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Life as a High Academic SHS ALT

In coming to Japan, I was resigned to my fate as a human tape recorder.  I imagined myself as the parrot in class, squawking out English phrases and vocabulary whenever the teacher pointed at me.  I couldn’t have been any more wrong.  Though I do assume the role of the parrot occasionally, I’ve found that I have much more responsibility than I thought I would.  I’m required to plan lessons, grade tests, and bring a new color of English to a gray world of grammar translation and repetition.  I’ve found that teaching at my high academic senior high school has been challenging at times, but has become a rich and fulfilling experience full of new and unusual opportunities.

 

Before I came to Japan, I completed my student teaching in college and received a degree in “secondary education with a focus in English.”  I studied about teaching philosophies and techniques, but I really lacked any real world experience.  I looked to JET as a chance to get some basic teaching under my belt, but also as a chance to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.  After finishing the Tokyo Orientation and arriving in Fukuoka, my new co-ALT and a sweet old Japanese lady that turned out to be my supervisor greeted me at the gate.  We briefly introduced ourselves, and headed to the school to take care of paperwork.  On the ride to school, I chatted with my new coworker and supervisor about the school, and I was told that my school was one of the top schools in the region, that the school was already preparing for an upcoming speech competition, and that I would be responsible in the classroom for more than I anticipated.

 

Upon arriving at the school, I was greeted by the office staff, which shuffled me into a conference room, handed me a facemask (due to the H1N1 scare at the time), and dropped a stack of papers that we would be working through.  After working through the JET contract and other paperwork, I was presented to the schools vice principal for a quick introduction, and then taken to my “new” apartment where the staff would help me get setup.  With a smile and a quick bow, my teachers disappeared from the apartment, and I was left to unpack, unwind, and try to process everything that just happened.

 

Over the next month, I found that things relaxed more.  After dealing with a weeklong quarantine (thank you H1N1), I was able to explore the school, sort through my predecessor’s notes, and finally meet some of the students.  I was forced to hit the ground running, due to the fact that the regional speech competition meant that students would be coming in during their summer vacation to rehearse their performances for comments and criticisms. However, the month gave me time to prepare for my responsibilities in the classroom, and I was able to meet with my new teachers, review old lesson plans, and prepare for my self-introduction.

 

As I prepared for my lessons in the classroom, I quickly learned that many of the teachers at my school had two differing perspectives on team teaching with an ALT.  Of the 12 classes I was teaching, half of my teachers approached my role in the classroom as a “this is how the lesson will be handled, and I’ll point at you when I need you to say something” approach, while the other half dropped by my desk five minutes before class with a smile and the question, “so what are we doing for class today?”  I tried to follow my predecessor’s lessons in the beginning, but as I taught more classes and learned from other ALTs experiences, I began to try new things and learned valuable experiences from it.  My challenge in the classroom became getting the students to be more vocal in class.  It was obvious that the students could understand my directions and were generally interested in the lessons, but their shyness in class gave me a deeper understanding of the phrase, “awkward silence.”  I began trying to make conversations with them outside of lessons, where the pressure of the classroom wouldn’t affect them.  Every “HELLO!” and smile I threw at them in the halls or during cleaning time seemed to stick, and the students gradually lowered their barriers and began speaking up.  Over time, my classes ran smoother, and I was able to open clearer channels of communication with both my teachers and students.

 

My responsibilities outside of the classroom seemed intimidating at first, but I gradually adjusted to the demands of the school. My desk was regularly covered in essays, worksheets, and exams, but through talking to my teachers and understanding their grading criteria, it became easier and faster to make corrections according to my teacher’s standards.  My biggest struggle became handling the school E.S.S. club, or “English Speaking Society.”  I tried various activities, ranging from English Karaoke to various board games to even having a “free drawing time” on the whiteboard while we talked about our day, and though the students seemed to enjoy it, the number of members in our club has remained low.  Improving the numbers in our club has become one of my main goals, and I hope to develop the club more in the future.

 

After going through many classes and school years, I can definitely say that one of the most challenging aspects of being a ALT at a high academic senior high school is adjusting to special events throughout the year.  Due to the fact that many high academic schools have high reputations, these schools enter various competitions throughout the year, and plan special events for the students.  Ranging from preparing for Speech and Debate competitions to planning overnight English camps for the students, the ALT is generally expected to have a hand in preparing the students for whatever activities that are coming up.  Though the tasks asked of you may seem daunting, the important thing is to realize that other ALTs may be in the same position and would be more than willing to help with advice and suggestions.  Just because the teachers may think of the ALT as a “native English speaking Jack-of-all-trades” doesn’t mean that you need to go at it alone, and there are other ALTs that are being demanded of the same thing and are investing all of their energy into mentoring their students.  Though the long hours and endless amounts of work spent on preparing these activities can be draining, the enthusiasm and dedication of the students help make these experiences some of the most rewarding and fulfilling in your ALT career.

 

Looking back at all of my experiences so far, I have very few regrets about becoming an ALT at my school.  I’ve been able to push my students to express themselves in a foreign language, watched them compete and succeed in difficult competitions, and connected and laughed with them between classes.  I’ve been able to listen to my teachers’ stories, work with them in and out of the classroom, and have experiences that I would never have had within my own country.  Working at my school has been a once in a lifetime opportunity, and while there have been difficult and frustrating times, working at this school has taught me a lot about Japanese society, culture, and myself.  I look forward to the rest of my time in Japan, the experiences I can bring to my school, and the lessons it has for me.