As an elementary school ALT, I’ve played many roles. I have been the tape-recorder: reading dialogue from a script as the children fidget and try to match pictures to numbers based on what I’m saying. I have been the planner. I have prepared materials and designed lessons. I have adjusted things between classes and addressed problems that came up unexpectedly. I have been a kind of class pet: little children literally climbing on me, pulling at my hair, shouting for my attention, comparing hand and foot sizes, marvelling at my non-brown eyes and occasionally trying for that elusive kancho – and that’s where I draw the line.
I have been the lead teacher. Sometimes, it’s briefly, when the homeroom teacher has to step out for some reason. Sometimes, it’s permanently, when the homeroom teacher decides to step back and take their hands off English class for the year. I have been the second link in the team-teaching chain, trading off the attention of the class with another teacher. I have been further down the chain, devoting almost all my time to individual students in a class to keep things running smoothly. I have been relegated to standing and watching class, an experience junior high school ALTs will likely be familiar with. One thing I will say for elementary school though: I haven’t spent a lot of time sitting at a desk. Elementary school probably most closely matches the workload and job description I was expecting on JET. It’s all go, with barely time to pause and think. It suits me pretty well.
The most important quality of an elementary ALT is to be flexible. Not only to enable you to complete that final part of heads-shoulders-knees-and-toes quickly but to allow you to react on the fly to the range of teachers and classes you work with, pivoting their energy to useful places and adjusting lesson plans as necessary to make the most of it. It’s rare to have consistency from year to year, or sometimes even from class to class as an ALT in Matsuyama. So being a good elementary ALT means being able to cope in a variety of situations and work with a variety of people.
The Japanese Assistant Language Teachers (JALTs) I’ve had the good fortune to work with have been some of the nicest people I’ve met. They come from a range of backgrounds and hence differ from each other in teaching style, amongst other things. Still, they have been some of the most competent English speakers and English teachers I’ve met working in the education system. Fundamentally, they serve to bridge the gap between the ALT and the HRT, or whomever is responsible for the school’s English course. In practice, some JALTs lead the class, some even enforce discipline where the HRT does not and they often fulfill the ALT’s role in situations where the ALT is not present for whatever reason – early departures or scheduling clashes for visiting schools. Some JALTs are single handedly responsible for the planning and execution of English lessons for all grades in a school. Not being subject to the April teacher shuffle, where all teachers and staff in schools and education boards are redistributed, JALTs are very often one of the longest serving staff members at a school. Though they are part-time workers, this can give them greater flexibility and may even permit them to make some changes to the English curriculum. Where ALTs are limited to 5 years on JET, and typically 2 years at any given school in Matsuyama, not to mention limited in their ability to communicate in Japanese with the teachers, JALTs have no such restrictions. They really are quite often the glue which binds the rest of the team together. That said, recent developments with the board of education have led to difficulties regarding contracting and scheduling which may affect the
employment situation of these underpaid and often underappreciated workers. It is a great shame, in my opinion, that they are not sufficiently recognised for the amount of work they do.
As an ALT, there’s not much more I can ask of the homeroom teacher than to show a little enthusiasm for English, to play along in class when necessary for demonstrations and so on and to maintain just a little bit of discipline so the kids aren’t pinching each other or shouting or playing with their pencil cases when they shouldn’t be. In some cases, even that much is just not necessary. In that case, it’s no harm for them to go take care of their paperwork or just have a break for once. They have plenty on their plates as it is.
There are all sorts of homeroom teachers. Again, flexibility is key for an ALT. Some HRTs can be a little overbearing, trying to maintain the role of lead teacher unnecessarily and potentially to the detriment of the class. It can be a point of pride or simply following the letter of the law for them. Others do too little in a situation where they should step in and calm the students down or enforce the rules. The vast majority fall somewhere in the middle and are perfectly willing to work with ALTs, albeit often on their own terms. The homeroom teacher is often the mood-setter for their class and can have a big influence on class behaviour and enthusiasm. It’s important in most cases to have them as an ally. They know their students better than anyone else, after all.
Elementary school students range between the ages of 5 and 12 and are currently taught English from the age of 8, in 3rd grade. Given that they have learned only 240 kanji and have yet to study romaji at that point, they can hardly be considered fully fluent in their first language even as they commence learning of their second. The first two years of the English course focus on an easy and fun introduction to English listening and speaking. Classes are once weekly, running for forty-five minutes. The final two years in elementary school gradually introduce basic reading and writing. In these last two years, the amount of lessons is typically doubled. There has been no grading or examination to this point. However it is scheduled to begin this year, in the form of evaluations given by the lead English teacher. At present, all material covered is reviewed or retaught in the first two terms of junior high school. So by any standards, the pressure is very much off.
The children themselves are largely the opposite of their stereotypical future junior high school English class selves. One might even suspect that, drawing on a limited pool of enthusiasm and effort for English classes, they exhaust their supplies by summer vacation of their final year of elementary school and are left running on fumes for the remainder of their mandatory English education. In reality, there are a number of factors contributing to the difference between a 3rd grade elementary school student and a 3rd grade junior high school student. As expected, children are children and teenagers are a different kettle of fish altogether.
If the students have a fault at elementary school, it might be that they have too much energy and enthusiasm! They enjoy playing games and tend to see English time as “fun” time. It can sometimes be difficult to rein in that energy and direct it usefully. At least they make some effort to communicate in English. They also genuinely seem to enjoy learning it. They aren’t intimidated by how much English they don’t know yet. They don’t have the pressure of life-determining exams looming just yet. It is perhaps our best opportunity, as ALTs, to show them how and why learning English doesn’t have to be a boring, painful affair. It’s a chance to reach out and remind them that the world is bigger than they think. It’s a chance to give them the foundations of a tool which will shape their interaction with that world in a big way.
Ciaran was an ALT in Matsuyama for 3 years, before returning to his home in Ireland this summer. During his time as an ALT he worked in 6 different elementary schools, as well as 3 junior high schools and the Matsuyama City Board of Education. The views expressed above are his own.