Updating the ALT Playbook

A list of dos and don’ts for ALTs and other language teachers

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I read Baye McNeill’s excellent book Loco in Yokohama a few weeks ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a great read and it took me right back to my days teaching in junior high school as a first- and second-year ALT on the JET Programme.

It also reminded me of what I used to do in the classroom back then.

Like many ALTs, I came to Japan with little teaching experience (I had taught a couple of classes and done some tutoring in China). I received minimal training and very little supervision from my colleagues and supervisors, both in the school and in the local board of education. I got a lot of advice from other ALTs and just muddled through.

Thinking back now I can think of many ways I could have been more effective and served my students better. Don’t get me wrong, I think I did my best with the information I had and made a positive contribution, but I could have done so much more.

Here is my advice to ALTs and language teachers in Japanese junior and senior high schools:

  1. DO think about your goals for the year, the month, and the class. Lesson planning should end with the language target and textbook page, not start there. Try to link lessons together so that students can review and preview past and future activities and language.
  2. DON’T worry about things being fun. Video games are fun. Hanging out with your friends is fun. Language classes are seldom fun. Instead of fun, think about challenging, achievable, and meaningful. Success is the most motivating experience for students, and many of them are turned off by classes in which they never experience success. Give them that, and they will enjoy the class much more than if they had done some ‘fun’ activities. I haven’t seen many math classes here in Japan revolving around games, so why should language classes?
  3. DO think about time on task. Many classroom activities involve just one or two students, while all the others just watch or get bored. Games like pass the parcel, criss cross, and relay games were staples in my classroom, but I now believe that having students ask and answer simple questions in pairs for a couple of minutes would have been a much more useful activity. I bet many of the students would have enjoyed it more too.
  4. DON’T talk too much. I believe students need to use the language to acquire it, which in any class bigger than five students or so means doing pair or small group activities. Make sure there is a healthy balance of teacher talking time and student talking time in your class.
  5. DO set homework and encourage students to practice outside of class. Self-study using printed, audio, or online materials is ¬†the only realistic way for students to get good at English. Model appropriate activities in class and follow up to see what students are doing. Take an interest in the students who are practicing and keep nagging the ones that don’t.
  6. DON’T give up. I haven’t met a single student who doesn’t secretly want to be good at English. Keep giving them the chance to have a bit of success, to find something interesting to do in or with English, and you might be able to change their future relationship with the language.

What do you think of the list? Anything to add or disagree with?

If I ruled the world… the JET Programme


So the story I wrote about yesterday seems to have caught the eye and the imagination of people I know. I have yet to see a positive response, even among former JETs.

There are various reasons for that, but the most important one seems to be the opportunity cost of this plan -there are probably much more effective things that could be done with the money. I’d like to put all that aside and just focus on what could be done to make the JET Programme and wider ALT utilization more effective.

1. Make JET an up or out program

Almost all ALTs are excited, happy, enthusiastic, and motivated when they first arrive in Japan. That energy and enthusiasm, combined with not knowing anything about Japan, is hugely beneficial for students. However, after a year, depending on how their year has gone, how they have been treated by teachers and schools, and how their particular ALT community is, they will change. Some will pick up bad habits and stagnate in the computer room, some will settle into a comfortable existence, and some will learn as much as they can about teaching and work hard to improve themselves.

At that point I believe most ALTs should move on. JET is, as many have mentioned, an exchange program, a way for Japan to increase its soft power, and a way to internationalize smaller and out of the way communities. I think it works very well in these respects, but most of the benefits are in the first year.

A small number of ALTs should be chosen for promotion, given extensive training and more responsibilities, and put on a career track to become special teachers (with possible tenure, a normal pay scale and benefits, and the ability to teach by themselves). These special teachers would then assist with managing regular ALTs as well as be assigned to schools as English teachers.

This way the current goals of JET programme would be met while allowing it to serve as a source of high-quality native speaker instructors.

2. More oversight

Make schools and boards of education submit plans for how they intend to train and utilize ALTs, and follow up to ensure that they do. Schools that fail to find a useful and productive role for their ALTs should not receive one. The huge variation in how ALTs are treated is probably one of the worst problems with the system, and a lot of it is due to the ‘hands-off’ nature of the ‘recruited centrally, employed locally’ approach currently in use.

3. More training and guidance for schools and teachers

In many cases, teachers and schools aren’t quite sure what to do with ALTs. I would like to see the Ministry of Education provide more training and examples of best practice to schools and teachers. Often, the youngest teachers are assigned to be ALT supervisors, whereas in many cases the head of English would be more suitable.

Many ALTs are stuck in ‘tape-recorder’ team-teaching situations where they basically sit in on another teacher’s class and participate sporadically. This is not particularly useful or fulfilling. Instead, ALTs could take small groups aside for speaking practice (like the Spanish, French, and German language assistants in my own secondary school did), mark and check written work, help with creating written, audio, or online materials, or provide after-school teaching for students.

Having trusted and experienced native teachers as described in 1. above would also help here.


I don’t think the JET programme is all bad. Yes, I would rather see some of the money go towards training Japanese teachers or creating more effective teaching materials (particularly online). However, I think the JET programme provides some very positive results for Japan, and I would be sad to see it eliminated completely.

Finally, one potential positive for this plan is that it may go some way to reversing or even ending the trend towards outsourcing ALTs or teachers, which I think has no redeeming features. It is very possible that the new JET ALTs will not be adding to the total pool of ALTs, but rather replacing assistants provided by dispatch companies. That would be a fine result in my opinion. The sooner the parasitic ALT dispatch companies are driven out the better.

I look forward to your comments!

36,000 JET ALTs a year?

jet programme banner

I saw this mentioned in the news last week, and a post on Mutantfrog Travelogue reminded me of the story just now.

I have a lot of history with the JET Programme. I first came to Sendai on JET, had three great years in junior high schools and an elementary school, then was involved in running the Miyagi program as the Chief ALT Advisor for four years. I think I saw the best and the worst of JET.

The best thing about JET is that it has the potential to take intelligent, educated, energetic, and motivated people and put them in a position where they can interact with, inspire, mentor, and befriend Japanese children and teachers. When this works it works incredibly well, and I have had the pleasure of working with some exemplary JETs in my time.

The worst thing about JET is when teachers and schools are not supportive, don’t provide clear working guidelines or support their ALTs, and host institutions are unwilling to actively manage JETs and provide feedback and discipline where necessary.

Assistant Language Teachers on the JET Programme are assistants. They are able to help, support, and contribute to classes when their colleagues and schools work to make that possible. Like many things in English education in Japan, training and implementation are going to make most of the difference, not spending more money or deciding to put an ALT in every school (whether they want one or not). There seems to be an expectation that ALTs should be radically improving English education in Japan, but to me that is like saying that the new textbooks should magically do that. It’s not going to happen unless the teachers and schools facilitate and allow it to.

In the spirit of my ‘if I ruled the world’ blog posts from last month (on elementary school, junior high school, high school, and university¬†English education in Japan) I am going to come up with some suggestions for the JET Programme on the blog tomorrow.

In the meantime, what do you think about the proposal to double JET numbers? Any good or bad experiences with JET? Please leave a comment below.

Skewed rewards and incentives (why are university teachers at the top of the pile?)


I have taught at private language schools, public elementary, junior high, and senior high schools, and universities in Japan. They roughly rank in that order in terms of prestige, financial remuneration, and ease of getting a job.

A job at an eikaiwa school is the easiest to get, the worst paid, and has the least amount of prestige (want proof? See how estate agents treat you). Working in public schools is better paid, more challenging to get, and is perceived as being higher by society (some of the dwindling prestige of public school teachers rubs off). Finally, a university position tends to pay rather well, involves jumping through various hoops (publications, experience teaching at the tertiary level, Japanese ability, postgraduate qualifications), and confers a reasonably high status (varying somewhat according to the institution in question).

Seemingly illogically, the actual amount of skill required to do the job well seems to run in the opposite direction. I would say, based on my experience, teaching at an eikaiwa, where you will probably have students ranging from 3 to 70 years old, and classes that run the gamut from 40 kindergarteners to one sleep-deprived businessman or a group of senior citizens, requires the most skill to perform well.

Teaching in public schools can provide discipline challenges, but the range of teaching situations is less varied and the curriculum provides a framework that reduces the amount of material teachers need to master.

Finally, teachers at the university level probably need the least amount of teaching skill to get by: their students are selected for academic potential (yes, even at the worst universities) and teachers tend to have the freedom to decide on the content of their classes. University teachers are pretty much encouraged to teach to their strengths, and can get away with teaching a narrow range of material if they so choose.

So why are the positions that need the most skilled teachers the worst paid?

You can see something similar even within public schools: kindergarten teachers are the least well paid and regarded, followed by elementary school teachers, then junior high school teachers, and finally high school teachers. However, if we look at the potential impact that teachers can have upon their charges, the early years are far more influential. Children who have excellent teachers during the first years of their schooling, then mediocre ones later, are likely to do much better than children in the opposite situation. Why then does society seem to have its priorities so badly skewed?

Is this fixable? Can you imagine a world where kindergarten teachers are given the pay, training, and status the importance of their job deserves? Will the cushiness of university positions be reflected in salaries?

As always, comments very much appreciated below.

2 Dec 2010, 11:35pm
ALTs levity

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This is for all the JETs and ex-JETs out there

Found this ALT-themed webcomic today. It’s actually really good!

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