by Matt Nelson
This is a hectic time for schools around Japan, in both the inconsistency of day-to-day work, and the fundamental changes that occur. Some of these changes happen without the prior knowledge of ALTs, even though they greatly affect our jobs and often we may want to give a lot of input. It is the culmination of a working year, and simultaneous end and beginning of a three year trek of schooling for the junior and senior high school students. This transitional period may seem like limbo, but if you didn’t have a particularly good schedule or a tough time in classes last year and you don’t act now, the next school year may turn into purgatory.
What can ALTs do? The books you will use for each class are usually decided in late fall/early winter and have already been sent in to boards of education to be approved, with or without your knowledge. The “syllabi” has also been sent in, but this is not concrete. They are often just a completely arbitrary list of the months of the year written next to a facsimile of the table of contents of the textbook(s) for that class. The number of hours per week per class has been decided. The yearly schedule is probably mostly finished and someone who probably knows nothing about your situation is creating the general weekly schedule, of which only half of the school weeks will follow anyways.
Three syllabus books, divided by year, sit atop a pile of papers over 7 cm thick (all photos taken by Matt Nelson)
All duplicates or completely unnecessary papers were amassed for one school year to show how much paper is wasted on one teacher. The syllabi are included in this pile because they literally had no real importance, even though we supposedly followed them. Can either problem be changed?
Despite all these things being “prepared” beforehand, probably without your input, things are not set in stone. In fact, it is far from it. This transition time brings about the most change to an ALT’s working conditions. Much of it is out of your control: who is transferring, which teachers teach which classes, which classes you will teach, how many students per class, etc. But this time is also the best, and perhaps only, time to actually affect a lot of change in your work.
The key is to have patience, honesty, and consistency. If you demand things, you will lose. Learning how to plant the seed of an idea and letting others help you see them through is key to any job, but perhaps none more than that of ALT where you have very little “real” authority in the work place. It may technically be the end of the school year, but it is also the beginning of the next school year and is the preamble to everything you will do.
Before we can set the right mood and implant our ideas, we have to do some preparation. Cleaning and organizing your desk and materials better will help your day-to-day routine run smoother and be more consistent. This will help your mental health as well as probably your working relationships.
Matt’s desk after a good cleaning & re-organization
Most ALTs don’t get enough feedback, so you have to ask. Do your research by talking to teachers about classes you taught together and the materials you used. What worked, what didn’t? This should have already been done, obviously, but now many teachers have more free time to discuss these things, and a lot of teachers may be surprised when you give your feedback about a class.
An evaluation form may be your best option. The ones schools make are definitely lacking in any real value. You could even do this with students and on a regular basis to improve your classes throughout the year. Make it simple and concise. Get help creating the Japanese questions, but make the answers multiple choice or scalable so that you can interpret the results yourself. Or, make a simple English one as another tool to teach English. You may need to get permission first, so make a rough draft and show someone. They may also give you some useful advice about it.
Once you’ve got feedback, take the materials, activities, and lesson plans that worked in a class and organize that into a folder so you can follow it again. Ask for materials, syllabi, class rosters, and calendars as soon as possible so you can prepare in advance.
One advantage ALTs have is that we probably know which classes we will teach. If it is different from last year, you probably already know. If you don’t, you should probably ask. Use your experience in the same class to be an important resource for the new year planning and use this time, when other teachers are waiting to find out which classes they’ll teach, to prepare for the classes you know you’ll teach.
A clock showing Japan’s school year schedule…
In reality, we can’t change anything except ourselves. Think about small things you can personally do to improve like participating outside of class more, smiling more, not saying certain things, doing your work differently, making a healthier bento. Again, talking to colleagues may reveal something they would like you to change, and it may be a personal revelation for you. Making a new school year’s resolution could be very helpful. Writing it down always makes it stronger, and you could even ask colleagues to help remind you.
But if you really want something to change, that feedback you got is your first step. And since ALTs don’t have much authority in school planning, you will have to use some seemingly indirect tools that may be unfamiliar to you. No, you probably can’t change some fundamental things, but you may not need to.
Consider the physical environment you teach in. Often ALTs end up teaching in designated Language Labs (LL Rooms). These ironically named death traps often have unusable computer screens and or TVs built into desks that cannot move and are made for herds of 40 students or more. None of these rooms tend to be really made for conducing communicative and active language lessons. If you know there is a better room for your class, now is the time to talk about it.
Or consider the outline of a class. You would like to see more emphasis on grades given for daily vocab quizzes or homework. Or maybe you want to start an ongoing project. Simply put, you want to start something that was previously non-existent or under-emphasized and you want it to be more consistently implemented. Start planning now and discuss it with your colleagues. If you’ve already gotten feedback about that subject, you may have evidence to support new ideas.
Maybe you just don’t teach well with a particular teacher because you do too much of the work or not enough. Perhaps something happens in class that you can’t cope with and your previous attempts at communicating your frustration have been less than successful. If you don’t speak up now or plan ahead for future instances those bad habits will continue, and they get harder and harder to break.
In all three of these cases (and there are many more examples of things you can change), your first step will always be to get feedback and prepare. How you discuss it with teachers outside of meetings will be up to you. You may not even know when some of the meetings are which determine the next year of your working life, but if you express interest in the planning they may ask you to come, or at the very least you can ask them to convey your ideas to others at such meetings. Prepare clear examples or an outline of what you are suggesting happen or an alternative solution to help facilitate discussion, and if they seem skeptical use feedback from others to back it up.
Not having direct authority may seem difficult, but some tricks can make it easier. First, if you talk to one teacher beforehand about an idea you have, they are more likely to voice their support and agreement. Second, if they taught that class with you they may also give helpful input that you may not have thought of. Third, your JTE colleagues do have authority and may know how to deal with certain people that you cannot. If it is a superior, for example the head of the English Department, all the better! It is their job to communicate between departments, including those in charge of planning and scheduling, and to help address issues and grey areas between personnel.
If something really worked well last year and none of the teachers are teaching that class again, your colleagues can explain that activity to new teachers and even insist it be implemented again. If you still have problems with a teacher after repeated attempts to compromise, a much more senior teacher is in the position to confront those issues and try and talk to the other teacher behind the scenes. You probably won’t see a complete 180° turnaround, but something is better than nothing.
Go slow and certainly don’t be spiteful. Teachers may be truly surprised when they hear about a class if you just state the situation, rather than stating the “problem” or how you don’t like it. You don’t need to be emotional and, again, feedback will help back it up. They will draw their own conclusions and may be shocked by the difference between what they thought was happening and reality.
Obviously, the more people you talk to the better. Consensus is important, and even the most stubborn of people will (usually) concede. Be aware that you may be the stubborn one; you just don’t know it yet. The manifestation of previously unknown inter-human relationships at work and their reactions, good or bad, may surprise you. Someone maybe agreed with you all along, but was just scared to say anything. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about how to handle people better and about compromise. And if a request or idea does get shot down, at least you’ll know the reason why it can’t/won’t be done, which is probably the most important thing you’ll learn.
No matter the age, language, or culture, human relations and communication are still the most important things for a good working environment and improving problems there. And if you want to improve the situation you’re in, this is the time of year to communicate your wishes and intentions because no one can read minds (I think). Just be prepared and use subtlety. In reality, ALTs usually have little direct input in schools, so the give and take of working with people is important to get things done. Most of this has nothing to do with Japan; it’s called LIFE and happens at virtually every other job. No matter the issue, while it would have been prudent to start this process earlier, this is the time of year to really start addressing areas of concern by talking to teachers and laying the seeds of change. Otherwise you’ll never get out of limbo.