Feast Or Famine: Being an ALT in a Senior High School

By Jordan Rocke

For this article, I tried to thing of an interesting perspective I could provide here. In the past, I’ve talked with some first year Primary or Junior High ALTs who didn’t know much about the Senior High School (SHS) system. I figured I might be able to help out by giving everyone an idea about how SHS work, and what teaching at a SHS is like, at least in my experience.

So how do SHS work? Well, firstly, they are extremely competitive. This has been exacerbated by the declining birth rate, and most schools are fighting to get enough students to stay at their current size, especially schools that are not particularly academically rigorous, or are located away from a major city or, like my base school, are both. So, how do schools compete for students? The most obvious thing is academics, which makes sense, and advertising based on how many of their students get into prominent universities. SHS also work on alternate after-school pathways. Schools can focus on agriculture, commercial skills, or run specialist training programs for things like aged care workers. The school that focuses on this the most are Kogyo, or vocational schools. These schools are focused very much on students getting into trades or other more physical jobs, and deliberately steer most of their students away from university. There are programs focused on building connections with employers, and subjects like English are obviously not much of a priority.

Schools can also sell themselves on the way in which they teach. One of my schools uses a program where students spend one lesson a fortnight talking on skype with English teachers in the Philippines, while my base school is one of the few schools in Ehime that provides limited electives to students, meaning a student might go there if they really focus on doing more of one subject. Some of my students do three English classes, and almost no science or history classes, or some other combination. There’s also the facilities. My various schools offer anything from a towel printing press, a jellyfish aquarium, an agriculture space, a ship-building warehouse or a particularly well-stocked art area. The more minor factor, particularly at smaller schools, is how much they advertise having an ALT if they’re based there. It feels a bit strange being a recruitment gimmick, but it’s a little flattering.

So what else draws students in? A big factor is clubs. Skilled or unusual clubs are good for drawing in students. From my own schools, we have skilled baseball, wrestling, brass band and naginata teams, all of which are promoted in the hopes of drawing in Junior High students. Schools also might try and recruit based on more unusual clubs, in the hope that a Junior High student might want to focus on some hobby from their previous school. My schools have a girls wrestling team, a rowing club, a golf club and a rugby team, which are less prominent for being good (except the girls wrestling team, which is phenomenal, and apparently is the best in Japan), and more for being an opportunity that students might not be able to pursue at other schools.

Finally, at least with my schools, there’s the factor of ability. For example, I teach at a school for students with serious hearing impairments. Admittedly, they are K-12 (or Primary, Junior High and Senior High all rolled into one), so they mainly recruit from themselves, but it’s still worth noting this is a SHS like all my others.

So, what about proximity? Unlike earlier year schools, students very rarely choose a school just because it’s closer. Sure, this might be a tie breaker for similar schools, but except for schools with very low academic reputations, this would be a lot of effort for a rather arbitrary reason. I’m not saying it never happens, especially in schools a long way from other schools, but it’s not a major factor from the students I’ve talked to.

This leads into the geography of SHS, and the first reason I chose my title: feast or famine. My base school is at least about a 30 minute train ride from any other SHS, except my hearing impaired school. In Imabari however, there are (at least) 4 SHS within a short walk from each other. Two of them are almost literally next door to each other, and I’m not even including private schools which probably exist around there somewhere. So, for students at any of those four schools, obviously a school being “closer” would not be important, if it would be a 30 second walk to the school next door.

I’m far from an expert on private SHS, but I’ve been informed that skilled sports teams, alternate styles of education or the option of single-gender education have all been part of the private school appeal for different schools. Apparently private SHS in Japan used to have a reputation for lower academic outcomes, but this stigma has been fading recently, meaning private schools are becoming more popular

I should also note the other option: nothing. As far as I’m aware, school is only mandatory until the end of Junior High. So, technically, no student has to go to SHS. However, because of the way Japanese society and employment works, that’s the equivalent of saying it’s legal to walk around a crowded city naked. Some people might do it, but for the vast majority it wasn’t the law that stopped them doing it. Almost any full-time job expects students to have completed SHS, so for a lot of students they just turn up for three long years just to get that piece of paper.

OK, so that’s how SHS recruit and a bit on how they operate. So, what is it like being an ALT in one?

So first up, it’s unsurprising that some ALTs don’t know much about the SHS system. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to learn about Primary and Junior High Schools when you work with students who have gone through that system, rather than if you work with students who haven’t been to a SHS yet. Secondly, of the ~125 ALTs in Ehime, only 16 of us are SHS ALTs. So, just statistically, most ALTs probably don’t spend a ton of time around SHS ALTs.

But the third point is one of the most important things about being a SHS ALT: we don’t work for local BoEs. For example, I live and am based in Matsuyama and often work in Imabari, but I don’t have any involvement with either of their BoEs. I don’t go to BoE meetings, I don’t have a BoE supervisor, and honestly I don’t know that much about how the BoE works, beyond what I’ve heard. Instead, everything is through my base school, specifically my supervisor. If I need help with anything, I talk to her. I get my schedule through her. I get information on where I’m visiting, when I’m going, and what I’m doing through her. The school also owns my house, so my rent and any repairs I need go through her most of the time. I’m sure SHS ALTs with more experience or better Japanese probably are less reliant, but I’ve been here seven months and my Japanese is awful, so that’s the way it is.

Obviously, there are some real upsides of having one person who has a pretty thorough knowledge of your job, your schedule and just generally what you’re meant to be doing at any given time. Of course, having one person who you work with in any capacity who is also the only real link to the wider educational bureaucracy is not great if you have any complaints about your co-workers, your job, your school and, especially, the behavior of the supervisor themselves. Luckily for me, that hasn’t been a problem, but it’s something that hangs over the job a little bit.

This leads slightly into one of the biggest problems, especially for new SHS, private school SHS and rural SHS: isolation. A lot of the relationships ALTs build are with their co-workers at the BoE, and that’s not a thing for SHS ALTs. Occasionally, there are prefectural events SHS ALTs are needed at (debate competitions, English Days at particular schools, etc.), but those are few and far between, and are only for public school ALTs, and those within reasonable distance of the event itself. The only time all the SHS ALTs are in a single room is during SDC. Instead, the relationships SHS ALTs form are far more focused on finding ALTs with similar interests, or with the teachers you work with. I’m far from an expert on JHS or Primary schools, but from what I have heard, SHS ALTs tend to spend a lot more time with teachers at their base schools, and have much closer connections. The downside being that during the holidays, when a lot of teachers take holidays, there’s a whole lot of sleeping at your desk.

So, teaching. Some SHS ALTs (especially private school ALTs) only have the one school, and I can’t speak to their experience. I have five schools, and the teaching varies enormously from school to school. At my highest level academic school, or at my hearing impaired school, I’m given a schedule a little time in advance (often the day before), and follow the teacher’s cues during the lesson itself. For my lower ability schools, there’s a lot more freedom, but very much tempered by the lower English knowledge of students. At all my visit schools, I have 2-3 classes a day, except the hearing impaired school where I have 5, except for marking days, when I won’t have any lessons at all.

The base school is very different. It’s a lot easier to try more ambitious and long-term activities with elective classes. While most of my visit schools have classes from 38-43, my base school’s elective classes have 3-6 students, which really opens up more chances to try new activities. Because I actually have time to talk to the teachers, their classes work as my guinea pigs for any new games I want to run with larger classes. However, as the title states, this is the feast. The famine is the shadow looming over all my schools, which is the creeping exam period. ALT classes are the opposite of exam study to most teachers. Learning actual spoken English, and phrases that real humans use is of no use in exams. As such, the famine starts a few weeks before the exams. Classes stop, and those that don’t have little notes scribbled in the margins: “class may be cancelled for exam prep” “I need the first 5 minutes to do a quiz” “I need the first 25 minutes to do a mock exam”. 2-3 classes turns into no classes pretty quick. I’m sure there are situations in JHS that are comparable. It’s times like this that it’s really good to have a hobby. There’s a reason I edit this blog. I would say the dead period is also a reason that we currently have two SHS ALTs as RAs in different regions, as well as a PA. Being an SHS ALT has a wildly fluctuating amount of work from week to week, often with very little notice. Still, often the work is meaningful, engaging and actually allows me to try my own ideas in ways a lot of ALTs don’t seem to be able to.

In conclusion, I’m not sure how much of SHS work is different from other kinds of schools. I can’t even say with complete confidence that I’m speaking for many SHS ALTs other than myself. So, even if this is a horribly selfish summary of just my experience, I hope it gives anyone interested an idea about some of the details of working in a Senior High School.

Jordan Rocke is a first year Senior High School ALT in Hojo, and has been the Mikan blog editor since late 2018. He was a history teacher back in Australia, and now runs a weekly role-playing group, and these two things have a surprising amount of overlap.

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