What’s an ‘ALT?’

The average Assistant Language Teacher is a young adult from an English-speaking western country. She lives in Japan and works in a Japanese elementary, junior-, or senior-high school, assisting in or facilitating English lessons.

Do ALTs need to have a degree in education?

No. A degree from any discipline is all that’s necessary.

Do they need any teaching experience?

lolz, no

Um, do they need to be able to speak Japanese?

No. Native-level English is all that’s necessary.

So … The average ALT doesn’t necessarily have any skill as a teacher nor ability to speak Japanese. How do they teach?

An excellent question. And one that /everyone/ asks. You wouldn’t want a random guy off the street to perform brain surgery on you, would you? So why is it okay for an ALT to teach with no experience or education in education?

There are two common answers to this question. First, the ALT is an assistant. There is a Japanese Teacher of English, or JTE, who is usually in charge of class. But the ALT still has to be doing /something,/ right? So to assuage that concern, it is also mentioned that the ALT will receive periodic training.

What kind of training do ALTs get?

The average ALT will go to a few training sessions throughout year. Sometimes this is with a small group of local ALTs, sometimes it’s a larger gathering of ALTs from around the region. Sometimes experienced ALTs hold workshops, sometimes distinguished representatives from the academic elite give lectures.

But when it comes down to it, the only real training ALTs receive is mostly given by other ALTs. In a more established occupation, like carpentry, a group of experienced carpenters would decide on a set of basic skills a new carpenter should have. New carpenters would receive training in practical skills from experienced carpenters. These would be specific skills that would help the carpenter do their job better in specific ways.

The carpenter would receive training periodically, and at the end of their training, have the opportunity to be tested, and then upon passing this test, receive a license saying they know what they are doing. Along the way, the carpenter is given more responsibilities at work and become more valuable and skilled.

This is not what happens. ALT training boils down to senior ALTs giving presentations to other ALTs. (Sometimes JTEs are made to attend these training sessions as well, not in order to learn anything, but to give them some exposure to native English. All but the most enthusiastic JTEs end up sleeping in the back.)

As early as their second year, ALTs are made to tell other ALTs how to be an ALT. From the outside, it’s obvious that there is a huge problem in expecting neophytes to instruct neophytes in a field as important as education. (This, and many other ALT problems, makes more sense when you think about the real reason ALTs are invited to Japan, but that’s a blog for another day.)

But new ALTs are just happy to get any sort of guidance from anyone at all. The average JTE avoids critiquing the ALT or giving advice, even when the ALT asks for it. (I haven’t thought a lot about why this is. It might be as simple as the JTE is already busy enough, and ‘evaluating ALTs’ is simply not a part of their job.)

This is despite the fact that ALTs are expected to go into a classroom with virtually no training or qualifications for being in a classroom. The only qualification is that they speak English. But being able to speak English alone does not help the desperate ALT figure out how to make an effective lesson plan, how to select or create an effective worksheet or classroom game, how to engage students effectively in class, how to effectively promote English language use in class, how to explain English grammar, how to conduct oneself with rebellious or disruptive students, how to work with the JTE, and much, much more.

In the old days, the ALT just read out of a textbook, and that was good enough. There are still some JTEs to this day who expect college-educated, ambitious young people who want to do something challenging, something meaningful, to make the decision to fly across the world to Japan, and then occasionally stand in front of a class of students and recite broken English from a textbook, like a human tape recorder, for five days a week and be happy about it.

…How is this okay?

‘ESID.’ A catch-phrase in acronym-crazed Japan that means ‘every situation is different.’ This phrase gets used a lot whenever ALTs have job-related complaints. It may have been used to originally explain why some ALTs, specifically in the JET Program, would have different rent or accommodations or number of schools to attend, etc. It seems to now be applied to /all/ ALT complaints. Once it was used to explain the discrepancies two ALTs working in different towns might face, and being such a quick, simple way to quell ALT disquiet, it seems to be uttered any time an ALT has any sort of problem ever.

ALTs have absolutely no official means to influence anything that goes on. Turnover rates for ALTs are high, and this is by design. The average ALT is only here for one or two years before quitting their contract. By the time they start to understand what is wrong with the system, they’re gone and another ALT replaces them.

So what’s the point of having ALTs, anyway?

You’re asking the wrong question. It’s very easy to ask the wrong questions about the ALT situation, because, frankly, no one is being completely honest with ALTs.

It’s hard to ask the right questions about an illusion. When you are presented with an illusion and question its integrity, you are like a dog chasing its own tail.

Unless you find the reality underneath the facade, you will never get closer to the truth.

What is the truth?

I’m not entirely sure, but I’m trying to get there. Honestly, I don’t believe it’s anything nefarious exactly, but there is a lot of duplicity, there is a severe lack of clarity towards ALTs, and I think not only is this unacceptable, it negatively affects ALTs, students, teachers, schools, and communities.

I want potential ALTs to know what they might be walking into. If you’re lucky, you will have a school experience like the ones in the DVDs and brochures and etc. If you’re unlucky, maybe something I write here will at least give you the small comfort of understanding why.

I hope things are good for you. If they’re not, I hope they get better.


You. Yeah, you. Do you like what you see? Leave a comment, gimme a like, Tweet me. Thanks a million.


2 thoughts on “WHAT IS AN ALT, ANYWAY?

  1. The ESID rings true, not just in different prefectures, towns, and schools, but , of course, JTE’s too. I was an ALT for 3 years, some 15 years ago, and it sounds like the JET experience is much the same now as it was back then. I remember the first year as being a huge learning curve, the second year being fun (knowing what to expect in the school year made it easier, and I knew how to be a better ALT), and then by the third year I felt like I was doing a great job, and enjoyed helping other ALT’s, but I knew that I was ready to leave Japan. So, by the time I had learned how to work in the Japanese school system and had found my own way of teaching / being an ALT, it was time to go home, to let someone else walk in my shoes. I spent the first two years in one town, with one base school and three visiting schools, then my final year in a different town with just one base school but 12 schools I visited once a semester, so I had some variety. Have you stayed in the same location / same school for five years?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, I have worked at the same school for the entire run, but the way staff changes every year, it doesn’t feel like it. I wish I would have left after my third year too, because that’s when things started going downhill for me.


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