Posted in flashback friday

Flashback Friday: A Slice of Life Post

From July to December I traveled, but also in between those travels was of course the everyday life of Itako. It wasn’t until December that it occurred to me that I should talk about the actual, ya know, job I was doing and what it all entailed.And thus, I finally wrote about all that, and about other things.


In Itako, I work at two junior high schools, Itako 2nd Junior High School and Hinode Junior High School. Right now I’m at Hinode JU, and next month I’ll rotate over to Itako 2nd. I love both my schools. Itako 2nd wasn’t damaged very much by the earthquake, so by the time I got there everything was fixed.

Hinode JU has construction going on right now. Basically, Hinode is rice fields all around. When the earthquake happened on March 11th, the ground actually collapsed downward. Poles are still drooping left and right all over the place. Some sidewalks are nearly vertical. The roads are a mess, with pot holes and gravel all over the place. I have to be careful when I drive, too, because sometimes the roads suddenly have huge bumps that could be mistaken for hills. I can go air born if I’m not paying attention.

Even My school is still undergoing reconstruction. When I first arrived here, the entrance had a space from the floor level to the ground. That’s been covered up with asphalt. There’s luckily no structural damage done to the building. The gymnasium was unusable for a little bit. The gym had a massive crack up the side, like it was torn in half (and I suppose it kind of was). That’s all fixed up now. Slowly but surely, Hinode is recovering.

Slowly, yeah, like a snail’s pace. Even as I left in my third year, they were paving and putting the roads back in the places they were supposed to be. The problem was that the area didn’t have enough money to fix everything, as in literally nothing much except to patch the most important things up (like the water lines) until money came in from tourism.

Oh, did I mention that the bulk of tourism was in summer? Yep, which meant we had to wait around for another year before things got back to a semblance of normal. It was no one’s fault, that’s just what happens when it comes to natural disasters. Stuff gets broken, stuff needs fixing, but the money has to come in later.

My kids are great. At Hinode JU I’ve got the more shy crowd than with Itako 2nd. Hinode students will take to me more often when I’m at the mall and at 7/11 than at school. I’ve started eating lunch with them so that they will speak more English.

Lunch at my school goes like so: Students don’t go to a cafeteria like in America. Instead, they eat in their classrooms. Some students in each class are selected to dish out the food. These students dress up in white uniforms that include hats, gloves, and face masks. They dish out the food onto other students’ trays. When that’s all done, the class says a big, “Itadakimasu!” (I humbly accept this meal!) And they eat. When they’re done, they say, “Gochisosama deshita!” (Thank you for the food!)

Those lunches were…decent. I see people sharing those viral videos about how “healthy” those school lunches are, and I guess in comparison to American lunches they definitely are. At the same time, most of the fish and meat parts are fried 9 times out of ten. The soups have veggies, but the salt content is high as hell. Most vegetables had obviously been frozen, reheated, soaked in salt and grease, and then put into a huge soup dispenser. Most of the other foods were processed like that.

However, there might be a few pieces of fresh fruit every now and then, like apples and grapes. I loved orange season, because we’d get oranges for days. Since the meal was regulated to one meat thing, one veggie thing, and rice, the calorie portions were well within dietary guidelines to stave off obesity. And like I said before, the taste was decent, as in not awful, but I wouldn’t say it was awesome either.

Most students weren’t fans of anything but Curry Day, which was like how students in America love Pizza Day. It’s not at all healthy, but it’s the one actually delicious meal of the month.The milk was my biggest problem. I’m lactose intolerant, so I would pretend to drink some of it, and then throw away the rest.

 If you read manga or seen a single episode of a anime series set in high school, it will come as no surprise to you that Japanese students have to clean their schools. At Itako 2nd, students usually clean the school after lunch. At Hinode, students usually clean the school after all six periods are done.

It’s fun to watch them do it. Teachers supervise the students, making sure that they actually clean instead of play. Students wipe down windows, sweep, mop, and so on. When they have to sweep the gym, they’ll race each other to finish. They also like to janken (play rock, paper, scissors) for the tasks they hate. Loser, of course, has to do it.

I walk around when they’re cleaning sometimes and talk to them in English. I’m encouraged to talk to them in as much English as possible at my schools. From these conversations, I’ve gotten some pretty interesting questions. For example, one student asked me for my bust size in perfect English. I rewarded her with the correct answer and giggled for the rest of the day. I have boys asking me if I like them, which is adorable. Other students want to know if I’m eating KFC for Christmas (insert raging expletives here). And so and so forth.

There is a slight misunderstanding about students cleaning schools. For some reason, people are under the impression that janitors don’t exist at the schools. That’s a lie, they have janitors, but the janitors aren’t called janitors. School assistants with part time jobs, whose exact title changes with each school, are basically janitors and then some. They come into the school and deep clean about once a month, but they also have other tasks like scheduling lunch food drop offs, cooking (as in reheating the frozen food) lunches, and etc. They’re behind the scenes, and are often unappreciated in my opinion, because they make sure the school looks good and gets all the random tasks taken care of so the school works like a semi-well oiled machine.

I was friends with one of them at Hinode JU, until she retired my second year. She was a sweet old lady with a heart of gold. I do not remember her name, but she was also our office lady and she sneaked me sweets because I sneaked her some. She was awesome, and I hope she’s doing well.

I try out my Japanese on them sometimes, which makes them all kinds of surprised. I don’t use it that much with them because I want them to talk in English, but sometimes I can’t help myself. One time, I used an expression my friend, Nobuko, taught me on a boy. He was not looking at my eyes, so I said, “Anata sukebe ne?” Which basically means, “Oh, you’re a perv, huh?” And he shook his head and said “No! No! No! I am good! I am good!” I rewarded him with a sticker for the English and for suffering the shock of a lifetime.

Apparently, I didn’t set up why I said this, which is odd. The full story, because for some reason I still remember this, the boy said, “You have a body I like!” which astounded me because he’d not spoken but all of two English sentences before. Instead of reprimanding him (as I probably should’ve?), I wanted him to keep speaking English, but also make sure he knew that wasn’t ok. Thus, I shocked him with my Japanese.

Weird, why didn’t I mention that? Was I worried people would think I was adding to the ‘pervy-Japanese’ stereotype? The fact is that high school boys, no matter where in the world, are all high school boys. Not all of them say outrageous stuff and act crazy, but you know more than a few do, and sometimes they say things about bodies and butts and stuff. If I got angry with every single weird comment, I’d have no energy for anything else. Instead, it’s always best to match them with the higher level wit given to me over years of teaching (and having far worse harassment before in life).

Right now, we’ve got testing going on, so my schedule’s a little erratic. I can have anywhere from one class a day to five. The five class days are killer. I don’t know why, but it’s so draining. Just one class right after the other and talking to students at lunch, there’s barely anytime to go to the bathroom. When I have just one class, I try to use the time wisely by studying Japanese, but I might meander onto or Facebook when I get bored.

Here we come across one of the other reasons I decided to quit JET. As much as I loved those schools and those students, five classes back to back with lunchtime basically another class, plus hours after school for Interactive Forum for half of the year, I got burnt out. I was trying to tell myself that I could do it for five years, but the truth was that already in the first year I could tell that I wasn’t going to make it the full five.

I knew that other teachers had harder schedules, working five classes everyday with no lunch break at all, and little to no prep time except on weekends. Then again, other teachers didn’t have to prep at all, and they’d only have four classes with no lunchtime with students. Regardless, for me, the work schedule at that time came with also the underlying (i.e. unspoken) agreement that I couldn’t complain, because I was paid so much to “just be an assistant,” which was a bit unfair.

I was an assistant teacher to two schools, with two different sets of teachers with different expectations for classroom English activities, and two different sets of students who I couldn’t remember all the names of until the very end of each year. It was hectic, and even when I got used to it and rolled well, I was still struggling because nothing was consistent. I was getting flopped around back and forth between these different working environments and expected to just enjoy the ride.

Not saying I didn’t most of the time, but it was exhausting in ways that are hard to explain. A foreigner with little to no grasp of the native language, no teaching experience, and learning everything on the fly in a foreign country was already hard enough. Having an inconsistent environment to work in every month just compounded those problems.

I’ve started staying after school to play some sports. I played volleyball yesterday, and tomorrow I’m going to play basketball. The students are happy to see me, and the coaches help to encourage them to do English when I’m there. I love sports, I really do, but I’m bad at them. My volleyball girls would giggle whenever I completely failed at a maneuver (which was often). One girl, Kanna, helped me out with the footwork by trying to tell me things in English. In the end, she would say the Japanese, and I would say the English, and then she would repeat the English. Close enough, right?

At one point yesterday, I had a ball just fly left and keep going. I said, “Sumimasen. Sorry.” And one girl smiled at me and said, “It’s ok! Ball likes to go!” I wish I could’ve given here like a thousand stickers in that moment, because that was awesome.

“OH?!” you say at the fact I stuck around after school to play sports, “If you were so tired then why were you playing around? HUH?! Liar!” Well, no, not really.

See, there was this unspoken thing about being on JET (although sometimes spoken outright as well) that since we’re paid “so much” to “just be assistants” then it only makes sense for us to stay after school and on weekends to speak English with the students. Also, JET meetings and seminars were very intense on getting students to “speak as much English as possible” because they didn’t meet the required 90% English requirements in classrooms. So it was up to us, the hero JETs, to save Japanese students and fill their lives with as much English as possible!

But of course, what the JET meetings and seminars don’t say is that Japan shouldn’t need “heroes” at all. If Japanese teachers spoke the required amount of English in English classrooms, we actually wouldn’t be necessary at all. Also, getting paid for a full time job and telling someone they shouldn’t be paid that much because their level is lower than that of others in the workplace is a bit harsh.

JETs need that money, because moving to another country isn’t cheap. We have to pay for all sorts of start up costs: cell phones, contracts for cars, if you don’t drive then bikes, TV, internet, etc. We’re not just assistants, we’re foreign workers, and that’s why JET pays well. It wants to give incentives for people to stick with the job and not quit, and hopefully bring more people over. Not everyone wants to go to Japan, despite the high number of JET applicants telling otherwise.

Anyways, yes, I at times overworked myself too hard. I wanted to be the best JET I possibly could, and I was. I just didn’t realize at the time that I didn’t have to be the very best.

When I leave Itako 2nd, I go home by taxi service. No, it’s not because I’m that important, but instead because of this safety clause in my contract that states I can’t drive myself during school hours. When I’m at Hinode, I walk to school because I live so close. When I went to the elementary school, I would walk there, too.

I’ve only been to the elementary school once, but I want to go again really bad. They’re so adorable! Oh my god, I want a Japanese child! They kept asking me questions in Japanese, so I had the greatest test of my Japanese skills with them. I managed to make it through pretty well. Luckily, elementary Japanese is around my level of equivalency.

Jesus Mother Mary and Joseph, there was a time I actually enjoyed elementary school classes.

Let’s just say I’ve discovered over the years that I love playing with kids, but I don’t love teaching children. Especially when two classes (or that one time THREE) get all shoved together into the same time slot and I have to teach about 80+ children a lesson while also making sure none of them kill each other. It was fine at first, when I was only going a total of two days once a month and doing proper 30-40+ kids. When the school I guess decided to cut the budget and English class hours, ughhhhhh.

That being said, I heard Itako finally got around to hiring proper elementary school JET, so yay you new person, enjoy.

I got a lot of, “Are you married?” and “Boyfriendo?” questions that made me sigh. That question will never die. Unlike my junior high school kids, my elementary school kids really couldn’t believe it. They were so confused. I tried my best to explain, but I think I failed that part of the interview. Instead, I moved onto talking about MatsuJun and Arashi.

Nowadays, I get the question in high school, “Husbando? Boyfriendo?” looks cautiously both ways, “Girlyfriendo?” And the answer to that, even if it’s a lie, will always and forever be, “I’m single.” If you answer yes to any of those questions, the students will badger you until the day you die about every single detail. Best to just cut off that insanity before it even starts.

Most of my students and I get along pretty well. I have a couple of disruptions every once and awhile, but I’ve been figuring out ways to solve them as I go. In class, one of the best ways is for me to just move and stand close to a students that’s misbehaving. Out of class, I yell out in Japanese and startle my kids to cut it out. It’s the power of being a foreigner. People pay attention when you do anything. It’s a little unnerving at first, but I’ve started using it to my advantage at school.

Shouting was basically the only form of discipline I could do at my old schools. Nowadays, I keep them in the afternoon for study time and cleaning time. Back then I had no power or authority to do anything, so I just did what I could with yelling and tattling to homeroom teachers about super obnoxious or dangerous behavior (fights and such) but honestly I didn’t have to do that much. Japanese students are generally more well behaved than American students.

I love my job. I love getting up and working everyday. However, there are a few issues. People who are interested in the JET program and teaching in Japan in general should know the job can be challenging. After all, even the best schools and best students won’t be perfect 100% of the time, so sometimes you’ll find yourself feeling like maybe you’re all alone with these problems, exacerbating the already kind of isolation you get by living abroad.

Some of the issues I’ve faced as an ALT in my schools include getting time to discuss future lessons with Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs).  I’m lucky with my placement. I can usually get time before class to discuss a lesson with the English teacher in charge. However, that’s not always the case, and many ALTs are not so lucky. It’s not unheard of for an ALT to get no information on a class at all before having to walk in and start teaching.

Sometimes I’ve just had to wing it because the teacher’s been too busy with his or her other responsibilities to tell me the plan. After all, the teachers have to do so much. They have to plan out lessons, grade everything, keep the grades straight in the grade book, and so on. Also, most teachers aren’t just teachers. They’re also coaches, supervisors over school projects, members the Parent Teachers Association, and so on.

For times when you can’t grab a teacher to find out the plan, just give it your best guess and plan accordingly. Make two lessons, one which is grammar point oriented and another that’s much less difficult to do, just in case the JTE says, “Oh no, that’s too hard!” and you’re not left in stunned silence with nothing to do for that class.

One of the things that will be a little frustrating at first is trying to figure out the students English level. Students will know some words but not those words, and they will know this basic bit of grammar but something very similar is too difficult, oh and this cannot be said the way you usually say it because students get confused…You get the idea.

It’ll be frustrating, but it’ll be alright. If you get a textbook and flip through it, you’ll get an idea of what the students know and don’t know. If all else fails, ask the JTE. They will probably tell you a lot at first, “Can you make it easier?” and you will probably think, “But it is easy…” but what they mean by “easier” is actually like shorter words and shorter sentences. Think less complex and more elementary school English.

Past me is right about everything here. Japanese English teachers are super busy, they rarely have time to sit down and help you plan things out. Make the worksheets simple and easy in accordance with the grammar lesson, and don’t be afraid to fail. Some classes aren’t going to go well, just do what you can with what you’re given.

Also, you will speak English too fast when you first get there. It’s just a fact. You will speak English too fast at first for students to understand. Your JTE will inform you that you have to slow down over and over again at the beginning, and you will think, “But I am talking slow.” Sorry, still too fast. Don’t worry though because after about a month you’ll develop Shatner-esque style of talking that will become your default mode for students. It’ll take a while before you can get it to feel a little less robotic, but you’ll make it work somehow.

Also, if you have an accent, it will mellow out as time goes on. My Kentucky accent was already barely there in the first place, but it’s all gone now.

In JET, there’s this saying that they use at orientation called E.S.I.D. (Every Situation is Different). Meaning every class is different and every student is different and every teacher is different. When it comes to conversing with Japanese Teachers of English and other Japanese co-workers, the task is daunting at first. At Hinode my teachers are a little more shy and nervous around me at first, but after while they’ve gotten used to me and ask me about my day. Itako 2nd embraced me wholeheartedly and it feels like they never stop talking to me. Since I’m shy around people at first and a natural introvert, I had to force myself to speak and interact, with can be terribly difficult with the language barriers.

Once again, I forgot to mention that students will be shy as hell around you at first too. It’ll take them about a couple of weeks to get used to you, and even then, there will always just be that one shy kid in class who won’t have the nerve to converse with you until the very end of a school year. Just be yourself, your teacher self anyway.

Miscommunications can and will happen. That’s just part of it, but they can be hard to work through. For me, the miscommunications I have the most pertain to class and how to teach during class. There are some fundamental cultural differences between the Japanese style and the Western style of teaching. In Japan, it’s usually lecture style, with the teacher at the front telling students what to learn and no interruptions allowed.

I tried when I first got here to ask questions when I was at the front to get a more discussion style class going, but that quickly died. Japanese students are really not trained like Western students to be active in class. It’s actually considered rude to interrupt or ask questions because that means the teacher didn’t do a “good enough” job teaching. My JTE at Itako 2nd actually sat me down to talk with me about it, and said even though the Japanese schools want a more Western classroom for English classes, it’s a going to be a while before it actually happens.

Oh yeah, this problem. I fixed that within the first year. The trick is to give out stickers every single time someone says something, even if it’s wrong. Ask the teachers if bonus points are allowed for speaking up. I did more games, allowing for more talking, and made most of them conversation style. It took like 9+ months, but eventually most students could answer questions.

At the end of the day, I do my best to say goodbye to as many students as I can before I go home. I love my job, but I will say it’s draining some days. I try to remember my trump card: “I’m tired, but I’m tired IN JAPAN!” It still manages to perk me up. Also, when my students are shouting, “Goodbye!” and “I love you!” I feel a little proud that I’ve got such great kids.

And now, I’m going to go dive under my kotatsu.


They were great kids, I’m still proud of them. I met one of my old students at Tokyo Station once by chance. We exchanged LINE Ids, but then I got a new phone and lost all my old contacts (iPhones suck). Before I lost her, I found out she went on to be a student at Yokohama University. She was still studying English, and she was doing well. I was so happy she remembered me when she saw me, and I remembered her. Even if I never see half my students again, every single second I spent with them I wouldn’t take back.

I also miss you, my dear kotatsu. I hope my successor is treating you well!

Alright, see you in two weeks for the next flashback!

Posted in flashback friday, Jobs in Japan

Flashback Friday: When It’s All Mundane

As the months rolled on from summer into fall of 2011, I found myself unable to write about my life. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to, but I found that everything was becoming a new standard of “normal.” I wasn’t running off to go on adventures every weekend, I wasn’t living in an anime, I had a real life with a real job I needed to do. The days passed by with little to nothing noteworthy, so I ended up posting only two things the entire month of November.

I decided to stick with the old phrase, “Write about what you know.”


People have asked me what I do during the day, so I’ll talk a little bit about that. It’s pretty simple. I arrive at 8:15 at my school and work until 4:00 in the afternoon. When I arrive I say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” My teachers will either say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” back or “Good morning!”I can have two to five class periods per day. During free periods, I try to work on worksheets, projects, Japanese (reading and writing), and I won’t lie sometimes I just go onto Facebook. Sometimes I eat with the students for lunch and speak in English to them. Other times, especially lately, I eat with the teachers and try out both my Japanese and English skills.

Each ALT will have a different opinion on whether or not they should or shouldn’t eat school lunches with the kids. Some people don’t get a choice and have to regardless, but for me I was given the option. Some days I could force myself to be genki and try to initiate broken conversations. Other times, I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing words out and making lunch into yet another class to teach.

The argument for them goes like so: Students need more conversation practice and more time with the foreign teacher(s). But the counter argument to that is some people would like to eat in privacy and not get stressed out over eating. I took it day by day.

My kids are great. I’ve got a couple of punks that are too cool for school, but that’s normal I think. Some kids are also really shy, but I’ll keep trying to get them to talk. They love to tell me about what they like and don’t like. The boys are hilarious. They’re not looking at my eyes, if you catch my drift, but they’re talking to me in English so it’s all good.

I felt really bad for most of my junior high school students, actually. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their English levels were perhaps American grade level forth graders, if that. It was around this time I realized that Itako was much like the decade ago version of Paducah: most of those kids would become farmers, they would drop out of high school, they’d get married, and they might never even leave Japan.

That’s not to say of course that many of them didn’t go into good high schools to eventually perform well at university (I actually met up with one or two recently in Yokohama!). At the same time, the majority were still just products of their upbringing and conservative environment. The schools are improving every year though, and I watched as our scores rose higher and higher while I was there. Yet I would also watch as the “punk” kids struggled to understand the basics of anything and wouldn’t even bother trying because they figured they knew exactly how their lives would turn out.

My Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs for short) are awesome. I love working with them. They are so accommodating with my crazy English. Sometimes, it can be hard to communicate some things, but I’m lucky to have them for JTEs. Some people have issues with their teachers and supervisors in ways that horrify me. I’m so glad my JTEs are nice, respectful, and willing to teach me.

While it’s true that my JTE’s were pretty great as people, I still couldn’t believe their English skills were so hit and miss.  Considering that most of them came from the era of Japanese education where English was only reading and writing? It was pretty good. In terms of fluency? High intermediate level on average. They could run circles around me on explaining grammar, but they’d get stumped over simple language conversation usage.

I will still remain forever grateful that most of most stayed with me for all three years. I got that stability of knowing what each of them wanted and not having to worry about brand new people every year. And yes, none of these people gave me horror stories.

Many ALT’s will have THAT ONE ASSHOLE. He/She is the JTE who didn’t bother to do anything ever, blamed the ALT if scores were low, made disparaging comments about foreigners/ALTs/racist other things, sabotages demo lessons in front of other teachers and parents, ruins perfectly good worksheets, behaves like a seudo-yankee and threatens the ALT for coming to class, the list goes on and on.

I only ever had a problem with Mr. Igime (name changed into a pun). He was with me for only six months, and he was just lazy. He’d go into class, use me as a tape recorder, and then just have the students read the books over and over again. He would attempt to bully me, but I’m one of those people who can dish it right back. He learned pretty quickly that I’m not his slave and I’m not going to call him senpai or whatever. The only time he caught me off guard was when he complained in front of the students in Japanese how it wasn’t fair I was making “so much more money” than him. Huge dick move, but jokes on him because I went straight to the Principal after class and filed a complaint. He didn’t come back the following year.

The only downside, I’ll be honest, is the textbooks. The textbooks are awful. Whenever my fellow JET Setters and I get together at a meeting, this topic will invariably come up. Immediately, everybody has something to say in terms of what it does wrong. It ranges from everything to bad grammar, misspellings, archaic language, and then (my biggest issue) the huge lack of English culture in the book.


I could cite the many pages throughout the New Horizon and Sunshine texts that use incorrect examples of grammar and what have you, but that would take up too much time and effort. Instead, I’ll just give a couple of examples and move on.

“My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.”

First off, it should be Kinkaku Temple, not Kinkaku-ji. Also, favorite what? Your favorite place? Your favorite sight?

“Where shall we meet?”and “Pardon?”

Shall? Really? The last time I used “shall” was a sarcastic response to my mother when she asked me, “Are you going to clean your room?” And I responded in my most obnoxiously polite voice, “Yes, mother, I shall.” Nobody uses shall. It’s polite, but it’s ridiculously polite. And the last person I hear use the word, “Pardon?” was an old lady. Nobody, that I know of, uses the word pardon in everyday language. Instead, I always hear, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or “Wha?” or “What?” and on occasion “Darlin’, I didn’ah understand uh word ya jus said.” I miss Kentucky accents. Anyway, they’re teaching the kids these words and I have to stifle the urge to giggle every time.

“I got a letter from Canada. But I can’t read it.”

GAHHHHH! WHAT?! Every single American, British, and Australian will tell you that when writing sentences, you do not put conjugation at the beginning of a sentence if you can help it. The textbook could just as easy say, “I got a letter from Canada, but I can’t read it.” They have other sentences like that in the book. Why the wrong version?! It’s so confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes, I will correct a sentence and a JTE might say, “Oh, but that’s in the textbook!” I clench my fists while I smile and say, “Well, I’m afraid the textbook is wrong. I will let it count, but it’s not correct.” It makes me want to scream just a little bit.

Alright, so you get the idea. Now, it may seem nit picky with these examples, but they’re all over the textbooks. It would be a different story if there were only a few problems, but it doesn’t stop at just a sentence here or there.

Every single ALT I know agrees that the MEXT textbooks are garbage, but they’re government issued garbage so we have to just use them anyway. Three years down the road when I realized that I knew those textbooks inside and out, and I asked myself, “Can I really teach these same lessons for one more year?” I realized the answer was an emphatic NO, and decided it was time to go.

However, this is part of the reason why ALT’s exist. We come into the classroom with Native English (or equivalent) under our belt so that we can point out these mistakes and then teach the students the better way to do it. I spent a lot of classes explaining things like, “Well, even though the textbook says this is natural, we actually say _____ more often.” or “Sometimes it’s okay to do this when you’re writing, but when you’re speaking please be careful not to say it like that.” and visa versa.

I might have been able to let sleeping dogs lie if not for the fact that the textbook teaches little to nothing about foreign culture.

Very briefly at one point the textbook students visit Canada, but then they go back to Japan four pages or so later. So often, the textbooks talk about things in Japan, things the students already know. To me, the implied message is, “Hey, kids! English is awesome for vacations and for a homestay, but really you don’t need to know a single thing about a culture other than your own!” Way to teach a language in a vacuum, MEXT.

Here is another reason ALT’s are necessary, we have the cultural background and understanding of our respective countries that we can bring into the classroom. I talked about Kentucky’s cultural traditions around the holidays-the top three being Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In addition to that I would make English Boards, posters that would get placed on a wall that discussed other countries traditions.

While I still think the textbooks could try and teach a little more about other places, there is something to be said for taking the reigns and proving your worth as vital part of the school. If you notice something that you think is lacking, do something about it.

There is little to no hope for change in the system. The textbooks stay the same because of the standardized tests, and the standardized tests stay the same because of the textbooks. It’s a vicious cycle.

I get through these moments by telling myself that the activities will make up for the loss. However, it’s hard to build up from a poor foundation. It’s very easy for the students to get confused with one little change in the script. For example, I was doing a “Where is…?” assignment. When I asked the students, “Where is your pen?” they all just sat and stared at me in confusion. Eventually they figured it out, but the fact is they couldn’t grasp that “Where is…?” applied not just to, “Where is the store?” but also other things and places. The textbooks make it seem like the scripts are just that, scripts.

Because there is little to no hope for change in the system, it’s really important for teachers to take the initiative to fight for proper English and cultural exchange. Of course, you’ve always got to pick and choose your battles, but make an effort to show that there’s more than just some lines in a book or something to memorize for a test.

Then, what past me doesn’t know yet is that there are ways to make the scripts more memorable and flexible, such as layering. Whenever you move forward, try to bring a little bit back from the previous lesson and layer it on top of new material. Keep it fresh in the students’ minds. Also, bringing in pop culture can always help make it more memorable while being fun at the same time.

For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough when it comes to activities that I haven’t had to work from nothing at all. Lauren left me a huge amount of worksheets and activity books so that I could make my lessons without much hassle. Also, I use a website called Englipedia if I need help with a grammar point activity or if I need something right before class. I love using Englipedia because it’s got the lessons organized by textbook and even by each section. For me it’s one of the most convenient resources online for ALTs.

Usually, I spend at least one free hour planning out the lessons for the next day or next couple of days, depending on what the JTE wants. Sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them to find out what exactly they want from me, so I leave notes on their desks or a Lesson Plan Form that I fill out for them to look over and return to me. I try to catch them to talk face to face as often as possible, but sometimes they’re just too busy.

I still can’t recommend Englipedia enough as an ALT site. It’s got everything you need to make your lessons great. That being said, sometimes my JTE’s would get so picky about they wanted and I’ve have to redo a worksheet five to ten times to make it look just so or include this vocab word, or something. After all that, I sometimes didn’t even get to use the activities because of some scheduling thing or another! So frustrating, but that’s a part of the job.

Everyday when I leave, I say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” and the teachers in the staff room will either say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” in return or “See you!” The English makes me smile every single time.

I think in my next Japanese Conversation Tip post I’m going to talk about all the different goodbyes that are possible in a Japanese workplace environment versus friends and such. When I first got there it was a bit confusing as to which one I was supposed to use, but nowadays I’m pretty confident on which I should and shouldn’t so I’ll pass that knowledge along.

The rest of the post is talking about my pet spider, which I’d actually like to save for next Friday. I’m going to take that opportunity to educate everyone on all the creepy crawlies that live in the inaka parts of Japan. You’d be surprised what you can find! Until then everyone, sayonara and see you later.

Posted in Jobs in Japan

An Interactive Forum How-To Guide

Once upon a time when I was an ALT, I did Interactive Forum, a conversation competition. If anyone is doing that now, feel free to use the pamphlet and the hand gestures guide I made for my students.

Living the Dream

Interactive Forum is an educational program designed to help Junior High School students in Japan gain confidence in conversational English. The usual Interactive Forum I’ve encountered has two rounds, the first round using easy topics such as school, family, friends, and etc. The second round involves a little more challenging topics such as TV programs, music, and etc. I will be coaching my group of students until August, trying to prep them for the stage.

All too often, I’ve been asked how exactly Interactive Forum practices should be done, and honestly I don’t think there’s one set way. I’ve done it for two years now and I still have trouble every once and a while with my students suddenly going silent and forgetting to speak. I have picked up some tricks and tips along the way, so I hope that these will help others trying to coach as well.


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Posted in Jobs in Japan

The ESL Japanscape: ALT vs. Eikaiwa vs. Direct Hire

I’ve taught English a second language for nearly 5 years in Japan, and I’ve experienced three different forms of employment: the typical assistant language teacher gig, the business English school job, and finally I’ve arrived at the holy grail of direct hire position. Some people might get confused about the differences between the three, and what really matters in the end if all you’re doing is teaching English. Believe me, though, the differences matter in terms of salary, working atmosphere, and so much more.

Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) 

ALT’s are generally well paid through programs such as JET and Interac. The JET Program prides itself on developing lasting cultural bonds between the ALTs, the Japanese English Teachers (JTE’s) and the students. I felt like I was really a part of something great and big while in the program. The interconnected social groups from different prefectures really expanded my social circles, and gave me new insights to other expats countries and cultures.

The salary started off at ¥300,000 per month, but got whittled down to ¥280,000 after taxes and such. Nowadays, the JET’s have a new system where the first year starts off at a lower number and then increases every year an ALT renews a contract. For example, let’s say it’s ¥260,000 per month, that gets increased to ¥280,000 the next year, and so on for every year stayed on. (But don’t quote me on those figures, as I’m an alumi no longer in the program).

In addition, you get the perks of vacation time, 20 days of leave plus 15 days of sick leave. Nowhere else in Japan will you get this amazing deal! Not to mention you’ll get all the national holidays off, and then you’ll even have prefectural holidays and school holidays on top of that. There will be plenty of time to explore Japan, or even hope over to South Korea or Guam. The JET Program will do events and activities within each prefecture on days off and you’ll form a tight nit bond during your years in your placement.

There are issues to think about before accepting, such as the ALT jobs often place new recruits in rural areas with little to no English support. Often the only English support will be fellow teachers, who may or may not actually speak English fluently, and who may or may not want to deal with an ALT. And even though ALT’s are paid well on these two programs, ALT dispatch companies are getting increasingly shady about their hiring methods and contracts as time goes on. I worked for a dispatch company this past year that took 4 paid vacation days away from me, which I didn’t realize at the time was an illegal move against a full time employee. These tactics are common, and since many new recruits in Japan don’t know their rights, they often get screwed out of money here and there without even realizing it.

It’s best to brace yourself, the work can be grueling. I had an “easy” schedule of two junior high schools, two elementary schools, and the occasional preschool/kindergarten visit. I did conversation competitions and speech coaching as well for both junior high schools. Now, other ALTs have to contend with 4+ high schools, traveling to a different one every week or even every other day, along with debate teams and English club activities. Daily responsibilities can range from making worksheets, speaking activities (don’t call them games, remember that), to being a tape recorder, grammar drills, or whatever the JTE wants to do in the classroom on that particular day.

Although people joke about the ALT experience as a “job prepping” experience rather than a career initiative, I thought actually the job was on par with what people could call a “real job” difficulty level. I had to multitask, keep track of lessons, improve, change, and adapt quickly on the drop of a hat. You’ll actually find in some ways that being an ALT is harder than doing eikaiwa work.


When I worked at Coco Juku, at first in comparison to the ALT life it seemed easy. The workload was decidedly less than before, with only a few students per class and maybe about four or five classes per day. It’s not uncommon for business English school instructors to have a lot of downtime, especially on week days. During that downtime, you’ll get to be around other native English speakers, so unlike at Japanese schools no one will expect you to speak Japanese. It was amazing to go from fighting to be understood by my co-workers all the time to being able to just say what was on my mind.

In terms of curriculum, the eikaiwas will already have a set education program there for you to just pick up and do. No need to craft lessons from scratch like with the ALT job, which also definitely cuts down on prepping and hassle. Most chain eikaiwas will have training and meeting days where they’ll go over the whole thing with you, and if it’s your first time teaching period they might even do demonstration classes for you.

If you’re a great salesperson, this might be the job for you. I had to try and get textbooks sold as well as get people signed on to courses, and if possible get the people to sign into multiple courses at the same time. Most programs are what’s known as “fast food English” style, where students are given easy lessons once a week (that are designed to make them feel good but not actually improve or challenge them in any way, but that’s a secret).

Strangely, even though it wasn’t difficult work, I realized quickly that I couldn’t business English for an extended period of time so I ended up only staying there for 6 months. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a big hiring overturn rate at eikaiwas. Why?

Well, remember, it’s a business and not-so-much a school. The bottom line, your boss wants you bringing in more customers and keep those customers happy. In the end, you’re not really so much a teacher as instead a pseudo-retail worker and the retail being English. Unfortunately that means dealing with students/customers who don’t like how you teach, how you dress, how you don’t speak Japanese in class (yes, it happens), and so on.

It doesn’t help that the pay is less than most ALT work, as I got around ¥270,000 per month (so post-tax I ended up having about ¥250,000). I chose Coco Juku over the other eikaiwas because some, like Nova I believe, will pay you not by the hour but instead per class. Meaning, with only five or six classes and being paid minimum wage per hour, I’d maybe make ¥210,000 under that system. Still, I knew I would be taking a pay cut regardless, as ALT work is considered one of the higher paying options.

In addition to the pay decrease, the scheduling can be killer. You will be expected to work on national holidays, and the leave gets cut down to 10 days which go into effect after 6 months of working there. Pray you don’t catch a cold, because if you do you’ll be paying for that out of your salary. Unlike with the ALT job, you won’t get those nice summer and winter breaks to go traveling. Instead, you’ll most likely have to cut into your limited leave time in order to do a proper get away.

I worked both Saturday and Sunday every weekend. I thought that after working there for awhile that maybe I could start requesting switched days with other employees or maybe ask to switch my days, but it was a no go. My social life suffered and so did I, and that wore me down really quick. Most eikaiwas will have instructors working on the weekend, whether full or part time, but usually it’s Sundays off at least, or one pick of either Saturday or Sunday off. My schedule was an anomaly, but it can happen.

I burned out so quick with eikaiwa, so perhaps I’m being more negative than positive. Regardless, I would say that out of the three I would recommend eikaiwas last.

Direct Hire

Getting directly hired by a Board of Education or a private institution is the best of all three. The job security is guaranteed. Once you’re signed on to a year long contract, you get all the benefits of being a same status employee as any other Japanese teacher. Most direct hire positions range from ¥280,000-¥350,000, but the pay can increase if you’ve got a TEFOL/TESOL certificate. That neat slip of paper can get you higher into the ¥400,000 mark, but that’s rare.

For my contract I get 20 paid leave days, and then since I’m working for a high school I also have national, summer, and winter holidays to look forward to. Direct hire contracts are decided on a case by case basis, so your school may only give you 10 just like an eikaiwa or dispatch company, but usually direct hires get 15. However, if you want to go into negotiations about your leave, you can do that. As a person directly hired, all you need to do is set up a meeting with the principal or the board of directors. Eikaiwa and ALT contracts are generally locked in by the company or the government, so negotiations are near impossible.

Direct hires do have more responsibilities than ALTs. I will be working with a committee, and I’ll sometimes be forced to work on the weekends. I’ll be expected to help edit and shape the curriculum, which means more hands on work with worksheets, tests, evaluations, grading, records, and etc. On top of that I’m the teacher in charge, as in the classroom will be under my command and not to a Japanese teacher. I’ve got to keep grades, score tests, and do basically all the work of a real teacher. Most direct hires will perform similar responsibilities.

Although it’s technically more work, the relief of knowing you’re at one school with a set schedule makes for a lot less stress. Also, you’ll get to form deeper bonds with the teachers you work with, as you’ll see them daily instead of once a week (if that), and you’ll have more control over your classroom and what goes on with how grading works. Students will generally speak English more with you, too, because you’re a familiar face instead of some stranger that pops up at seemingly random times.

No matter which option you choose, all three are rewarding in their own ways and my story isn’t necessarily yours. The JET Program isn’t for everyone, and direct hires can be too much responsibility for some people to handle. Each person has to decide what they can and can’t do when it comes to their job. Just keep in mind that there are options to try out, and if you want to find a job in Japan head over to GaijinPot to find one. If you’re already on your way over, congratulations! I hope whatever your situation, it’s amazing for you.

Do you agree with my assessments? If not, comment! Add something new to the conversation. Or tell me what topic you want me to write about next. 



Posted in Uncategorized

The ALT Dispatch Li(f)e

Recently, the Fukuoka General Union released a video that’s going a bit viral in the ex-pat circles here in Japan.

The video is simple yet poignant, telling people all they need to know about Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) Dispatch Companies and how they scam teachers every year out of getting a living wage. What kind of dispatch companies specifically are we talking about?

Heart and Borderlink are the two that first come to my mind. When I lived in Ibaraki, many schools switched to dispatch companies. Immediately thereafter, my friends and colleagues told me horror stories. Many of the Heart ALTs in Kashima and Kamisu were placed without an apartment set up for them, so they (brand new teachers without any Japanese) ended up having to be homeless for the first month of their stay in Japan. Borderlink is notorious for shaming ALTs into working long hours without overtime pay, and even skimping on salary for showing up five minutes late as a half a day’s docked pay.

I will be honest, I was shocked to learn about how much of my own dispatch company, Wing Inc., follows along the lines of the ALT dispatch company illegal practices.

This is a very complex issue, but the bottom line is that dispatch companies do everything they can to avoid enrolling their ALTs in public health and pension, known as Shakai Hoken (SH)…the main drive behind their unwillingness is that the dispatch company MUST pay 50% of the SH cost. This usually works out to about 25,000 to 30,000 yen per month (depending on income). It is on parity with the National Health Insurance (Kokumin Kenko Hoken [KKH]) but is more expensive than private (travel) insurance. (The FGU advises members not to join private insurance if at all possible as foreigners in Japan are obliged to join either SH or KKH).

At the moment, my company doesn’t pay Shakai Hoken. I pay that every month, which I wasn’t told about in my interview or my contract signing day. I knew I should’ve read it more carefully, but I was in a bind and desperate for a full time position. I also fall under an “out” that companies take here in Japan.

One way that unscrupulous dispatch companies avoid enrollment is by making employment contracts less than 30 hours per week. This is to try and create an “out” by calling on a government advisory that states that to be eligible for SH an employee must work APPROXIMATELY three quarters of a regular full time employee. Seeing the normal working week is 40 hours, anything under 30 hours is less than three quarters. Therefore, by making contracts 29.5 hours work per week, the company claims that the ALT is under the threshold. It should be noted that the FGU believes that even teaching 29.5 hours per week ALTs are eligible as the advisory states that it is APPROXIMATELY three quarters (概ね3/4).

Everyone who is foreign and working in Japan knows about this practice. Actually, it’s becoming more of a problem as time goes on. Japan Times recently did an article called “For Japan’s English teachers, rays of hope amid the race to the bottom,” wherein  discussed the unfair playing field set up by eikaiwas (private/business lesson English schools) as well as dispatch companies:

… the infamous 29½-hour workweek, which has become the industry-standard method for eikaiwa chains to minimize their labor costs. Giving teachers schedules of less than 30 hours has allowed these firms to classify their teachers as part-timers, thereby avoiding enrolling them in the national shakai hoken social insurance program, under which the company is required to pay half its employees’ health insurance and pension premiums….

The big news for 2016 is that for teachers working for large firms — i.e., those with over 500 employees — the 29½-hour rule should cease to be an issue from October, when new labor regulations will require these firms to enroll all workers who put in at least 20 hours a week in the shakai hoken program…

Meanwhile, other firms, such as Gaba, continue to sidestep the troublesome issues of thresholds and so on altogether by denying that their teachers are staff at all. Making use of itaku, or subcontractor, status — an increasingly popular tactic among companies within and outside eikaiwa — Gaba evades all the responsibilities an employer would usually have toward its employees: no sick leave, no pension, no insurance, no paid holidays, no overtime rates.

Coco Juku, Nova, and other eikaiwas will try their best to sell foreign native teachers on the idea that their per hour pay is competitive. But what they fail to inform most people applying is that most lessons are 50 minutes, not a full hour. However, having worked for Coco Juku myself, when I was there I was given a standard 10 days vacation package and health insurance and pension coverage. I don’t know if Coco Juku will fall in line with Gaba one day and change their teachers to itaku status, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

I was told that I would be working from 8:20-5:00 every day. However, I have to arrive at my school early because of train times. Technically, I am working 40 hours per week, but Wing Inc. wouldn’t ever allow that to get put down on paper. Also, Wing Inc. took 4 of my vacation days away, for no reason as far as I can tell besides they don’t want to pay for them.

In general, most schools don’t know what’s going on with the dispatch companies. All they know is that they’re paying the company a hefty sum of money to employ the government mandated native teachers. In terms of insurance, pension, and so on, they generally have no idea that the teachers are getting screwed over. But there are definitely blinders thrown up when an ALT or an eikaiwa teacher brings up their rights and how they’re being treated.

Usually, the only way to fight against any system is to get a lawyer, join a union, and turn in a complaint to the labor office. All these options cost money, more Japanese know how than most native teachers possess, and the information that they actually can fight in the first place. Before moving to Japan, join a union, know what your employer covers, and know your rights as an employee in Japan.


The Fukuoka General Union also has some videos from NHK, a Japanese national news station, which discusses all of the dispatch and sub-contracting woes. Japanese only, sorry!

Do you have an ALT dispatch or eikaiwa horror story to share? Feel free to talk about it in the comment section!