On Being an ALT in Japan Part 3
by Kevin Burns
The grade threes enter. The children as always are a joy and one of the teachers is fine, but another teacher is a pain. Her game is to tell Walker at least once per class that the activity he is about to do, just won`t work.
“The kids can`t do this.”
“Let`s just try it.”
“This is too difficult.”
“Let`s try it.”
“Shouldn`t we write all of this down on the board for them.”
(Fuck…g shut up!) “Let`s just try it.”
” I really think this is too hard.”
“It`s okay, it`s okay,” (Ya c–t!) Trying to stifle a maniacal urge to strangle the 25 year
His wife urges him to ignore the interference. Walker can`t. He has been doing this
for 17 years and finds it really grating that a 25 year old is telling him how to teach, as well as what will work and won`t work in his class. Walker can`t imagine ever being rude enough to stop a Japanese teacher while she is teaching a kanji class, saying “this is too difficult.” This woman is making the class harder to teach. Yet her job is supposed to be as a team member and help him teach the class. She seems to regard Walker as her rival. She seems to see him as some interloper teaching her students. He sees her as some kind of saboteur.
In Japan, you are often not supposed to talk about problems. Simply bringing them up
is something that shouldn`t be done. “Walker stops the 25 year old on the stairs, resists the
crocodile urge to push her down them, and says “Please stop giving me advice during my classes.
I am busy enough. Tell me after the class, plus I have done all the preparation, it is too late
to change things right before an activity.” She looks stunned.
Walker decides that is not enough. Acting like the Westerner he is, he goes to the boss and let`s
it fly. Though he has mentioned this problem before Walker never named her, Now he does: The grade three teacher is driving me crazy. He tells him the whole story. The boss agrees
it is really rude. The next week, she is on her best behavior.
The grade six class is taught by a woman in her fifties. She turns out to be nice enough, but in
the beginning she is cold. After the first or second lesson, she tells Walker the class was too difficult. Walker thinks, that Japanese really don`t know how to welcome the new guy. Why not give him a chance? This was the lesson felt to be so difficult:
“Hello, my name is __________________. What`s your name?”
“My name is______________.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
Yep, rocket science ladies and gentleman. Learning English is rocket science.
The new guy is expected to pay his or her dues and the dues seem to need paying a lot longer than in the West. He sees that at the tennis club, at parties and in the English class, where classmates don`t even know the other students` names. A Westerner in Japan, if lucky won`t be the new guy forever at his work place and the clubs he joins, but he will be the new guy a lot longer than any Japanese would. The society is certainly not geared towards welcoming people from other ethnic backgrounds, and that applies to any situation where you are expected to work together as well.
“Japanese people love foreign ideas and things. They don`t really want foreigners around to
instigate them though.”
-L.B, a company executive in Japan
It is a shame as the children really are great. Walker enjoys seeing their beaming faces. Even
the junior high wannabes are not so bad. The teachers of the elementary schools are a real
hit and miss proposition though, and Walker must work with them every class.
The range in the teachers seems to be from fantasicly energetic and simply great teachers, to
people who look like they are really not enjoying themselves on planet Earth, and want you to
be aware of it. “I`m having my period today and I want to eat you alive!” I hate my life, I hate
my job and foreigners scare me. You might embarrass me in front of all the kids.
“Okay let`s do the hokey pokey…” The grade four teacher informs him that he can`t dance,
he must discipline those boys over there. Okay, Walker has learned to roll with things more.
“Five little monkeys dancing on the bed….one fell off and he was dead.” (like some of the
zombies I work with).
While reading the brown cow book, no one can hear him as the three boys in the front are
being so loud. Not having to do any discipline Walker waits for the Japanese teachers to
react. No one does. “I can`t read this book with them talking, can you help me please!?”
The statues move, and take care of the culprits, then return to their pedestal.
One day a fax arrives at the Walker household: “Walkersan, sorry if you made your lesson
plan already, but this is how I want you to teach.” Walker you will remember was told he
could teach any way he wanted. Now he was being told to follow Suzukisan`s plan. In the
preceding weeks, though he was praised a lot, Walker was criticized in a polite way almost
weekly by the Japanese staff. “Can you please hold the cards this way most honorable
“We have these cards and these books for you Walkersan.”
“Your books are too small Walkersan.”
“Your cards are too small Walkersan. Please use ours.”
“Please do the same songs that Noda sensei is doing.” Noda sensei was a volunteer teacher.
“Please watch our grade three teachers teach the class.” Walker did, found it boring and very
Japanese, rote-memory, repeat after me, teacher centred, 1950`s style crap.
“Please watch honorable Noda sensei teach.” Walker did, grumbling about being asked to
watch the volunteer. More 1950s style bullshit. Repeat after me, sing the same weather song
countless times; bore the students into stupor.
Walker decides after 8 months that he will quit. He talks about being lied to about the job.
The job he agreed to was not the job he recieved. He outlined all of the gripes above. He asks,
“If you want me to teach like a Japanese, why not hire a Japanese teacher? Am I just
here for pronunciation practice?” An embarrassed silence ensues. Walker will never hear
an answer to that question from any of the elementary school department heads he asks.
“One Japanese teacher always tries to sabotage my classes.”
–an ALT in Japan
“The JETs say the same thing, that the schools of Japan are very unfriendly
places to work.”
–An official in the JET program who wishes anonymity
“The teachers in Japan are over-worked, under-paid, and are in an industry with declining
numbers. They are stressed, under too much pressure, working too many hours, and not
enjoying their jobs these days.”
–An official in the JET program