ALT Perspective: NPR ‘How To Be A Great Teacher’

ALT Perspective (1)

JET ALTs reside in the limbo of teaching. We are Assistant Language Teachers, the keyword being assistant. Many of us didn’t, and will never, get a TOEFL certification; not to mention the majority didn’t study education or Japanese in college/university. That doesn’t stop us from wanting to be in Japan and believing in the potential of having a native speaker in the classroom. Difficult teaching situations are bound to happen in JET like having unruly/disinterested students, too many/too little classes, being the repeating tape recorder, or being T1 (first teacher) in an elementary school. I have experienced a few of these issues but not all.

If you are a ALT you are probably nodding your head. We are in a difficult and interesting situation. We are teaching but not full fledged teachers, trying to navigate a foreign work place and school system,  trying and our best to adapt and do well.

So when I stumbled on NPR’s  How to be a great teacher, from 12 great teachers by Anya Kamentz it clicked with me. I want to be a teacher, but most JETs won’t enter the teaching profession after their time in Japan. But anyone who works with children (or adults), aspiring teacher or not, can learn a thing or two from this list.

The article itself is short and sweet so I have decided to put my two cents in from a JET ALT perspective. For me being an ALT puts me on the road to becoming a teacher. Check out the article to see the quoted teachers.



1. Realize teaching is a learned skill

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. In the beginning it felt like I knew nothing or that nothing I tried worked. I had to ask for advice from other ALTs and my teachers. I also had to accept and learn from my mistakes. No one know is perfect the first time, everyone has to learn.

2. Get to the Truth

“I’ll tell you the truth, you tell me the truth. The rest is commentary.” – Molly Pollak

This is the only line under this tip in the article. I think it sums it up well.

3. Build Trust

Oh boy! Isn’t this the truth. If students don’t trust you, good luck. The best way to have a good class experience is for the students to trust you. A lot of trust is built outside of the classroom. For example:

One of my schools is a “Yankee/Yankii” school. It’s my favorite school, but many of the students don’t see the point in studying (particularly English) or paying attention in class. However most of my yankii boys are on the baseball team (that seems to be a trend around here) so when one of the pitchers invited me to the last game of season I jumped at the chance. After the game their attitude towards me and my classes changed. It didn’t magically make them behave or be better students but they did start listening to me and work with me during class. I call that a win.

4. Assume a secret identity

I can see how this works for normal teachers but this is hard for ALTs – if you are placed a small town everyone knows you and probably what you ate for dinner. Even in larger cities with multiple ALTs assuming a secret identity can be difficult, but on rough days you learn to put on a smile and exude energy you don’t have.

5. Be Sparring Partner

When I think of being a sparring partner I image students honing a knife of knowledge on me and I hone my knife of teaching on them. We get nicked, and bruised during our mistakes and failures but we never get dull. We can laugh together or they can laugh at me. I don’t mind.

6. Be Someone to Watch Over Them

When ALTs work in many grades at multiple schools it can be hard to watch over students. Not speaking the language, not being Japanese, and not having a the power to discipline students is frustrating, but asking a teacher for help understanding students, or just being present in situations can help.

Correcting extra work (I have a student who can write in cursive!) and talking to students outside of class has helped me a lot. I got one my yankiis to fill out his vocabulary pages by adding baseball vocab to his list.

And try to learn as many names as possible. Students appreciate it and are usually surprised.

7. Be a Teacher, Not a Friend

Currently I am trying to figure out where I need to draw that line with my students. From my own experience this distinction is vital. In high school I had a new teacher who was smart and talented but acted more like our friend to win the class’ favor. In the end there was less respect and no control in the classroom. It was one of my most difficult and enlightening experiences.

8. Believe in Their Success

Success manifests is different ways. As teachers or ALTs we may not see it during a students time with us. It might be in test scores, class participation, in hallways, how many times a student tries or that a student finally decided to do class work. One of my best English speaking 7th graders doesn’t pay any attention during class, or does any of his work. However if I bring up a topic he’s interested in he’ll start speaking. My goal is to teach students English and encourage them to use it. If they use it with me that is a success.

9.Recognize it Takes Vulnerability to Learn

I never thought of it this way before and now I see it. I see it in my students who won’t try speaking for fear of making a mistake or the students who won’t do the work because they might not understand and fail. Going back to number 3 on the list, to be vulnerable means to trust. If a student doesn’t trust you then it is harder for them to learn and harder for you to teach.

10. Look for the Success Stories

Sometimes no matter how hard you try to engage a class or a particular student it fails. Shake it off and try again but remember the students you have reached.

11. Blow Off Steam, But Remember Why You’re Here

Living and working abroad can cause a lot of stress and frustration with language barriers, culture shock, and general work/life situations just being more difficult/time consuming. Let it out. Vent to a friend, a family member, or go dance it out at a club. Try not to hold on to it. Negativity is a slippery slope. Be honest with yourself and the problems you face but be productive – yes rest or venting can be productive. Remember why you wanted to be an ALT – why you wanted to come to Japan. Reevaluate that, then pursue it.

12. Be Grateful to Your Teachers

As an ALT I have felt old. Often I shake my head at my students wackiness, drama, or lack of common sense. I realized how annoying it was to try and catch chatting students attention. And I realized that someone had to put up with the 7th grade me, too.

And I am eternally grateful.




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