ALTs arrive in Japan with lots of ideas they want to implement in their new workplace. Unfortunately, these ideas rarely survive crashing into the grinding gears of Japanese bureaucracy. It’s disheartening. But sometimes perseverance pays off. This is my story of getting something done in Japan.
When I came on JET, I brought nearly zero teaching experience with me. However, I spoke pretty good Japanese (I got JLPT N2 in December of the year I arrived) and I lived in a city that had three other elementary and junior-high school ALTs. After drowning for a while, unsure of myself and woefully unprepared for the actual demands of conveying ideas to children, around September or October I reached out to my supervisor for help.
“Can I go watch some of the other ALTs teach? I’m not really sure how I should be doing things,” I asked my supervisor. Diplomatically sucking his teeth, he replied that the schedules had already been set for the whole second semester and organizing something like this would be quite difficult. Watching other people’s lessons would require travel costs, schedule arrangement, lots of communication between my Board of Education and the schools, and telling the lunch centers that one school would need extra fixins. No deal.
I understood that arrangements would be difficult, but I needed help. Lots of people are happy to tell you what order things should be done in a class, but there’s no way for them to show you how to engage with the kids, how to solicit responses, or how to get a laugh. I knew my sempai ALTs had tricks and seeing them firsthand would be the best way for me to learn them myself.
I floated my lesson watching idea to the other ALTs. I was met with a resounding, “Sure, that seems fine.” I asked them to put the question to the elementary school homeroom teachers with whom they have the best relationship. From here word spread. I talked to my teachers about what I would like to do and the other ALTs kept conversations going in their schools about it.
On our own, we ALTs picked out a date that might work for a meeting like this. We picked the last day of school before winter break (December 20th, 2013). On this day we all had to go to school, but no one had any classes scheduled. That meant that as long as we were working somewhere, the Board of Education would be happy. Each ALT ran the idea of these classes by the Principal or Vice-principal at their schools.
By now it’s mid-November. With the date, time, locations, schedule, and transportation details all sorted and written down, and preliminary okays from all the schools involved, I brought the idea back to my supervisor. With all the details laid out before him and me being able to confidently tell him that many people at several different schools were informed and on board, he told me he’d consider it.
He got back to me in a few days, saying that he liked the idea and that we could do it with a few minor changes to the itinerary. We made his changes, sent faxes to the schools, called the lunch ladies, and it was on.
Finally, the big day came. Our supervisor picked us up in a van owned by the city and drove us to one of our elementary schools. One of the sempai ALT taught a normal class and we moved on to the next place. We ate lunch at one school with the kids and played ALTs vs kids dodgeball during recess. At the last school, after the class was done we had a meeting to discuss how the day went, what we liked and didn’t, and talk about what we learned. I think we all learned a lot since everyone got to see a few new lessons. I hope the kids had a good time too.
Seeing my peers in front of kids, leading exercises and games, making them laugh, and keeping them interested helped me immensely in my growth as an ALT. I came away from that day with a much wider perspective on how classes could be run and plenty of new tricks for engaging the students.
The lessons learned
I took two main lessons away from this episode.
First, when it comes to making your ideas into reality as an ALT, you have to do the legwork yourself. This legwork includes talking to all the relevant people, coming up with a solid plan and putting it to paper, and being patient and polite all along the way.
Second, implementing new ideas in Japan takes a long time. Without all parties involved having a confident understanding of a plan that enjoys consensus, new endeavors will likely fail at the planning stages. Take your time, play the long game, and don’t be surprised if the road is bumpy at the start. Polite perseverance is key.