Working Life

Working Life as an ALT
Although each situation is different, there are many similarities in our situations. We are all here from a foreign country, teaching and working within the standardized Japanese education system. These similarities and differences can help us bond together as a working resource.

Getting Started

Here are some ideas for settling into your new job and breaking the ice with your Japanese coworkers.

  • Self Introduction. At the elementary school you might show your self introduction to everyone in the school at once. If not, or at junior high and high schools, you might just show your self introduction to the students and the English teachers. If this is the case, you can ask the principal if you can give a short introduction at a teacher meeting so all the teachers can learn something about you.
  • Exchange Contact Information. Particularly with your JTE(s). Get their email, phone and cell-phone email (if different) and give them yours. It couldn't hurt to get the phone/fax number for the teacher's room as well.
  • Make a Map. Draw a layout of the desks in the teacher's room at all of your schools, and label it with the teachers name, subject, grade, hobbies etc. This gives you a good excuse to talk to each teacher. It is an easy way to introduce yourself and later you can use the information to start conversations. For example you can ask the Social studies teacher where the country of Georgia is, or the Japanese teacher how many strokes are in the kanji "keru", (to kick). Note: Many schools make a layout with this information in Japanese and distribute it to teachers each year, but likely before you arrived. Ask if one is available to save time.
  • Clean Out Your Desk. It is very likely that your desk will be filled with things left over from your predecessor. Sometimes, the collection can span decades of ALTs, and it can range from junk to pure gold. Better to sort it out now.
  • Personalize. Make your workspace your own. Put out your favorite framed photograph. Figure out how to hook up your computer. Buy a coffee mug and a stock of your favorite drink. Buy some non-perishable food in case you forget breakfast/lunch, etc.
  • Introduce Your Country. Make a poster about differences and similarities about your home country and Japan. It's not always easy to see how unique your own culture can be and this gives you a lot of good conversation asking teachers to help you with idea's for your poster. Things like population, popular foods, school sports, and currency are a good start. You can do this with using only pictures at Elementary, or challenge those upper grades by labeling things in English.
  • Learn the Office Lingo. Make a list of common greetings and farewell on your desk or on your class notebook. Otsukaresama desu.........

Journal of Ideas

When you first arrive you get many ideas from the Tokyo orientation along with all the ideas you researched and thought about in your home country. This is great! Keep a journal listing all your ideas for teaching English and working with the school kids.

Because it is easy to get into a daily routine of fulfilling your co-teachers needs, and your weekend adventures, it is easy to lose sight of many of those ideas, so reviewing and adding to your journal will help keep ideas fresh.


Many of the teachers expectations of you may be completely foreign to what you had imagined. It takes a lot of time to adjust to your situation. Although your coworkers' expectations may take priority, you will always find time to put up that English billboard you had all planned out.

Sending out frequent questions to your 同期 (douki=coworkers that started the same time as you) is a good way to not feel isolated or as if your experience is untypical. For example many people felt weird leaving work at 4:15 when their coworkers stayed until who knows when. This feeling comes from not knowing. But saying "osaki ni shitsurei shimasu" (おさきにしつれいします)  and apologizing for leaving before your coworkers is fine. There are also many other support staff that leave early. But until you realize this or someone tells you are not expected to stay late, you might feel uncomfortable because you don't know. So asking your douki's questions to help eliminate as many of these uncomfortable feelings as possible will help you adjust faster.

I Have Nothing to Do Syndrome

Your job is made up from many sources. Your contract of basic expectations, your predecessors legacy, your coworkers requests, requests from the community and requests from the Board of education amongst others.

The strange thing at work in Japan is that often, nobody wants to tell you what to do. In Japan it is more common to allow a new employee to find their own way. If one were to ask a principal of the school what they should do, the principal might just say, "Work."

If your predecessor broke the ice and was able to become more involved in clubs or school activities, then you are lucky, because they made it easier for you. If your predecessor did as little as possible, you have to overcome this.

Being part of a ground roots organization allows ALTs a lot of free time to make positive change that their coworkers can not do. Getting your coworkers to go along with new ideas is most of the battle. But they will be much more open to ideas when they see an ALT that uses their free time wisely and offers to help out than one that surfs the internet all day waiting to sit in on their next class.

Ideas of things to do often come from thinking about what you wished your predecessor had done. Creating something that can be handed down to the next ALT to carry on or make their job easier will be noticed and appreciated by your coworkers usually making them more helpful and interested in what you are doing.

Excerpt from the JET Programme Q&A Book

The following is an excerpt from the JET Programme Q&A Book (12th Revised Edition) published by CLAIR in 2016:

  1. New arrivals
    1. Gathering information regarding daily life (shopping, riding trains, opening a bank account, visiting the hospital, contacting the police or fire department, etc.)
    2. Japanese training in the workplace
    3. Team teaching seminar
    4. Participation in seminars for Japanese teachers of foreign languages
    5. Participation and cooperation in English seminars held for full-time workers
    6. Observation and participation in activities to learn more about the community
    7. Participation in club activities, etc.
  2. Re-appointed JET participants
    • In addition to the above:
    1. Cooperation with prefectural level orientation programmes
    2. Support, advice, and guidance for new arrivals
    3. Participation and cooperation in international exchange events and various seminars held by the contracting organisation
    4. International events, exchange programmes with the local community, and language seminars requested by the contracting organisation

Ideas for Work

  • Join classes. Sometimes teachers think this is really strange but the students tend to love it. PE, Cooking, and Art are good places to start. If you can get a handle on when your English classes are cancelled, this is a good way to substitute the time. Your interaction with students will get much easier the more often they see you.
  • Create classes. Do you have an English club, a special needs class, etc? If you suggest a full-class activity, often the teacher in charge of these students will be happy to help you implement it, especially if you are planning, preparing and organizing the lesson. It saves them work and can be fun for students. Art, cooking & culture-based classes are good starting places. Be prepared to pay the cost of any materials above those available for use (i.e. the ingredients for a cooking lesson).
  • Create a year syllabus. Daunting? Well even a catalog of what you have done is a good idea. Most Elementary schools don't have any English guidelines and the same kids might get taught fruit 6 times before they get to Junior High. Even if you only go to the Elementary school once a month, having goals and a general progression of difficulty will keep the kids challenged and engaged.
  • Ask for work. Your JTEs have an incredible amount of work but may be oddly unwilling to share the burden with you. Sometimes this is because they feel uncomfortable asking others for help, other times it's school policy or a bad past experience. But if you ask for work routinely usually you will get it. Checking journals, homework, quizzes, etc. is all useful and a good way to stay busy.
  • Cultural boards.
  • Work on the Wiki.
  • Read and edit Teaching resources.
Entering JET Checklist
Before Arrival Preparing for Akita Checklist • What to pack? • Financial and Language • Doctor/Dentist Information
After Arrival Culture Shock • Working life