A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “ALTs Are Not Teachers” which generated a bit of discussion. While many threw their support behind the message of the article, it was divisive (to say the least). Some felt strongly that it was absolutely spot-on, “required reading” for new ALTs while others vehemently asserted that it was “negative rubbish” and written by a clown (as a five-year elementary/kindergarten ALT, the latter is not entirely untrue). As the author, I do feel that most of the criticisms were misplaced, and that many would-be objections were, in fact, congruent with my own views. Here I wish to expand on the intentions behind “ALTs Are Not Teachers”, recapitulate the thesis, and address some of the criticism directly.
My Story & Intentions
I’ll start off by saying that a lot can be gleaned from the GTO narrative I discussed in “ALTs Are Not Teachers”. Before actually starting as an ALT, I envisioned my life in Japan as similar to Onizuka Sensei’s: I would have my own class, bring a unique teaching philosophy to the table, and connect with the students on a level much deeper than “conventional teachers”.
On my first year of JET, I mostly just bumbled around getting used to things, as I’d wager many of us do. I was just getting acquainted with teaching, Japan, and living abroad for the first time in my life. The dream of becoming “Great Teacher Thomas” was mostly just swept up in acclimatization and euphoria (and I was fine with that).
The GTT dream became a reality, however, when I was given control over my own classes in my second year. At junior high school. Yes, I taught my own classes. Because of some sort of oversight from the Board of Education, my school of 200ish students (2 classes per grade x 3) was only allotted two JTEs to carry the load of the (then) newly mandated ‘four English classes per week’. This was an unheard of situation at my school and both teachers physically could not handle all of these classes. So they tapped the music teacher on the shoulder (he spoke a bit of English), said “you will be Thomas’ ALT this year”, and sent us on our way.
I was given full control of this newly-christened ‘fourth English class’. For an entire year, I taught 8 classes a week (once per week per class plus two special needs classes) at junior high school as ‘the main teacher’, creating the entire curriculum, regular tests, reviews and routines, with zero overhead. Combined with the two other days a week I taught at elementary school (where I was also given free rein over the curriculum) I was fully in charge of every lesson I taught, five days a week, for an entire year.
It was glorious.
Whereas my first year on JET could be chalked up entirely as ‘learning the ropes’, my second year was exactly as I envisioned my life as an ALT to be before I actually started The JET Programme. I knew every single student by name, their English levels, and how well they worked together. From there, I drafted them into 6 teams per class based on their individual abilities. The teams combined students who were good at English and others that weren’t, kids that were more ‘genki’ (energetic) and others who were more reserved. When one student in the group finished, they would have to help the others in the group as I only accepted assignments when the entire team was done. The effect was spectacular: so much time was saved by getting the students who finished earlier to help the students that had more trouble.
Another idea I implemented was greater mingling among the students. As many ALTs observe, when you say ‘go’ during an activity, the guys usually run to the guys and girls to the girls. Sometimes they forget they’re in a classroom and just begin chatting immediately. Not on my watch! I gave bonus points (huge ones, initially) for doing warm-ups and conversation-based activities with the opposite sex. Gradually I lessened the bonus points such that they were marginal, but by that time the students were comfortably and happily interacting with each other.
These were just a couple things I implemented in my class. I was also introducing them to viral videos from the web, we were learning English songs, we were filming English news reports—all in an environment where they were rewarded for talking to a diverse number of people and working as a team. It hardly resembled what I had come to identify as an ‘English class in a Japanese school’. I was busier than any other ALT I knew but I was thoroughly fulfilled, and anyone I told about my situation reacted with a resounding ‘damn, I wish I had that set up’.
And then it all came crashing down.
When the new school year started the following April, a third JTE came on board, my classes were stripped away and I was back to repeating words. One day I was GTT, exposing my students to the world outside of Japan, doing the sort of grassroots internationalization that I believed The JET Programme to mandate, and the next I was a human tape recorder, having to look those same students I was giving assignments to a few weeks before in the eye as I repeated a set of textbook flashcards.
I was depressed. I was angry. I was bitter. I felt powerless over my situation and just continued to let it fester, so resentful that I had already signed on for a third year of JET.
But then something happened. Students began telling me how much they missed my class. They were asking me about the latest YouTube videos, telling me they tried some of the songs we learned in class at karaoke, and that they were searching for more info on the web about places around the world I introduced them to. One student who had recently graduated from high school came back to visit the school, and told me that she had signed up to do a homestay abroad because of my class. I started to see that I actually made a difference in my students’ lives.
The pivotal point was when I taught a demonstration class with one of the new JTEs who used me exclusively as a human tape record / ‘classroom silencing patrol officer’ (standing next to students who were talking and pointing at their notebooks like a monkey). I was included in the ‘post-demo-class discussion’ for the first time ever and they asked me what I thought could have been improved in the class. My defeated, self-wallowing temperament being in full swing, I gave a couple meek suggestions that barely scratched the the surface of all that I felt was wrong with that lesson and class in general.
The music teacher, with whom I had taught my own class for an entire year, was also part of the post-demo discussion. He absolutely ripped my JTE a new one. Seriously. He outright yelled at her for not using me more and gave example after example after example of all of the innovative ideas I had come up with the year before and how much the students enjoyed them. He kept saying how much of a waste it was to have me patrol the class and repeat words the entire lesson, summed up in the Japanese phrase “mottainai” (‘such as waste’).
“Mottainai.” “Mottainai.” “Mottainai.”
I was almost in tears. After months of being virtually ignored, of feeling like a ghost within my own school, a place where I had felt valued and useful only a year before, this was the most redeeming moment of what would go on to be my five-year tenure as a JET. All of the resentment and frustration that I was too damned flabbergasted to put into words (due to a lack of language ability and conceptual clarity) was finally being delivered succinctly, in Japanese, to the person who had to hear it the most. The music teacher came to my defense and delivered my case for me to the JTE in the presence of the principal and half the teachers in the school.
From there on, I decided that things had to change. With the support my students were giving me and with the music teacher selflessly pleading my case, I could no longer be a bystander to my gradually worsening situation. I opened a dialogue with my JTEs, I started making myself a part of the routine, and began to introduce those ‘cultural ambassador’ aspects of teaching that were prevalent during the time when I had my own class. Though I never quite got the arrangement I had during my second year as a JET, by the end of that third year I had a great, harmonious, fulfilling role as an ALT in my junior high school, and it would only continue to grow more integral to ‘the English class’ experience at my school for my fourth and fifth year.
You can take this story any way you want to. You could easily quote some part of this story out of context and say “the whole thesis of ALTs not being teachers just comes from a bitter JET experience”. But then you would be missing the point of why I wrote that article entirely. More importantly, you would just be plain wrong. I didn’t have a bad experience as an ALT at all. I loved being an ALT, enough to stay five years. And I was a goddamned great one. In no sense did I ‘check out’ and become complacent; I continued to grow and learn more ways to be an all-round effective ALT .
Now, if you came to me right after my second year in the midst of my bitterness, then I might have been singing a different song. I might have told you that the image of life as an ALT is a scam, and that you should just be prepared for disappointment. But this is not a story of failure; it’s a story of redemption. It’s a story of an ALT starting out with misplaced expectations, getting a brutal awakening, and then recovering to a point where he was harmonious and successful in his surroundings. It is a story that almost exactly mirrors the four stages of culture shock. It is a story that I hope you learn from, so that you don’t experience such violent whiplash, should you find yourself in a similar situation.
The intention behind the “ALTs Are Not Teachers” article is not in the slightest to discourage you from trying to be the best damned teacher possible or to somehow become complacent by seeing yourself as ‘just’ an ALT; instead, it is one of having proper expectations from the very beginning such that you don’t crash and burn later. The point of that article was to give you a less-idealized picture of what being an ALT may be like, as bluntly put as it takes, so as to make for a better experience for you in the long run. Concerning the original article and its intentions, this commenters nail it:
“I’m a little confused as to why this article is upsetting so many people. Sure, the title is jarring, but if you read the entire piece, Thomas is advocating for an adjustment of expectations in order to make one’s life as an ALT happier and more balanced. The piece isn’t attempting to put anyone down or dishearten them, but the opposite.
While I am a new ALT, I’ve spoken to many positive, upbeat, not at all bitter ALTs who have been here for years, and they say the same thing – the key to them being happy and at peace was adjusting their expectations. I think this is sound advice.”
That being said, some felt that is not what the article was saying. Indeed, even using the word ‘teacher’ a couple paragraphs above is problematic for some, given the title of the article. Others point out their own situations, and, indeed, I can imagine some ALTs having similar situations to that of my second year as a JET. To this end, I would like to review and respond to the two main criticisms, offer a critique of my own, and attempt to clarify the precise point I was trying to make.
The Title Is Logically Inconsistent
“ALTs Are Not Teachers” is a jarring title. So jarring, in fact, that it irrevocably tainted the rest of the article for some. One professional ALT writes: “Nice headline. I seem to remember doing a lot of teaching in my 8 years as an ALT.” Another ALT, pointing out the references to ALTs as teachers in the article (vs. the seemingly contradictory title) exposes what they believe to be the true intent of the article: “’Ha ha, you bit my clickbait!’”
One new ALT dismisses the entire article from the get-go:
“Assistant Language Teacher is a species of Language Teacher in the order of Teacher. I think ALT is a type of teacher, so the title is wrong. The rest of the article might be correct, but I don’t know because I didn’t read it”.
The general argument here goes that the argument presented in “ALTs Are Not Teachers” is inherently an unsound one by virtue of its title. Whether it be through the presence of the word “teacher” literally in the initialism “ALT” or through a task that any every single ALT can point out as “teaching”, the articulation of the thesis itself is a contradiction. It simply does not stand.
Every Situation Is Different
Though I tried to anticipate the “ESID” rebuttal, this did not satisfy everyone. The argument here goes that one cannot categorically say that ALTs are not teachers since some people have situations where they are functionally ‘a full teacher’. If an ALT has this situation and is basically doing the same work as their Japanese counterparts, what are they if not a teacher? As one commenter writes: “For many ALTs we are unquestionably teachers.”
The ESID object noted in the original article was dismissed too easily, and was insufficient to deal with the actual amount of variance in ALT situations. “Teacher” is too narrowly defined.
Actually The Term “Teacher” Isn’t Defined At All!
I would like to offer my own critique of the article. I think that much of the divisiveness that the article generated can be traced to a single flaw of the article: “teacher” is never defined. The title and premise of “ALTs Are Not Teachers” loads itself up for a number of reactions against it since every commenter is employing their own definition of the word “teacher”. Thus, for some, it is something literally in the term “ALT”; for others, it means being academically qualified to be a teacher; for others, it is doing the task of “teaching” that makes a teacher. The author employs his own definition but never shares it with the audience.
Not discussing the term ‘teacher’ is the reason that reactions to the article were so divisive yet equally passionate. We all have our own ideas of what it means to be a ‘teacher’ (and, as a philosophy major, I should have known to define my terms from the start). It also explains why I found myself reading and agreeing some would-be critiques of the article and saying “Yeah! Yeah! This totally nails it”, only to realize that such comments were intended to be objections. The lack of clarity of the premise translated into multiple streams of objections to, essentially, multiple premises.
Being the author of the article in question, I can tell you what happened. I simply tried to do too many things. Some were able to follow my line of reasoning and identified my intentions behind the article immediately; others, still, read a different article completely because we were on a different page from the start. This is my own fault for not being more clear in what I was trying to say.
Now, I did go into writing the article with the knowledge that this would really be a starting point for a number of follow-up pieces I intended to write, so I kind of regarded it as ‘the first brick being laid down.’ But that brick could have been laid down much more cleanly. At the very least, I could start rebuild the argument with a more solid foundation.
So let’s look at ‘being a teacher’ means.
(Comments section to this part is combined with part 3 and appears at the end)
Thomas is a travel enthusiast who has lived in Japan for over five years and has been to every prefecture twice. In his first five years, he primarily taught at public schools in Kagawa Prefecture with The JET Programme, crowd-surfing little kids to get to work. He currently resides in Tokyo.