Category: Jobs in Japan
Teaching Experience: Do you “need” it for the JET Program?
I get this question all the time. “Somebody said that they don’t accept people without teaching experience, is that true?” The long and short of that is no, otherwise I would’ve been rejected from JET. I had some tutoring and an observing education class in university (wherein I went to different schools to watch teachers in their classes), and that’s all I had. Before the JET Program, I had never taught in front of a classroom, so you don’t need to worry about it.
It doesn’t hurt your odds to get in if you’ve got teaching experience, so by all means if you do have it put that on your application and mention it in the interview. Be sure you can answer questions well, like “Why did you want to become a teacher? What kind of teacher do you want to be? How long have you been teaching?” Those kind of routine questions will be asked, and then they may go even harder on you. “What are some challenges you’ve faced in the classroom that you’ve overcome? How many students do you teach on average?” And so on.
Regardless of whether you do or don’t have experience, be sure you can answer the question, “Why do you want to teach in Japan?” My answer was along the lines of, “I want to be a good representative of my country in the classroom so students will have a good impression of foreigners, specifically American foreigners. I want Japan’s international relations to improve, even if it’s only in a small way.” It’s not a bad answer, I think, but there are better answers out there. For example, an art major I knew told her interviewers that she wanted to learn about East Asian art, and bring that experience back to America to influence her art. She hoped to be a part of the art after school programs in her school so she could teach them the Western styles of art and they could teach her the Eastern. It was a better answer in my opinion because it showed she’s future oriented, she’s thinking outside the box, not just the classroom but even after school activities.
Know this answer and memorize it. Practice saying and explaining your view before the big interview. I’ve talked about the JET program before, so be sure to take a look at both the video and the article to learn about what it takes to get in. Also, there’s a very nifty guide from Tofugu about the JET Interview. Read it to get prepared to give the best impression!
Working on the Future: Take Your Chance When It Comes
In my previous post, I did a vlog about the After JET Program experiences I had, but along the way I mentioned some regrets I held over not taking some chances that would’ve made my life much easier when I left JET. Everybody, I think, has these kinds of thoughts. We look back and in hindsight we could’ve done more or done this thing or gone to this event, generally the regrets are things we didn’t do.
Opportunities can pass by so quickly. One minute you’re contemplating whether or not you should do something, and then all of a sudden, BOOM! That precious moment, probably vital, is gone. When I had the opportunity to get TEFL/TESOL certified, I should’ve gone ahead and signed up for those classes. Without it, I ended up struggling after JET to get a direct hire position. I eventually got one through the merits of my hard work, but I could’ve saved myself nearly two years of effort. Taking those kinds of chance, to better improve yourself in your field (whether you want to stay in it or not) are always good investments.
Many people I know in Japan have taken online classes or correspondence courses in order to accumulate credits for graduate school. I don’t particularly want to do graduate school, but I realize in this day and age the more education I receive, the more the payout will be later. Besides, if you’re not interested in teaching in Japan forever, that would be the smart move. Or let’s say you want to stay in Japan but simply don’t want to teach, then gaining experience in a different field through certifications gained by online courses or correspondence is a great way to start busting out of that bubble.
You also need to network, as in introduce yourself to new people when and where you can and discover what they do. If you’ve got a similar interest, or they know an insiders look into something you want to do, you need to exchange contact info. Even for English teaching, use those business cards and hand them out like they’re candy. You need to expand the people you know, so that you can help them and they can help you when it comes to professional matters.
For me, I have wanted to do freelance or writing in some aspect. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite start hard on my blog when I came to Japan. I was a sporadic in posting, to say the least, because I never thought I would be doing it as a means to an end. Back in the day (she says like she’s so old), blogs were considered a small media form, not really useful or taken seriously.
Nowadays? You can actually make blogging and vlogging a full time career. I wish I’d done more with my previous blog, that way it could’ve grown into something amazing over the course of the three years I kept it up. Granted, now I understand how blogging connections work, and how to make my “brand” (that’s kind of weird to say) stand out a little. I’ve got Facebook, Twitter, YouTube Channel, an Instagram all connected to this blog. I’ve learned and improved quite a bit over the years, but I just wish I’d improved a little faster or done more with the time I had in the past.
However, that’s not to say I’ve done nothing. I’ve been writing for online sites when I can, and I’m going to continue to do my best with this site. Progress, no matter how small, counts as an accomplishment. Still, the future comes quickly, and missed opportunities can mean a lot of roadblocks in your path to your end goal that you could’ve avoided. It’s important to do what you can when you can. Even if you’re working a full time job, even if you’re doing overtime, you’ve got to make time to do something for the betterment of your future.
Your future self will thank you, and you will be where you want to be.
Flashback Friday: When It’s All Mundane
As the months rolled on from summer into fall of 2011, I found myself unable to write about my life. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to, but I found that everything was becoming a new standard of “normal.” I wasn’t running off to go on adventures every weekend, I wasn’t living in an anime, I had a real life with a real job I needed to do. The days passed by with little to nothing noteworthy, so I ended up posting only two things the entire month of November.
I decided to stick with the old phrase, “Write about what you know.”
MY DAILY ROUTINE
Each ALT will have a different opinion on whether or not they should or shouldn’t eat school lunches with the kids. Some people don’t get a choice and have to regardless, but for me I was given the option. Some days I could force myself to be genki and try to initiate broken conversations. Other times, I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing words out and making lunch into yet another class to teach.
The argument for them goes like so: Students need more conversation practice and more time with the foreign teacher(s). But the counter argument to that is some people would like to eat in privacy and not get stressed out over eating. I took it day by day.
My kids are great. I’ve got a couple of punks that are too cool for school, but that’s normal I think. Some kids are also really shy, but I’ll keep trying to get them to talk. They love to tell me about what they like and don’t like. The boys are hilarious. They’re not looking at my eyes, if you catch my drift, but they’re talking to me in English so it’s all good.
I felt really bad for most of my junior high school students, actually. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their English levels were perhaps American grade level forth graders, if that. It was around this time I realized that Itako was much like the decade ago version of Paducah: most of those kids would become farmers, they would drop out of high school, they’d get married, and they might never even leave Japan.
That’s not to say of course that many of them didn’t go into good high schools to eventually perform well at university (I actually met up with one or two recently in Yokohama!). At the same time, the majority were still just products of their upbringing and conservative environment. The schools are improving every year though, and I watched as our scores rose higher and higher while I was there. Yet I would also watch as the “punk” kids struggled to understand the basics of anything and wouldn’t even bother trying because they figured they knew exactly how their lives would turn out.
My Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs for short) are awesome. I love working with them. They are so accommodating with my crazy English. Sometimes, it can be hard to communicate some things, but I’m lucky to have them for JTEs. Some people have issues with their teachers and supervisors in ways that horrify me. I’m so glad my JTEs are nice, respectful, and willing to teach me.
While it’s true that my JTE’s were pretty great as people, I still couldn’t believe their English skills were so hit and miss. Considering that most of them came from the era of Japanese education where English was only reading and writing? It was pretty good. In terms of fluency? High intermediate level on average. They could run circles around me on explaining grammar, but they’d get stumped over simple language conversation usage.
I will still remain forever grateful that most of most stayed with me for all three years. I got that stability of knowing what each of them wanted and not having to worry about brand new people every year. And yes, none of these people gave me horror stories.
Many ALT’s will have THAT ONE ASSHOLE. He/She is the JTE who didn’t bother to do anything ever, blamed the ALT if scores were low, made disparaging comments about foreigners/ALTs/racist other things, sabotages demo lessons in front of other teachers and parents, ruins perfectly good worksheets, behaves like a seudo-yankee and threatens the ALT for coming to class, the list goes on and on.
I only ever had a problem with Mr. Igime (name changed into a pun). He was with me for only six months, and he was just lazy. He’d go into class, use me as a tape recorder, and then just have the students read the books over and over again. He would attempt to bully me, but I’m one of those people who can dish it right back. He learned pretty quickly that I’m not his slave and I’m not going to call him senpai or whatever. The only time he caught me off guard was when he complained in front of the students in Japanese how it wasn’t fair I was making “so much more money” than him. Huge dick move, but jokes on him because I went straight to the Principal after class and filed a complaint. He didn’t come back the following year.
The only downside, I’ll be honest, is the textbooks. The textbooks are awful. Whenever my fellow JET Setters and I get together at a meeting, this topic will invariably come up. Immediately, everybody has something to say in terms of what it does wrong. It ranges from everything to bad grammar, misspellings, archaic language, and then (my biggest issue) the huge lack of English culture in the book.
I could cite the many pages throughout the New Horizon and Sunshine texts that use incorrect examples of grammar and what have you, but that would take up too much time and effort. Instead, I’ll just give a couple of examples and move on.
“My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.”
First off, it should be Kinkaku Temple, not Kinkaku-ji. Also, favorite what? Your favorite place? Your favorite sight?
“Where shall we meet?”and “Pardon?”
Shall? Really? The last time I used “shall” was a sarcastic response to my mother when she asked me, “Are you going to clean your room?” And I responded in my most obnoxiously polite voice, “Yes, mother, I shall.” Nobody uses shall. It’s polite, but it’s ridiculously polite. And the last person I hear use the word, “Pardon?” was an old lady. Nobody, that I know of, uses the word pardon in everyday language. Instead, I always hear, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or “Wha?” or “What?” and on occasion “Darlin’, I didn’ah understand uh word ya jus said.” I miss Kentucky accents. Anyway, they’re teaching the kids these words and I have to stifle the urge to giggle every time.
“I got a letter from Canada. But I can’t read it.”
GAHHHHH! WHAT?! Every single American, British, and Australian will tell you that when writing sentences, you do not put conjugation at the beginning of a sentence if you can help it. The textbook could just as easy say, “I got a letter from Canada, but I can’t read it.” They have other sentences like that in the book. Why the wrong version?! It’s so confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes, I will correct a sentence and a JTE might say, “Oh, but that’s in the textbook!” I clench my fists while I smile and say, “Well, I’m afraid the textbook is wrong. I will let it count, but it’s not correct.” It makes me want to scream just a little bit.
Alright, so you get the idea. Now, it may seem nit picky with these examples, but they’re all over the textbooks. It would be a different story if there were only a few problems, but it doesn’t stop at just a sentence here or there.
Every single ALT I know agrees that the MEXT textbooks are garbage, but they’re government issued garbage so we have to just use them anyway. Three years down the road when I realized that I knew those textbooks inside and out, and I asked myself, “Can I really teach these same lessons for one more year?” I realized the answer was an emphatic NO, and decided it was time to go.
However, this is part of the reason why ALT’s exist. We come into the classroom with Native English (or equivalent) under our belt so that we can point out these mistakes and then teach the students the better way to do it. I spent a lot of classes explaining things like, “Well, even though the textbook says this is natural, we actually say _____ more often.” or “Sometimes it’s okay to do this when you’re writing, but when you’re speaking please be careful not to say it like that.” and visa versa.
I might have been able to let sleeping dogs lie if not for the fact that the textbook teaches little to nothing about foreign culture.
Very briefly at one point the textbook students visit Canada, but then they go back to Japan four pages or so later. So often, the textbooks talk about things in Japan, things the students already know. To me, the implied message is, “Hey, kids! English is awesome for vacations and for a homestay, but really you don’t need to know a single thing about a culture other than your own!” Way to teach a language in a vacuum, MEXT.
Here is another reason ALT’s are necessary, we have the cultural background and understanding of our respective countries that we can bring into the classroom. I talked about Kentucky’s cultural traditions around the holidays-the top three being Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In addition to that I would make English Boards, posters that would get placed on a wall that discussed other countries traditions.
While I still think the textbooks could try and teach a little more about other places, there is something to be said for taking the reigns and proving your worth as vital part of the school. If you notice something that you think is lacking, do something about it.
There is little to no hope for change in the system. The textbooks stay the same because of the standardized tests, and the standardized tests stay the same because of the textbooks. It’s a vicious cycle.
I get through these moments by telling myself that the activities will make up for the loss. However, it’s hard to build up from a poor foundation. It’s very easy for the students to get confused with one little change in the script. For example, I was doing a “Where is…?” assignment. When I asked the students, “Where is your pen?” they all just sat and stared at me in confusion. Eventually they figured it out, but the fact is they couldn’t grasp that “Where is…?” applied not just to, “Where is the store?” but also other things and places. The textbooks make it seem like the scripts are just that, scripts.
Because there is little to no hope for change in the system, it’s really important for teachers to take the initiative to fight for proper English and cultural exchange. Of course, you’ve always got to pick and choose your battles, but make an effort to show that there’s more than just some lines in a book or something to memorize for a test.
Then, what past me doesn’t know yet is that there are ways to make the scripts more memorable and flexible, such as layering. Whenever you move forward, try to bring a little bit back from the previous lesson and layer it on top of new material. Keep it fresh in the students’ minds. Also, bringing in pop culture can always help make it more memorable while being fun at the same time.
For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough when it comes to activities that I haven’t had to work from nothing at all. Lauren left me a huge amount of worksheets and activity books so that I could make my lessons without much hassle. Also, I use a website called Englipedia if I need help with a grammar point activity or if I need something right before class. I love using Englipedia because it’s got the lessons organized by textbook and even by each section. For me it’s one of the most convenient resources online for ALTs.
Usually, I spend at least one free hour planning out the lessons for the next day or next couple of days, depending on what the JTE wants. Sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them to find out what exactly they want from me, so I leave notes on their desks or a Lesson Plan Form that I fill out for them to look over and return to me. I try to catch them to talk face to face as often as possible, but sometimes they’re just too busy.
I still can’t recommend Englipedia enough as an ALT site. It’s got everything you need to make your lessons great. That being said, sometimes my JTE’s would get so picky about they wanted and I’ve have to redo a worksheet five to ten times to make it look just so or include this vocab word, or something. After all that, I sometimes didn’t even get to use the activities because of some scheduling thing or another! So frustrating, but that’s a part of the job.
Everyday when I leave, I say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” and the teachers in the staff room will either say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” in return or “See you!” The English makes me smile every single time.
I think in my next Japanese Conversation Tip post I’m going to talk about all the different goodbyes that are possible in a Japanese workplace environment versus friends and such. When I first got there it was a bit confusing as to which one I was supposed to use, but nowadays I’m pretty confident on which I should and shouldn’t so I’ll pass that knowledge along.
The rest of the post is talking about my pet spider, which I’d actually like to save for next Friday. I’m going to take that opportunity to educate everyone on all the creepy crawlies that live in the inaka parts of Japan. You’d be surprised what you can find! Until then everyone, sayonara and see you later.
Let’s Talk About Bad Teachers
I’m going to make a shocking confession: I never wanted to be a teacher.
Arguably, I’m still technically not a qualified teacher. All the same I have taught students in Japan for over five years, of varying levels and ages. My current employment requires me to facilitate testing, grading, check attendance, and deal out discipline. In all the ways that matter, I am a teacher.
For most of my life, though, I didn’t want to teach. I don’t have that “so-and-so teacher really inspired me to become and educator!” type of story. I could probably count about 10 teachers in the entirety of my K-12 existence that meant something to me. Most of all though, the bad teachers really soured my idea on the career.
I didn’t want to end up these bitter bullies, the ones who had nothing better to do than break down their students daily. I’m still terrified that I might one day turn around and realize I’m doing something just like them, and it makes me sick to think that is at all possible. I try, though, to remember being a student and how those teachers affected me even to this day.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on three specific bad teachers I had personally. Names will be changed, identities held secret, for their sake and mine. Hopefully, dear God please, these people have gone on to become better instead of worse over time.
The first one gets a special medal of bad that I’ll get into in a moment. Let’s call her Mrs. Misery, because that’s how she made me feel more often than not. As a fourth grade math teacher, she took her job as seriously as a Southern Baptist pastor takes to Sunday worship, which is to say a whole bunch of yelling that didn’t really explain anything concrete and was confusing as all hell.
Now, she and I perhaps would’ve gotten along better if it weren’t for a whole bunch of factors playing into my life at that time. My parents were getting into year two of a long and horribly drawn out divorce, which included moving out of our old home and moving into a new one. Then, I had her class after lunch. This is slightly more important, as I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and if lunch didn’t agree with me, I’d have to rush to the bathroom so as not to crap in my pants.
She took my medical diagnosis as my “easy excuse” to leave her classroom, and boy howdy did she take that shit personally. Even though I had a doctor’s note explaining it in my file, she didn’t want to believe it was a real thing. She would bully me during and after class any time the bathroom got involved, and would even talk to other teachers about it right in front of me and other students.
Thanks for putting my business out to the world, ya bitch.
To put the cherry on top of this sundae, I wasn’t naturally good at math. I don’t know why, but literally everything else is easy for me. English? Please, I was at college reading level before third grade. Science took some studying, but eh, no problem. Same for Social Studies, and all the electives ever. Math just doesn’t compute, I don’t know why, but it’s way more difficult for me than anything else.
She made it abundantly clear that she considered my stupid, more often than once, right to my face. Oddly enough, I didn’t get too upset over that, because I knew she was wrong. Also, she called the smartest person in our grade level stupid once, and after that she lost all credibility to everyone in that classroom over who was or wasn’t stupid. We generally all made a pact to ignore anything she said in that area, but I’ve got it ingrained into my brain that I am math stupid. It’s a thing that persists, a part of my psyche, and it sucks.
Alright, so Mrs. Misery gets a special medal for being the worst teacher I ever had because she made me feel like shit for having a medical disorder, and thus making me ashamed of something I had zero control over (the start of many years of hating my body that lasted all through middle school). Then she basically gave me a Math Complex, where I firmly believed (and remain believing) that I’m stupid when it comes to this particular subject. And finally, she did all of this IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, like some horrid shame eating monster that could only be satisfied with the despair from children.
I suppose I should thank her, in a weird way. Because of her, I’m the teacher that lectures students after class once everyone else is gone. I try to keep notes on who has what kind of illness. When students raise their hand to go to the bathroom, I just let them go. If they’re gone for more than ten minutes, I write a note saying they get less class points. I don’t want to make anyone feel that bodily functions are shameful. I never call students stupid, I discourage other students from calling others or even themselves stupid.
The next one we’ll call Ms. O’Hara, and I actually managed to get revenge on this lady in an epic fashion. Ms. O’Hara was known for being what you might call a literary snob and a grammar Nazi, so it was fun times for us kiddies who grew up in Kentucky all with Southern sensibilities and kids to boot. She liked to pick on the kids who didn’t have much money and were a bit slow, usually farmers kids. She’d tear them down for mispronunciation, misspelling, and missing the mark on the “grand points” of some book or another we’d be forced to read.
Now, I managed to skate through her class mostly unscathed, since as mentioned previously, English class was my jam. I loved the written word, I read books daily (not kidding, I can chow down a paperback in 24 hours or less), so for me the class was a breeze. Yet, she decided not to give me my grades, as in call them incomplete, until I did my AR points.
For those of you who weren’t a part of this inane literacy program, consider yourselves lucky. My school district opted to use the Accelerated Reading program in order to “track the literacy level of the schools.” They would put books by a certain grade level. How the system chose the grading levels, I don’t know, but odds are length and vocabulary had a lot to do with it. The higher the grade level, the more points you get. It was annoying and pointless since most kids just read Cliffnotes and passed the stupid tests regardless.
Well, Ms. O’Hara wanted my class in particular to get the points at our specific literacy level. I was at college reading level, which meant I got two choices in the library: “Crime and Punishment” or “Gone with the Wind.” For a twelve year old, those were both daunting choices. I chose the latter, and sped read through it, hating every single bit of it. Scarlett was an abusive, manipulative she beast, and no amount of literary analysis will ever make me look at this novel with wonder and awe.
I read it, I did the stupid test, and passed with flying colors. Whoo-hoo.
Ms. O’Hara was furious, because while other students were reading at least ten or so books a semester under her regime, I read only one for her. What she must’ve not realized is that college reading level books had the highest scoring points, as in enough points to cover me for an entire semester and half way through the next. She was forced to give me my grades, and I felt unimaginably happy to have thwarted her attempts to bully me with extra work.
Once again, I should feel a bit appreciative towards her, because I’ve learned that managing expectations in the classroom is very important. The class should be challenging, but not impossible. Homework and projects shouldn’t be piled up high, but set at a reasonable timeline with class time given to help struggling students. Notice I said help! I don’t tear my kids down over English mistakes, I take the time to explain and help them remember the rules, and I practice with them to make it better even outside of class. I want them to make mistakes, because making mistakes and correcting them is how everybody learns.
Finally, let’s talk about Mr. Sports. Mr. Sports was yet another abysmal math teacher, a high school dude who wanted to talk about basketball more than geometry or algebra. Often, the jocks in class would get him started on some tournament, they’d talk about that for the next hour. We wasted countless hours of class time, learning nothing, and it was pretty obvious the dude was only coming in to get his paycheck and be done with it all. He was useless, not really a bully, just a complete waste of time.
I remember being frustrated that he wouldn’t cover any of the material in class, but would still demand we learn everything by the midterms. I don’t recall how I passed those classes, but I suspect the main reason is because the internet was finally booming into something amazing, and I started looking up “How to Math” on AskJeeves. I learned enough to survive, and continued taking his unfortunate classes because my schedule for everything else AP and/or Advanced wouldn’t allow for a different teacher.
From him, I’ve made an absolute promise to myself to never, ever put material on a test I haven’t gone over in class. If we haven’t practiced it, wrote it into notebooks, or whatever then it’s not going to be on the tests. I won’t make my students suffer that kind of agony that’s not fair and beyond asinine to inflict on them. I don’t care that’s not the speed the school wants, too bad! Fire me and replace me with a useless person instead, I’m going to spend my hours teaching and therefore helping students LEARN.
I suppose in the end, I learned a lot about what not to do from these bad teachers. They’ve stayed with me, remnants of the past that have healed and scared over, so I take those experiences to turn them into fuel to become the best teacher I can possibly be. I will try my damndest every single day not to be the teacher that ruins an entire subject subject for a student, that will educate instead of shaming, and will use every minute available to give the students a fighting chance at using what they’ve learned long after they’ve graduated.
So thank you Mrs. Misery, Ms. O’Hara, and Mr. Sports! I guess in the end I did learn something from you.
About the JET Program(me)
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (ak.a. the JET Programme) is dedicated to “promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations.” The JET Programme is a very well known and well established English teaching program in Japan, but it also has other positions. Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) work in communities on international exchange activities and Sports Exchange Advisors (SEAs) who promote international exchange through sports. I went through the application and interview process in the year 2010, so perhaps some things have changed since then. Be sure to check the websitefor more up to date information.
I’ve been asked over the years about some specific aspects about the process, so I’ll share my version of the events that led me to Japan and the JET Program.
To get an application, first visit the website for the Embassy of Japan in your country. Since I came from the United States, I’ll be discussing that specific process, so if you’re from another country this information might be a little off from your nation’s way of doing things. Deadlines will be different from country to country so be sure to check on those.
When it comes to the Main Application Form, I can tell you that I agonized over every little detail. I stuffed that thing with as many achievements I possibly could, along with club activities and volunteer work. I expressed my interest in Japan, and I was able to put down that I studied abroad there for a month the previous year.
People applying often ask me if study abroad or Japanese language experience is necessary for acceptance. The answer to that is no, you don’t need Japanese to be an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). In fact most people who come to Japan know little to no Japanese as ALTs, so you don’t have to worry about that aspect of the application. Whether or not you know Japanese will have very little to do with whether or not you get a position.
CIRs and SEAs require a high Japanese ability, as in fluent or at least business fluent (equivalent JLPT N1 or N2).
I know several JETs that have come to Japan with absolutely no experience living or studying abroad. Some people have never even traveled much outside their home state/ providence/ what have you. Also, you don’t need an English or teaching degree. All ALTs must have a Bachelors degree or higher, but teaching experience is not necessary. If you have any experience with any of these things, I would definitely recommend putting that down on your application.
If you don’t, just do your best to put in all the relevant information you can. Believe me when I say that without experience you can still get in. In my Group A (the first group that arrives in Japan in August), there were photography and history majors who never taught a subject before coming to Japan. Everyone has a shot of getting in, so don’t give up just because you think you’re somehow not qualified because you might be surprised who does and doesn’t get into the program.
When it comes to who should give you a recommendation, go with the professors at your college that know you best. I was able to see mine in person to give them the recommendation form, but if you can’t have face to face interaction be sure to leave them with some basic information about the position you’re applying for and what the program is all about. Some professors know it and others don’t, so try your best to make sure they can write up a good recommendation that is relevant to your specific job position and interest in the program instead of spending time having to research what you need from them.
I believe the essay portion, the Statement of Purpose was perhaps the hardest part for me. I wrote it and re-wrote it like ten times before I finally sent it off. The essay is two pages in English, so DO NOT SHOW OFF JAPANESE ABILITIES HERE. Also, if it’s more than two pages, it will get tossed in the trash. You should write down any and all Relevant Experience. For example, in my essay I wrote about how I went to Japan in the summer of 2010 and read to an elementary school class “The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar” in English. That would be considered an applicable experience for the ALT position. Don’t write something irrelevant, such as how going to Cancun made you want to travel more from those two weeks you spent there during spring break. That has nothing to do with wanting and getting a job. You should also add in professional skills, relevant interests and personal qualities, and how you feel these will be useful to you as an ALT.
You should also include Motivation for Participation, which is basically answering the question, “Why do you want to come to Japan as an ALT (on the JET Program)?” For me, I actually spent a page and a half going over the why first and then adding relevant experience at the end. I discussed my experiences studying abroad and how they affected me on a personal level. You also add in what you “hope to gain, both personally and professionally, and what effect you hope to have on the Japanese community and internationally as a result of your participation in the JET Program.” Meaning, what do you hope you can achieve for others, as in teachers, students, neighbors, etc.
Do yourself a favor and have people read over your essay before you send it in and get their feedback. Besides checking for punctuation and grammar errors, your friends/ professors/ parents can also point out some qualities about yourself that you might’ve missed.
The rest of the application as I recall was a long chore list of getting a bunch of documents and copies done. For the medical check you can go to your nearest clinic for the medical release form. The clinics do these kinds of physical exams all the time, so it’s very routine for them. Actually, if you’re really lucky, your university might have a doctor that can do it for you (one of my friends went to med school and got it done for free). If you have health insurance, you should just have to pay the fee for the appointment and that’s it. Mine cost just $25. Send out for the FBI background check ASAP. That stupid piece of paper nearly made me late to send in my application, so be sure you give yourself at least two weeks if not longer to get it sent and returned.
The deadline for the application in my year was at the end of November, but this year it was December 3rd. Be sure to double check all the deadlines and mark them on your calender so you don’t forget. Also, double and triple check all your documents before send off. Usually it’s not a big deal if you’re missing just one page. They will contact you if, say, you just forgot the copy of your transcript (Yes, I did that), but better safe than sorry.
Protip: Make copies of everything you send off for yourself. You’ll need it all later.
The Long Wait
From November to January is the waiting period, where you essentially bite your nails and hope you get an email confirmation for the job interview. During this time, which should be winter vacation for you undergrads, I recommend going ahead andstudy some basic Japanese. You don’t have to be fluent or anything, but go ahead and hit the internet for basic survival phrases and key terms you’re going to need if indeed you do come to Japan.
For example, “Konnichiwa! Hajime mashite. Watashi wa Jessica desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” Hi, how do you do! I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you.
Learn, love it, because you might just live it.
When you get the call or email for an interview, congratulations! You are nearly half way done. Now, it’s time to prep and do the interview. Firstly, before you even go, read up on other people’s experiences on what they went through. I’ll share my story, but trust me it will help to get the whole big picture of what to expect by reading other blogs as well. The interview can be anything from a simple job interview to a long interrogation over every little detail on your application. It really varies in the degree of difficulty.
People often ask what to wear to the interview, and my answer is essentiallyformal suit wear. You will need a suit anyway for formal events at your school, so believe me it will pay for itself in the end. If you can’t afford a suit (I actually couldn’t at the time), then just wear your best clothes available to you. Go for a button up shirt and black pants/ skirt if you can’t do the suit. Ask to burrow something from friends or hit the second hand store if you’re really strapped for cash. Try to avoid loud colors like yellow or neon green (why you would wear neon green, I don’t know, but apparently this happens sometimes).
Now, remember I said make copies of everything you sent off? Your homework for before the interview is to memorize everything you wrote for that application. Yes, including your essay. I actually got asked several questions about my study abroad experience, and the interviewers said something wrong and I corrected them. I believe it was, “So I bet you really liked Osaka.” and I responded, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t study in Osaka, I studied in Kyoto at the women’s college. I believe I wrote that down.” And the interviewers all gave me sly grins. It turns out that they’ll sometimes do that to see if you’re paying attention and how you will handle a situation like that. Be careful of the traps!
Also, hit up other blogs to see what questions other people got asked at their interview. Make a list of the questions and write out some answers. If you want, you can also do a run through with a friend or two, making them be an imaginary interviewer.
I had to drive up to Chicago from Kentucky in order to go to my interview. You get to choose the Embassy where you’d like to be interviewed, and for me at the time it was Chicago. In hindsight, I wish I’d just flown from Lexington to Chicago O’Hare because I could’ve used that time to relax instead going through the stressful ordeal of Chicago city traffic (yuck). And that’s my recommendation to you. Try to go the path that doesn’t require a fight to get to where you want to go. You don’t want to be stressed out and possibly late to your interview. The thing I did right was stay the night in Chicago in a hotel near the Embassy so I could just walk 5 minutes to get there the next day. One guy decided to travel and interview all in one day. He arrived an hour late and missed his chance.
When it comes to how early you should be there, I recommend actually getting thereat least an hour earlier. Because the other guy didn’t show up, I got called in to take my interview instead of him (poor guy). The interview room was a simple little square space. I got three people to interview me: an American man, an American woman, and a Japanese man. They were very polite and we all shook hands and the interview began.
For me, they asked simple questions first, just double checking everything I wrote down on my application. Then, they moved on to harder questions, just as, “If you lived in a rural area without many resources, what kind of lessons would you prepare?” and “What’s your favorite Japanese movie?” and “Where would you like to live in Japan and why?” (My answer to the last one was, “NOT TOKYO!” which made them all laugh. Oh, the irony).
Be honest with your responses and keep a calm head. Don’t panic if they ask a difficult question and take your time thinking it over if you need to do so. The interview is over when it’s over, there’s no set time. Don’t attempt to make yourself seem more worldly than you actually are and don’t try to pretend you already know everything there is to know about Japan. It looks really bad and arrogant if you’ve never even been outside of your home country to act as if you’re an expert on the country, especially if one of the interviewers happens to be Japanese. I actually asked the Japanese interviewer if he’s ever been to Kyoto and what he liked there. We compared notes and he gave me recommendations for new tourist spots. Be engaging with your interviewers. Anime is an obvious part of Japanese culture that most people know, but don’t make the mistake of speaking like anime is all there is to Japanese culture. Being an otaku is fine, but just remember that anime is fiction and Japan is real, so don’t get the two confused.
Lastly, the Japanese man asked me some basic questions in Japanese. I believe I answered two out of five, mainly because I was just so nervous. Funnily enough, I remembered all the answers later when I got in my car to go home. Don’t worry about the Japanese part of the interview! Most people don’t do well. They just want to see how you handle it, not really if you’re good or not. One question, at least, will be a hard question. When it is, just say, “Sumimasen, wakarimasen.” and don’t try to answer it if you have no idea what’s going on. Don’t try to fake your way through it.
My interview lasted about an hour and then I was dismissed. Some people will have an interview that only lasts thirty minutes and others can have an interview for an hour and a half. It really depends on the interviewers and the schedule for that day in whatever city.
Good luck and do your best!
Living in Limbo
It can be very hard for the next month or two waiting to hear back from the Embassy. If you’re in your last semester of college, you’re probably already stressed out enough as it is just trying to make sure you graduate. Thesis papers, senior projects, and all that noise can be hard to deal with during this time. You’ll feel strange, like you’re on a balance beam and if you tip to one side to hard you’ll go crumbling down. Seniorities and burn outs might hit you here (or might not. I actually never burnt out, surprisingly).
If you can, I still say make time for Japanese whenever possible. Just a little here or there can really go a long way for when/if you get plopped down into a foreign country. You may end up in a big city where it’s not as necessary, or you might end up in an inaka (countryside) area like me where it’s essential to your daily life. Try and get an hour every other day, if you can.
Acceptance / Alt. Listed/ Rejection
If you get accepted, congratulations! You’re joining the awesome ranks of the JET Setters and moving to Japan. Enjoy the euphoric feeling of having a job after college (contracted for at least one year, hooray!), with the possibility of staying for up to five years.
Now, you should get in contact with your predecessor soon. He/She should help you with the transition and move. Usually the predecessor will be able to tell you what you should bring over and what costs will be expected once you get there. Your supervisor may also get in contact with you and will send over the contract for you to sign and send to him/her. So get to packin’ your bags and have fun!
I was put on the alternative list before I was accepted. Why? I have no idea, but sometimes it happens like that. I got the email and felt down about it for about two weeks. I felt really dejected, mainly because I didn’t have a backup plan for if JET fell through. So with that, let me give this piece of advice: Have a backup plan! If you’re really set to go to Japan, there are other organizations such as Interac that can you can apply to as well.
But if you get Alt. Listed there is hope. After a couple of weeks, I got an email telling me that they got a position for me in Japan. I believe my first reaction was to jump out of my seat, squeal like a five year old, and do a ridiculous victory dance that thankfully no one saw. You may have to wait another couple of months before a position opens up for you, but it is possible.
If you are rejected, it will feel like a punch to the gut. You just spent the better part of a year trying to get this job and now it’s all for nothing. However, if you got to the interview, I’d imagine there just weren’t enough spots that year. You can try again for next year, which yes will require several more months, or you can go through another program. Don’t give it up if it’s your dream to come to Japan. There are other ways to get you here.
The JET Programme can seem a bit daunting to get into, but I do believe it’s worth it. This experience has been absolutely amazing for me, so I hope that you’ll take the chance to try. God bless and good luck!
Have any questions about JET? Ask in the comments!
An Interactive Forum How-To Guide
Once upon a time when I was an ALT, I did Interactive Forum, a conversation competition. If anyone is doing that now, feel free to use the pamphlet and the hand gestures guide I made for my students.
Interactive Forum is an educational program designed to help Junior High School students in Japan gain confidence in conversational English. The usual Interactive Forum I’ve encountered has two rounds, the first round using easy topics such as school, family, friends, and etc. The second round involves a little more challenging topics such as TV programs, music, and etc. I will be coaching my group of students until August, trying to prep them for the stage.
All too often, I’ve been asked how exactly Interactive Forum practices should be done, and honestly I don’t think there’s one set way. I’ve done it for two years now and I still have trouble every once and a while with my students suddenly going silent and forgetting to speak. I have picked up some tricks and tips along the way, so I hope that these will help others trying to coach as well.
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“Why Should We Speak English?”
When people come to Japan, most have probably heard that English is a second language. Students will study English from elementary school on up through high school, so one might expect that Japanese people can speak English well. Unlike in Europe, the way teachers instruct students in English is still stuck in a lot of reading and writing based curriculum, not so much speaking. And thus, Japan’s English speakers can generally read and write just fine, but have very limited speaking capabilities.
Many teachers in Japan try to tell students it’s important to learn English, that it’s going to be important later. Japanese students, especially mine, tend to dig their heels in and start protesting the “need” for English.
“I live in Japan, so I should only speak Japanese!”
“Japanese people aren’t good at Japanese. English is too difficult!”
“I don’t understand it, so I don’t want to learn it.”
“Why should I speak English? It’s only good for tests!”
For us native teachers, we went to throw out the facts.
“Japan is the ONLY country that speaks Japanese, while so many countries speak English!”
“You need it for your future job. Without English, you’ll never get a pay raise.”
“You don’t understand math but you’ve got to learn it anyway. Same thing!”
“You can use English to travel abroad, get a good paying job, go to a good university. It’s so useful!”
While all these are true, I think we’re putting the focus in the wrong areas. Students, especially my high school students, they’re not really asking about how it’ll be useful for their future, they’re asking why it’s important right here and right now. Anyone who ever went to high school can remember teachers telling them every subject was important, that all of their knowledge would be necessary for this or that or the other.Teenagers aren’t generally far future thinkers, they live in the now.
My answers have changed from the typical responses to different things now.
“Don’t you want to talk with me? I want to talk with you. We need English to communicate.”
“I’m not good at Japanese, but I try really hard to study. I want to become better for myself. You should try too!”
“You can understand anything if you practice. Do you play (soccer)? Were you always good at (soccer). Right, you practiced until you were good. Same thing with English.”
“If you speak English, you can come ask me anything. I will always answer.”
English is a language, but you don’t generally love a language, you care about the people attached to it. Students can be told facts and figures over and over again, but it’s the relationships they form with English that they’ll remember better. If they think, “I should learn English so I can talk to (my native teacher).” they will be more motivated and they’ll try harder, at least in my experience.
When I lived in Ibaraki, I did lunch time chats with students. Some ALTs hated it, and sure sometimes I got caught in a silent group or two, but I also had moments where students learned something new and wanted to know more in English. Cultivating that kind of curiosity and bond is what makes working with Japanese students so rewarding. Hopefully, my method will keep them interested beyond the walls of the classroom, and they’ll try to make new connections with the English skills they’ve acquired.
Even if only one student goes out into the world and uses what I’ve taught them, I’ll consider it all worthwhile.
Tell me what you think! Do you agree? If not, why? Comment!
The ESL Japanscape: ALT vs. Eikaiwa vs. Direct Hire
I’ve taught English a second language for nearly 5 years in Japan, and I’ve experienced three different forms of employment: the typical assistant language teacher gig, the business English school job, and finally I’ve arrived at the holy grail of direct hire position. Some people might get confused about the differences between the three, and what really matters in the end if all you’re doing is teaching English. Believe me, though, the differences matter in terms of salary, working atmosphere, and so much more.
Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)
ALT’s are generally well paid through programs such as JET and Interac. The JET Program prides itself on developing lasting cultural bonds between the ALTs, the Japanese English Teachers (JTE’s) and the students. I felt like I was really a part of something great and big while in the program. The interconnected social groups from different prefectures really expanded my social circles, and gave me new insights to other expats countries and cultures.
The salary started off at ¥300,000 per month, but got whittled down to ¥280,000 after taxes and such. Nowadays, the JET’s have a new system where the first year starts off at a lower number and then increases every year an ALT renews a contract. For example, let’s say it’s ¥260,000 per month, that gets increased to ¥280,000 the next year, and so on for every year stayed on. (But don’t quote me on those figures, as I’m an alumi no longer in the program).
In addition, you get the perks of vacation time, 20 days of leave plus 15 days of sick leave. Nowhere else in Japan will you get this amazing deal! Not to mention you’ll get all the national holidays off, and then you’ll even have prefectural holidays and school holidays on top of that. There will be plenty of time to explore Japan, or even hope over to South Korea or Guam. The JET Program will do events and activities within each prefecture on days off and you’ll form a tight nit bond during your years in your placement.
There are issues to think about before accepting, such as the ALT jobs often place new recruits in rural areas with little to no English support. Often the only English support will be fellow teachers, who may or may not actually speak English fluently, and who may or may not want to deal with an ALT. And even though ALT’s are paid well on these two programs, ALT dispatch companies are getting increasingly shady about their hiring methods and contracts as time goes on. I worked for a dispatch company this past year that took 4 paid vacation days away from me, which I didn’t realize at the time was an illegal move against a full time employee. These tactics are common, and since many new recruits in Japan don’t know their rights, they often get screwed out of money here and there without even realizing it.
It’s best to brace yourself, the work can be grueling. I had an “easy” schedule of two junior high schools, two elementary schools, and the occasional preschool/kindergarten visit. I did conversation competitions and speech coaching as well for both junior high schools. Now, other ALTs have to contend with 4+ high schools, traveling to a different one every week or even every other day, along with debate teams and English club activities. Daily responsibilities can range from making worksheets, speaking activities (don’t call them games, remember that), to being a tape recorder, grammar drills, or whatever the JTE wants to do in the classroom on that particular day.
Although people joke about the ALT experience as a “job prepping” experience rather than a career initiative, I thought actually the job was on par with what people could call a “real job” difficulty level. I had to multitask, keep track of lessons, improve, change, and adapt quickly on the drop of a hat. You’ll actually find in some ways that being an ALT is harder than doing eikaiwa work.
When I worked at Coco Juku, at first in comparison to the ALT life it seemed easy. The workload was decidedly less than before, with only a few students per class and maybe about four or five classes per day. It’s not uncommon for business English school instructors to have a lot of downtime, especially on week days. During that downtime, you’ll get to be around other native English speakers, so unlike at Japanese schools no one will expect you to speak Japanese. It was amazing to go from fighting to be understood by my co-workers all the time to being able to just say what was on my mind.
In terms of curriculum, the eikaiwas will already have a set education program there for you to just pick up and do. No need to craft lessons from scratch like with the ALT job, which also definitely cuts down on prepping and hassle. Most chain eikaiwas will have training and meeting days where they’ll go over the whole thing with you, and if it’s your first time teaching period they might even do demonstration classes for you.
If you’re a great salesperson, this might be the job for you. I had to try and get textbooks sold as well as get people signed on to courses, and if possible get the people to sign into multiple courses at the same time. Most programs are what’s known as “fast food English” style, where students are given easy lessons once a week (that are designed to make them feel good but not actually improve or challenge them in any way, but that’s a secret).
Strangely, even though it wasn’t difficult work, I realized quickly that I couldn’t business English for an extended period of time so I ended up only staying there for 6 months. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a big hiring overturn rate at eikaiwas. Why?
Well, remember, it’s a business and not-so-much a school. The bottom line, your boss wants you bringing in more customers and keep those customers happy. In the end, you’re not really so much a teacher as instead a pseudo-retail worker and the retail being English. Unfortunately that means dealing with students/customers who don’t like how you teach, how you dress, how you don’t speak Japanese in class (yes, it happens), and so on.
It doesn’t help that the pay is less than most ALT work, as I got around ¥270,000 per month (so post-tax I ended up having about ¥250,000). I chose Coco Juku over the other eikaiwas because some, like Nova I believe, will pay you not by the hour but instead per class. Meaning, with only five or six classes and being paid minimum wage per hour, I’d maybe make ¥210,000 under that system. Still, I knew I would be taking a pay cut regardless, as ALT work is considered one of the higher paying options.
In addition to the pay decrease, the scheduling can be killer. You will be expected to work on national holidays, and the leave gets cut down to 10 days which go into effect after 6 months of working there. Pray you don’t catch a cold, because if you do you’ll be paying for that out of your salary. Unlike with the ALT job, you won’t get those nice summer and winter breaks to go traveling. Instead, you’ll most likely have to cut into your limited leave time in order to do a proper get away.
I worked both Saturday and Sunday every weekend. I thought that after working there for awhile that maybe I could start requesting switched days with other employees or maybe ask to switch my days, but it was a no go. My social life suffered and so did I, and that wore me down really quick. Most eikaiwas will have instructors working on the weekend, whether full or part time, but usually it’s Sundays off at least, or one pick of either Saturday or Sunday off. My schedule was an anomaly, but it can happen.
I burned out so quick with eikaiwa, so perhaps I’m being more negative than positive. Regardless, I would say that out of the three I would recommend eikaiwas last.
Getting directly hired by a Board of Education or a private institution is the best of all three. The job security is guaranteed. Once you’re signed on to a year long contract, you get all the benefits of being a same status employee as any other Japanese teacher. Most direct hire positions range from ¥280,000-¥350,000, but the pay can increase if you’ve got a TEFOL/TESOL certificate. That neat slip of paper can get you higher into the ¥400,000 mark, but that’s rare.
For my contract I get 20 paid leave days, and then since I’m working for a high school I also have national, summer, and winter holidays to look forward to. Direct hire contracts are decided on a case by case basis, so your school may only give you 10 just like an eikaiwa or dispatch company, but usually direct hires get 15. However, if you want to go into negotiations about your leave, you can do that. As a person directly hired, all you need to do is set up a meeting with the principal or the board of directors. Eikaiwa and ALT contracts are generally locked in by the company or the government, so negotiations are near impossible.
Direct hires do have more responsibilities than ALTs. I will be working with a committee, and I’ll sometimes be forced to work on the weekends. I’ll be expected to help edit and shape the curriculum, which means more hands on work with worksheets, tests, evaluations, grading, records, and etc. On top of that I’m the teacher in charge, as in the classroom will be under my command and not to a Japanese teacher. I’ve got to keep grades, score tests, and do basically all the work of a real teacher. Most direct hires will perform similar responsibilities.
Although it’s technically more work, the relief of knowing you’re at one school with a set schedule makes for a lot less stress. Also, you’ll get to form deeper bonds with the teachers you work with, as you’ll see them daily instead of once a week (if that), and you’ll have more control over your classroom and what goes on with how grading works. Students will generally speak English more with you, too, because you’re a familiar face instead of some stranger that pops up at seemingly random times.
No matter which option you choose, all three are rewarding in their own ways and my story isn’t necessarily yours. The JET Program isn’t for everyone, and direct hires can be too much responsibility for some people to handle. Each person has to decide what they can and can’t do when it comes to their job. Just keep in mind that there are options to try out, and if you want to find a job in Japan head over to GaijinPot to find one. If you’re already on your way over, congratulations! I hope whatever your situation, it’s amazing for you.
Do you agree with my assessments? If not, comment! Add something new to the conversation. Or tell me what topic you want me to write about next.