years have a dental check.

When I started this job I found I had a lot of spare time. I called the previous ALT and I asked him, What should I do when I'm not teaching? And he told me, Do not read books. Study Japanese. And I have to say, that while I didn't spend all my spare time studying Japanese (I suppose I might have spent a little too much time reading emails or on facebook) I did find his advice to be pretty good. In the year I've been here, from talking with fellow staff and students and from hitting the books I've actually improved my Japanese quite a bit. Also, if you're seen to be studying in your free time rather than reading a paper-back, it'll garner you a little more respect.

Your free time after lunch is, on the whole, yours to do with as you please. Realistically speaking, this doesn't leave you a lot of options, since the school, in case you hadn't noticed, is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but it does mean you can moon around, drink coffee, and chat with the other staff uninhibitedly. If you're a smoker, there is a place some teachers go to just outside the main school gate. Lunch period is a good time to hang out with the kids, too; speak Japanese with them, let them practice their English &c.

After sixth period (or fifth on Tuesdays and Thursdays) the children all participate in club activities. You are, of course, welcome and encouraged to join in. There's soccer, fine art, kendo, basketball, track, table tennis and a bunch of other clubs. For myself, I did a little bit of soccer, and I joined the art club. It is a good way to get to know the children, and I have to say it was really fun.

In your spare time, also, it may be a good idea to make posters to go on the walls, promoting English, or English-speaking culture. There is loads of wall-space available to you, so feel free to do what you want.

What Will I Have to Teach?

Well, as I say above, each teacher will expect different things of you, from preparing and teaching a 50 minute lesson every week, to the mundane task of acting as a human CD player, reading from the textbook for a five minute slot. On the whole, though, at this school, I found it was the former rather than the latter, or, at least, I was very rarely relegated to the rôle of CD player, and more often than not I found myself trying to put together activities.

Without getting too much into details, the first year lessons should be utterly basic, the second year lessons simple to understand and the third year ones a little more challenging. The first years, you see, are being taught English under the assumption that they have never been taught it before. Though this is usually not the case – indeed, many of them will have studied a little at elementary school – they are nonetheless taught from their ABCs onwards. They will then study such riveting subjects as “days of the week” “first, second, third...” and “when do you wake up?” Some students will know everything already, others will struggle all year even at that level.

I'm not sure if it is that in the second year all students become awkward and quiet, or if it was just this year in particular, but they were, on the whole, very uncommunicative. This was excruciatingly apparent at the beginning of the year, though by the end they did soften up quite a bit. I think there are a few reasons for their initial behaviour. One, the English level they are taught takes quite a step up. A lot more is expected of them and some (if not most) are not prepared for it. Another reason, I guess, is that this is a very decisive year in their physical and mental growth. They are all thirteen or fourteen, and quite a few of them, regretfully, will be all too comfortable in the rôle of moody teenager. What to do, what to do? Well, I would suggest taking it very easy with them. As I say above, make the lessons very simple to understand. Treat them gently and earn their trust over the year. On a more specific note, I would advise against pair-work activities where girls are paired up with boys. They will, 99% of the time, not talk to one another. It is, like I said, an awkward stage for them. (I should say that the first and third years were fine with it, however.)

By the time the students have reached the third year, they attain a kind of ebullience; brought on, perhaps, by the conceit associated with being the biggest fish in the pond. You may find the students a lot more friendly and willing to ask questions in general. Another factor at play here is no doubt the impending high school entrance exams, in which English is one of the examined subjects. They are, on the whole, the most enjoyable year to teach, simply because they wish to learn, and the lessons are much more interesting and involved.

Some Ideas for Lessons

I have included with this letter some examples of the kind of things I used in my lessons.

As you can see the first year activity examples I have provided are centred around two very simple games, bingo and battleships. This kind of stuff, this kind of level, works great.

The second year lessons are a little more complex. Rôle plays, for example, I used quite frequently, with props and pictures to make them more interesting. With this World Trip lesson, for example, I also provided the students with photos of World locations and some pamphlets from a travel agents. The other lesson you see is a Valentine's Day one. At the end of that, I also gave them some pink cards and asked them to make valentine's cards which I delivered the following week. Pretty fun. It's a good idea if you can plan your lesson around a calendar event or cultural theme. Christmas, Hallowe'en, Thanks Giving... whatever you want to teach, you can. Historical figures and events, too, make a good lesson focus. A large part of our work as ALTs is, after all, the spread of culture.

The third year lessons should be a little more challenging. The two examples here are a listening one focusing on the life of Mother Theresa, and the other, “advantages or disadvantages” is a prop I used to get the students involved in a kind of debate.

Along with these handouts, a typical lesson might include a song (I sung Cold Play, Aerosmith, The Beatles and other stuff with the kids...). All you have to do there is provide the lyrics, practice the song then sing along. Pretty fun, and the kids seem to enjoy it. Another thing I do is I always try and use flash cards with the kids. Whenever you introduce new vocabulary, in a reading excerpt or a television clip, make some flashcards and drill the students with them. You can use them to review the previous week's lesson too.

I normally divide my lessons into three vague sections: warm-up/introduction, practice, and production. In the first section I will give them a warm-up exercise, using flash-cards, perhaps, from last week. Then I will introduce this weeks lesson, very simply. This introduction leads into the second stage, where I get the students to do a simple exercise (or exercises), or game(s) to reinforce the lesson's aim (in my Mother Theresa lesson, I cut up the speech and asked them to put it together again; in the Valentine's Day lesson they had to untangle the words in the hearts). Finally, in the third stage, I might get them to do some cool project, like a rôle play, a debate, or a short bit of writing. Something, in other words, which makes them exercise their creativity. Sometimes, these third stages can be a bit overwhelming for the students, so be careful to explain very carefully what you want them to do, and provide lots of examples.

The A Gumi class (the special needs class) I usually make the level equal to or lower than that of the first years. Word searches or crosswords, “concentration”, games like that.

When you make a handout for students, B5 is the usual size. A4 for A Gumi.

In all the lessons I taught I used to give away little stickers as prizes to those students who volunteered to answer questions. I made them myself, finding the images online, collating them in Word, printing them onto sticker-paper, and then cutting them up. Pretty simple, really, and if you have something like this you can give away in class, it makes the lessons go a lot smoother. On Hallowe'en I gave away a lot of sweets, again, to make the lesson go along better. With this letter I've included some stickers I made and some sticker-paper. Anything you buy which you use in class, by the way, you can claim back the expenses from the school. Talk to Shibata-san about this, or maybe Nagai-sensei.

The First Few Days of School

Right, so. You've arrived at your desk, you've introduced yourself to your fellow teachers (well, some of them) and you've listened attentively (if uncomprehendingly) to the morning announcements. What, may you well ask, should I do next? You might turn to the teacher at the desk next to yours, bursting with questions, only to find the desk empty, or its occupant deeply engrossed in work. You see, what you may find, at this point in the academic year, is that most of the teachers, if not all of them, except you, will be extremely busy, running about, ordering students around, talking on the phone &c, and if you do manage to elicit a response from one of them, they may well tell you that for now there's nothing you have to do, you can relax, look around the school &c. And though the season will probably be very nice, the sakura may even still be out, and the school is a fairly interesting place to wander about in, this is a whole day we're talking about, and you may want to spend your time slightly more usefully.

Right, so, the first thing you should do is to think about and plan your first lesson. A good idea might be an introduction class, where you talk about yourself, your hobbies, and your country, and then give the students a quiz on what you said. Bring along pictures of your family and friends, famous landmarks, your home, &c. Make lovely handouts and big clear flashcards, that kind of thing. Discuss this (and, indeed, every) lesson with the other English teachers both before and after preparing the lesson. Also, using these first few days to talk with the English team is a really good idea, both to find out what they want from you and for the sake of good relations. Another thing you might want to do is make a few posters to dot about the school. About you and your hobbies, some grammar points. Literally, whatever you want.

The Bus

If you are getting to school the same way I am, by bus, then you should know, the bus which leaves kita-koshigaya at 7:19 is a far more reliable choice than the one at 7:37. The latter is invariably late on rainy days, and sometimes late for no apparent reason. The 7:19 is a safe bet. There is another bus which departs kita-koshigaya between these two, but YOU DO NOT WANT TO TAKE THIS ONE. It doesn't go anywhere near the school, though it does leave from the same place at Kita-koshi. You only want to board buses which say they're going to 野田市 (Noda-shi) or 松伏給食センター (Matsubushi Kyuu-shoku Centre). My advice, ask the driver if you have any queries.

Perhaps you already have experience of this, or you know about it, but you really have to be on time for things in Japan. If you're even one minute late, it doesn't look good. Of course, if you are a little late once or twice, don't sweat it – they probably won't even mention it – but if you're regularly late about once a week, for example, it looks bad and they may get a little cross with you. So, take my advice and get the 7:19 bus, which should get you to school at 7:55 most days.

On another note, from the driver you can buy handy 5000 yen bus cards. They have an actual value of 5,850 yen, so that's quite a saving.

School Events

With this letter, I have included also a calendar for the academic year 2010-11.

The two most important events of the school year are undoubtedly the Induction (April 8th, perhaps your first day of work) and Graduation Ceremonies (March 15th). On these days you have to dress well. If you are a girl, I don't think there are (or, at least, I didn't notice) any specific requirements in dress code, but if you are a guy, you have to wear a dark suit with a white shirt and white tie. I have left my white tie in the middle drawer of my desk, so feel free to use it.

Other important events on the calendar include the Sports Festival (September 11th, a Saturday, you will get the following Monday, the 13th, as a day off) and the Singing Festival (October 22nd). On the day of the Sports Festival the students are divided into four large teams (red, blue, yellow, and green) and they battle it out to win first place as a team. The teachers are also each allocated a team to support, and they will help the team in training and rehearsals leading up to the event. On the actual day it is imperative that you support your team with unalloyed enthusiasm. I was also charged with taking photos. Very fun day, indeed. (There is also a separate Teacher's Sports Day on November 13th, where the staff room plays volley ball against the PTA team. I was unable to go, myself, but I hear it is very enjoyable.) The Singing Festival is another competition, this time between the four classes in each year. The three winners from each year will go on to sing in a concert in the local concert hall, Eroura Hall. Teachers and staff also sing two songs, though I was actually made to do the conducting, no doubt a demotion due to my awful singing. :(

The other events are staff parties (marked “SP”) and the Staff Trip. Of the staff parties, you only really have to go to the first and the last ones. (Though, if you can, I recommend going to them all.) At these parties, you will no doubt be called upon to make a speech, as everyone does, but it's all good fun, and you needn't go about trying to write something like the Gettysburg address. Just winging it should be enough. The Staff Trip on the 9th and 10th of October, I highly recommend you go on. I went last year, and it was flipping amazing. Great food, great places to visit (we went to the Asahi beer factory in Fukushima, and then a really beautiful cave near-by), a big party at a fancy hotel, really good fun, all in all... You should go. It'll set you back 10,000 yen a month (maybe for nine months) which is a little steep, but it is definitely worth it.

In addition to the staff trip, there is another excursion just for the members of staff who do not belong to a year group (called the 4th year, including the headmaster, the vice-principle, the Schedule Maker, Mr Nagai, you, and others, about ten in total). I went on this trip too, to a nice onsen on the Izu peninsula, and, again, it was worth it. (For the fourth year staff trip, the cost is 5,000 yen a month. This charge also covers the coffee and tea you are free to drink at school.) These trips, I feel, and the staff parties every so often are really fun, and I can't recommend participating in them highly enough.


Lunch at school costs 4,300 yen per month, payable to Ms Nakamura sensei.

The 10,000 yen per month for the school trip (also it covers some of the parties and presents bought for leaving teachers &c) and the 5,000 yen per month for the other trip is payable to Mrs Hirano sensei. Any money left over will come back to you at the end of the year.

If you can't afford to part with that amount of money every month, you are not obliged to. The lunch money, however, and 500 yen a month for coffee and tea, you will have to pay (unless you bring you own lunch and don't drink the staff room coffee or tea...). Honestly, though, if you can, you should. The staff trips were fantastic and the lunch is the cheapest you'll find, and pretty tasty too. The coffee's okay.

Talking of lunch, you will eat lunch every day in the staff room, with the headmaster, the vice-principle, Shibata san, Inoue sensei, Hirano sensei, and Mr. Nagai. They are all really nice people, and the vice-principle and Nagai sensei also speak fairly good English. Lunch officially starts from 12:35, but Nagai sensei, Kyoutou sensei (the vice-principle) and Kouchou sensei (the headmaster ) usually come a little later. Don't feel compelled to wait for them before beginning your meal; they are just very busy people and they certainly wouldn't want to keep you from your lunch. When they do come to the table, simply say to them “o-saki ni itadaite imasu” which means something like “Excuse me for beginning before you.”

This advice might seem superfluous, but I can't stress the importance of punctuality. Being one minute late in England is not such a heinous crime, as I recall, but in Japan it is not well looked upon; and whilst forgiven, is hardly something which will put you in anyone's good books.

Final Words

As a final word of parting, I should like to say that you get out of this job what you put into it. It is perfectly possible to idle away your free time at your desk and wait for four o'clock to come, without joining in the club activities and without spending time with the students. No-one will suggest for you to do otherwise. On the other hand, if you put in a little effort, prepare extra good lessons, and simply wander around the school in your free time, participating in the various clubs, running with the track team, reading in the library, asking the science club what's going on, painting with the fine art club, playing basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, table tennis or whatever, and if you offer to help with the various events which pop up now and then, your time at the school will be so much more enjoyable, and the students you teach will be that much more receptive to your teachings in class, and interested in what you have to say.

Above all else, enjoy yourself. This is a very fun school to be working at.

Yours sincerely,

G Dawg.


  1. Looks like a nice prep for your successor. お疲れ様!

  2. Well, as any ALT will know, we do have an inordinate amount of free time...

  3. I enjoyed reading this. I did a similar one for a summer intern entitled 'sit still and don't ask questions'.

  4. I guess that just about sums it up.