Recently, The JET Programme applicants who passed through to the interview round were notified of their acceptance. Congratulations to all you new JETs who will arrive in Japan soon! And if you are a current JET, read on. These tips are for you, too.
Now, I don’t claim to be the best ALT in the world. In fact, as a first year, I still struggle with my work everyday, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. Living in Japan as an ALT is a very rewarding, yet challenging experience. Here are some tips to make the most of your situation.
1) Stay positive!
Many current or former JETs like to go on forums or blogs or social media in general and rant about their experiences. Even a few bitter people who were denied a position on JET try to have a say in the matter. The fact is that your JET experience is solely up to YOU. This can be applied to everything in life. If you are unhappy with your situation, you work with people you don’t like, you don’t feel fulfilled in your job, etc., the only thing that can make it better is your attitude. Despite knowing the language, having past study abroad experience in Japan, already having a set of friends in my prefecture, I was lonely and I went through those stages of culture shock. Heck, I will probably go through them again. Culture shock is a never-ending process. You will cycle through the stages over and over. Even when I went back home from Japan before becoming a JET, I experienced reverse culture shock.
The trick is to remember why you want to do what you want to do and be proactive about it. I came to Japan with the goal of internationalization. In the future, I want to be a study abroad advisor. I want to encourage students to think beyond their current horizons. However, middle school students can barely think past lunch. Or that show that came on TV last night. I am constantly facing teachers who don’t understand how to utilize me, students who don’t understand why they have to learn English, and so on. But I remind myself of my goal, and in that way I can better keep an eye out for when it happens. Even when it is something as small as speaking in Japanese with the locals, I feel like I am making a difference. Other (jaded) JETs, as well as those who never actually became JETs, will try to whittle your confidence and tell you that your goals are unattainable. They are not. Keep your chin up and remember that even in the darkest night, the light of the conbini will shine through.
2) Get involved!
If you are a CIR, plan an event that your fellow JETs and friends can attend. My CIR friend planned a cooking class where local Japanese people came and cooked traditional dishes with us. It was a blast and it was a win-win for ALTs who wanted to meet Japanese people outside of school, and for Japanese people who wanted to meet foreigners.
If you are an ALT, go to club activities after school. Help out with school events. My school has a drama club, so I went and did improv with them. This year I really plan on getting involved with them, as well as attending other club events when I can. I also helped out with my school’s sports test, I helped two students prepare for an English speech contest, and I talk to all the students between classes and after school. I even learned how to double dutch with my elementary students.
Also, don’t be afraid to try things outside of school. This May I want to get involved with Kyudo in my city, and I know many JETs who do similar activities and swear by them. Doing things in your own community is a great way to meet the locals while working toward a skill together.
Another way to get involved is to join a group for JETs. I am on an AJET committee and it really helps me connect in a deeper way with my fellow JETs while we work toward the same goal. It will beef up your resume for after JET, and it will help you feel more accomplished if you don’t get that from teaching English alone.
3) Stay current!
I am a self-proclaimed Johnny’s fangirl, so it’s not hard for me to connect with my students. I really recommend keeping up with popular trends in order to bond with your fellow teachers and students. At school, my students always know they can come up and talk to me because I am not a Scary Foreigner. I am just another teacher who happens to like many of the groups they do. I talk to my students about going to concerts, about dramas and anime that are currently on TV, and about video games. You might tell me, ‘Yeah but all Japanese music is weird!’ to which I would reply, ‘Excuse me, but no, it is not. Now go away and let me listen to Radwimps in peace.’ Japanese music has so much to offer. I might make another post on this topic, so stay tuned. My point is that knowing these kinds of things not only lets your students know that they have something in common with you, you will be killing two birds with one stone because you will be studying Japanese and it will be *gasp* actually sort of fun!
4) Be flexible.
I know everyone tells you this. I know. But trust me, it’s true and you will forget it. When a teacher tells you the activity you spend five hours working is useless and/or he or she doesn’t have time to incorporate it in class, you will want to rip your new Pikachu plushie you won from the UFO catcher in half with your bare hands. Don’t let this stuff ruin your opinion of your job as whole. Yes, it will probably ruin your day if you let it (see: Stay positive!) but don’t let it. Remember that our JTEs are under a lot of stress. When they tell you something is not feasible in class, don’t take it personally. Teachers in Japan have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and are restricted to teach what’s on the test and in the textbook. Look for other ways to help, and keep trying. Eventually they will come to you for something to use in class, and you should be ready. The important thing is to keep working with what you have and not complain about what that other ALT the town over from you is allowed to do.
5) Don’t get jealous.
It is so easy, with so many instant JET friends, to look at what your friend Jim Bob in Saitama has at his school. A JTE who let’s him have just the right amount of control in class, never uses him as a tape recorder, and perfect students who never so much as untuck their shirts from their perfectly pleated skirts. Well, that’s all well and good, but if that isn’t your situation, don’t get upset over it. Chances are, even he has problems. Every JET goes through ups and downs.
It’s easy to read a cool story your friend posted on Facebook about how they had the perfect amazing wonderful day at school and everyone patted them on the head for a job well done, but that most likely isn’t the whole story. For example, I have a high proficiency in Japanese, but I still have miscommunications with my teachers and students. Everyone does. Even Japanese people don’t understand everything all the time. But a lot of people might think I don’t have the right to complain when things happen because I don’ understand how hard the language barrier is. I do. I lived in Japan when my Japanese was so bad, I had to carry my host mom’s electronic dictionary with me everywhere. But I managed, and so will you.
Remember that you have advantages and disadvantages in your situation just like everyone else. Most importantly, you aren’t alone. Talk to your fellow JETs, your supervisor, your teachers, your Area Leaders, etc. Someone will be able to remind you that you could have it a lot worse. Don’t let things bother you, but if you have ongoing problems, ask for help when you need it.
I hope these tips helped you! If you’ve just been shortlisted or waitlisted, hang in there. The wait is long, but it is worth it. And if you are continuing your journey as a JET/ALT, start fresh this new school year and be the best Assistant to the Regional Manager you can be. Oh, wait, did I mess that up? No matter! Your job title isn’t important. It’s what you make of it and how you affect those around you that matters!