• Life & Culture

A-Z of working as an ALT in Japan

a teacher in a suit with a student

Starting the new school year teaching in Japan as an ALT in Japan can be a daunting prospect, particularly if you have never been to a Japanese school. But fear not, your senpai at Interac are here to assist and help you with the A-Z of working in a Japanese school.


A is for attendance, in Japan punctuality is held in very high regard and you won’t want your first day or even your first year to be marked by you being late. In Japan, there is a phrase called 第一印象(Daiichiinsho) and it refers to first impressions. 

How you make your first impression will have a lasting impact on the school. A close friend of mine was late for his first day and his school reminded him of on his final day. Don’t be that guy or girl. Be sure to arrive nice and early at your school (ideally 30 minutes before your start time).


B is for Balance (Work-life)

One of the benefits of being an ALT in Japan compared to other jobs in Japan, is you are likely going to have a good work-life balance. We would encourage you to make the most of that while you can. 

In your spare time, why not learn a skill, or try picking up a hobby, study some Japanese, see friends, maybe even join in with your student club activities. Whatever it is, be sure it is something that brings you joy and keeps you mentally sharp and healthy.


C is for Class (of course)

How do you teach in your class? Is it elementary, junior or senior high? Are you the main teacher or second teacher. Is there a set curriculum or do you have complete freedom? Every situation is different, but the best thing to do is to start with an open mind and a positive disposition. 

No one expects you to be perfect right away. Be a humble professional and take notes, learn from what the Japanese teacher does and what the previous teacher did and start from there, be sure to play to your strengths. Finally look at creating lessons where you Present, Practice and Produce (more on that later).


D is for Difference.

When you are teaching you are making a difference. Sometimes it may seem like a bit of an uphill battle and like any job, you will have good days and bad daysHowever, by just listening to your students and being there for them even as an ALT will help shape their impressions on what foreign people are like.


A typical “Enkai” – “Oh so now you all are listening? Where was this focus in the staff meeting today?”


E is for Enkai.

Teaching isn’t just in the classroom and a lot of success as an ALT in Japan it can be how you interact with your teachers and community outside the classroom. An enkai is a drinking party that is usually held for a special occasion, and you will often see a more casual side of your teachers that you may not previously see. 

However, be aware of social discourse. Although it is an event, to relax and let off some steam, it is not an excuse to be rude. Although maybe never mentioned again, how you behave at the enkai will impact on how the teachers perceive your professionalism.


F is for Flexibility.

You prepared the perfect lesson and you have shared it with your homeroom teacher, only for them to come to you 5 minutes before the class and say “Let’s change everything”. What do you do? The above situation is bound to happen to you at least once and this is just life. No matter what we do or how well we plan sometimes things just go a little crazy. 

A professional is someone who can adapt quickly and be flexible (within reason) to the requests they receive. Also, the answer is to always have at least 2 options prepared at any given time and failing that activities/revisions that encourage the students to produce are a good choice.


G is for Genki.

Genki is a Japanese word that is often translated as lively but it means more than that. Happy students in schools are often called “genki” by the teachers and when we at LJC have asked the Japanese teachers what they like most about the ALT, their reply is usually how genki they are with the kids. So what does this mean? 

A genki teacher is not just a loud teacher and a little bit of a joker. A real genki teacher is a teacher who engages and holds the interest of his/her students in a fun and meaningful way. For extroverts that maybe like the above statement, but even if you are introverted you can still be a genki teacher. How do you talk to your students out of class? Do you try to make core parts of your lesson relevant to the student’s lives? 

Trying to juggle that, with the expectations of the school curriculum can be challenging but it is possible. Even if you have a bad day if you step into the class, how do you carry yourself? Being a genki teacher is more than being a class clown, it’s being a professional who is passionate about her/his student’s learning and brings a positive outlook to the student’s learning.


H is for Health check

Which happens every year. Health checks in Japan are quite routine, so much so that they have their package that your company or Board of Education will likely have purchased for their staff to attend. The whole process lasts about an hour and will test things including weight, height, blood pressure, heart rate, x rays, hearing and sight etc. 

What’s more, every year your students will also undergo a health check and compared to where you are from their health check may seem invasive. The best thing you can do is be there for your students. It is often an emotional day, particularly for junior high students.


Introduction – A self introduction in Japan is usually done in the staff room and not the stairs. *Fun fact*


I is for Introduction.

It is quite common at the beginning of the school year for all new teachers to give a self-introduction. If you are teaching elementary or junior high school your first lessons might just simply be your self-introduction. However, a class is still a class so make it engaging. Perhaps have a simple worksheet, or maybe some questions prepared for the students who listened.


J is for Japanese

Japanese, a beautiful language if a little time consuming to learn. Fear not. As an ALT you will likely have a degree of time to both study and practice your Japanese with the teachers. (Only use English with the students). Many of the ALTs in Japan with Interac have gone from little Japanese to JLPT levels N2 and N1 in a matter of years. 

The schedule of teaching is quite flexible and allows for a good amount of study. However, don’t take advantage of this. As an ALT your main role is to be there for the children’s learning. So try to balance any Japanese aspiration you have with their needs. 

Also when studying Japanese, try to use textbooks or do it in a way that is engaged with the staff room and does not look like you are playing games on your phone.


K is for Kouchou Sensei (Principal)

How active was the principal in your school? It is maybe very different or similar to the principals here in Japan. In Japan the principal has more of a relaxed role, working particular logistics out with the school community, preparing events and maintaining good relationships with the PTE and kids. 

As a result, kouchou Sensei is usually one of the most relaxed teachers and is likely to want to talk with you more often. Take advantage of Kouchou sensei’s knowledge and learn from him or her and you will go far in your community.


L is for Lunch.

If you are teaching 5 or more classes a day, you may feel that you just want to rest during lunch. However at least initially, using lunch (after you eat) as a time to talk and learn more about your students, will help smooth your classes, increase attention in the classes, as well as show the teachers you are making an effort to be part of the team. 

If you are teaching elementary school, your lunch will likely involve playing games of tag, hide-and-seek or soccer. If it is middle school it will probably be simple conversations here and there with most of the students. Note: There will almost always be one eager beaver student who will want to practice their English, but try to share your time out with everyone.


M is for Mobile Phone.

Don’t bring your mobile phone to class EVER. Don’t take your mobile phone out of the staff room EVER. There are many sad stories about ALT in Japan who do.

Furthermore, if you use your phone in the staff room avoid making calls (where possible) and don’t play games. In fact, besides the quick message every few hours, it is best not to use it at all. Sorry real talk.


Natto – Like it or hate it, natto is something you can natto escape from.


N is for Natto.

Some people love it, some people (like the author) would rather eat nails. However, there is little doubt that it is healthy for you. If only it smelt a little better. Seriously how is it possible to smell something inside your mouth? I guess it is Natto for me.


O is for Opportunities

When you teach as an ALT in Japan you will have plenty of opportunities to not only be part of the community but learn more about the Japanese culture. As an ALT you can participate in not only sports events, or culture days but also local festivals and activities. 

Make the most of this time to become a key pillar in your community, especially if you are in the countryside. There are so many unique customs and cultures that change from prefecture to prefecture and the Japanese people are proud of it and enjoy sharing it with others.


P is for 3 P’s Present, Practice and Produce. Increasingly although teaching styles and standards are changing the 3P’s have stood the test of time in the Japanese education system (like the “7-step” song urghh) When teaching a lesson, first clearly present the concept. Engage the class and elicit responses assisting where needed with the target language. 

After that follow up with Practice, this should be a 50/50 activity with you doing half and the students doing the other half. Finally and most importantly engage in production activity. This should be entirely the student/s work and have minimum input from you. At the end, test the students quickly before moving on to the next lesson.


Q is for Quality.

In all careers quality is important. It is often an idea that is translated into your work. As a teacher, you want to not only strive to give quality lessons (that means studying, trying, failing and learning) but also being a person who embodies quality. As an ALT in Japan you are given the title Sensei and that is not something that is or should be handed out to anyone. 

In fact in Japan, most Sensei are people who have worked hard and devoted themselves to a career of service (master artisans, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians). If you are an ALT, we at Link Japan Careers think you deserve this title, but don’t jeopardize or ruin it by engaging in questionable behavior. 

It might be tempting to walk across the road before there is a red light, but what if a student sees you doing that? What if they start to copy you? Engage in actions of quality and be a humble expert in your community.


Rapport – “oh so that is the difference between ‘their’ vs ‘they’re’ “… said no student ever.


R is for Rapport.

Whether you speak excellent Japanese or not communication is important to building a good rapport with your teachers and students. Communication is more than just words or syntax, it is about trying to understand the other person and engaging with their request or question, not just listing your own. 

A good conversation is like working in a sandwich shop, you add your part and pass it over, they add theirs and perhaps pass it back. Naturally, a good conversation will also include what you wish to say but that shouldn’t be the sole focus. 

Especially as English is a second language to many students, we as teachers must be patient and seek to elicit response, but not go so far as to steal opportunities for the learner to communicate.


School lunch – Eating lunch with the students is fun, but don’t be too foolish as it is class time.


S is for School lunch (the food)

For many schools (elementary and junior high) you may find yourself able to join for school lunches. School lunches in Japan are quite healthy and are often created with local ingredients. As a result, you can feel good eating food that is helping the local community. 

However, they are a little carb-heavy. If you are the type of person who likes having healthy meals for training or if you are the type of person who wants one meal that lasts the whole day, then school lunch is the best thing since sliced bread (which you will also eat a lot of). Also, look out for the once a year school lunch, usually, this is something special like ramen or curry. 

It is quite fun to see how excited the students will get, and it can give you something to look forward to too! Be aware of Natto.


T is for Training

Whether you are a direct hire ALT in Japan, a dispatch ALT in Japan or a JET you should always be engaging in activities that seek to improve your knowledge of what you do. For your first year as an ALT, you can probably get away with Criss-Cross, but if you are still playing this after 3 years, it may be time to think about how you can skill up to give the best lessons to your students. 

Have you done a TEFL, CELTA, DELTA or maybe even a master’s degree? How many workshops do you attend? There is always an opportunity to learn. As a language teacher, you will need to skill up even more often than some of your teaching peers, as language is a dynamic human skill.


U is for Upstairs why are there so many levels to schools, and why is 1st grade in Junior high on the 3rd floor? There are many mysteries that even we cannot answer. 

In all seriousness, U is for Utilize. As a teacher make sure to utilize all senses, skills, and tools you have available. What works for one student, or one class may differ to the next, so being able to make adjustments on the go and teach succinctly is important to your success as an ALT.


V is for Vision.

What is your vision for the class? What is the school’s vision for it’s students? What is your Homeroom teacher’s vision for theacademic year? The big vision is likely quite similar (learning English in a fun way that can be produced by the student fluently). However, sometimes what one group wants and what we want (or envision) are a little different. 

Being able to work towards both personal targets and the other’s targets is essential to being professional in not only teaching but life. It is important to pursue your own goals, but choose your battles, life is a marathon, not a sprint. What’s more, we must always remember we are a guest, a very valued guest. 

Try to work with your other and look at setting goals you can achieve personally without them, as well as setting professional goals that you will achieve for them. 


W is for World.

Although you have likely come from one country (maybe two?), as an ALT in Japan you will be seen as the resident expert of not only your culture but also all the other foreign cultures of ‘Gaikoku’. It is a big undertaking but you can do it! 

Incidentally, did you know Link Japan Careers is licensed to recruit from over 15 countries? We have South African, French, Australian, Vietnamese, Filipino, American, Spanish, Jamaican, English, Canadian and many more teachers join us every year!


X is for X-ray.

Haha but seriously, did you know it is quite common in Japan to get an x-ray done for every health check. It is usually done on the chest to check for TB. Be sure to look after yourself and if you have any doubts speak to your doctor or supervisor.


Yolo- Japan is a cool place, and teaching even for a brief time is a lot of fun!

Y is for YOLO (You only live once)

Yes, we went there. However, for most of us teaching as an ALT is a career that does have an end. Whether you graduate to be a teacher, lecturer in Japan or your home country, or perhaps something completely different? 

Whatever it may be, it is important to put as much effort into this job as you can. The emotional joy will be equal to the effort you put in – we guarantee it. Also when you do leave, you want to be in a space where you can think, man I loved my time as an ALT, it was really sweet and I have zero regrets.


Z is for Zero (regrets)

No matter how long you stay as an ALT, we hope that you enjoy the opportunity and make the most of your time here. As you can see there are plenty of things you will learn and experience in your first year teaching as an ALT in Japan. We hope that you can make many great memories and change many of your students’ lives positively in and outside of the classroom.

Well what do you think? Are you excited about being an ALT in Japan? Did you enjoy your time as an ALT?

Interested in living and working in Japan?  Check out ALT jobs with Interac here.

About the Author

Brian McDonough is a consultant at Interac, Japan’s largest provider of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). Originally from the US, Brian has lived in Japan for over 25 years, giving him a unique perspective on the cultural differences and challenges people face when moving to Japan. He has first-hand experience of working in Japan as an American.