Monday, May 21, 2012

First School Visit [ALT]

Wondering what to expect on your first school visit with Interac?  I'm currently an ALT for Interac, working in the city of Toyama within the similarly named prefecture of Toyama. (In fact, when I tell people I live in Toyama they have no idea where that is. I tell them it's a prefecture and they get very surprised!)

Interac's contract directly forbids any mention of my schools by name, so although I can't share exactly where I work, there are a few things I can say--my impressions of the schools, what levels I teach, and so on.

Junior High School

Like some Interac ALTs, I have a base school which I visit more often than my others. In my particular case, I visit my Junior High School (JHS) almost every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It is a medium-sized school (~600 students total), and has about an average number of students per class: 38. JHS divides students into three years (first, second, and third) of which the first years have no real English experience.

My JHS has been quite friendly and were the first to invite me to an enkai... on my very first visit! There are a few English teachers, but on my first day I was introduced to Ms. K, Mr. Y, and Mr. I. (Unfortunately, these names must remain shrouded in mystery.) All three were extremely kind and friendly. I sit next to the friendly Ms. K, but the real surprise was Mr. Y. He spoke with a perfect American accent, almost totally devoid of the usual Japanese inflections and pronunciations. I nearly fell over when he first spoke to me! Although he says he has never been to America, he would likely have no trouble passing for an Asian American. I've actually been very lucky: all of my JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) have had extraordinarily good English. Don't expect this, especially in Elementary school, but you will find most JHS JTEs have communicable English.

From the first day I arrived during school hours, the students went wild. I remember arriving early on my first day of work and attempting to sit in my car until a reasonable time, but so many students were staring, giggling, and waving, that I eventually got out and entered the teacher's lounge some thirty minutes early. Even during the Opening Ceremony, students were craning their necks to see me, and I felt all eyes on me while I was on stage. It's definitely interesting to be a foreigner in Japan... Expect your ego to explode from the compliments you will get.

Elementary Schools

I am currently teaching at three Elementary Schools. Elementary students are incredibly easy to entertain and shouldn't trouble any new ALT. It's just games, energy, and a smile. The younger students (1st and 2nd grade) literally don't care what you do: you can't make a mistake with them. Every Elementary school in Japan has six grades. One of my schools is rather large with about 40 students per class, but has very nice facilities within the school. In fact, it even has a room devoted to English with a giant touch screen television! The other school is more like the "average" Elementary, with 30 to 35 students per class and standard resources at its disposal.
My last, and least visited, elementary is the best in my eyes! It's very small. I teach about 17 students per class. Every class consists of an entire grade, so the entire school only has about 85 students.

First Visit

You will visit each school before the school year actually begins. This visit is just a get-to-know-everything visit--tours, questions, contracts. My first visit to my JHS school was with my IC--the Independent Contractor who acts as my translator. It lasted an hour, far longer than my friends (roughly half an hour per school for them). However, it is a very low-stress visit. I was introduced to my fellow English teachers before my IC went over the contract and forms the school is required to complete for me to get paid. This was all in Japanese and I just stood there, nodding my head and listening for my name.

The only real important questions they will ask you are "Do you want to eat a school lunch?" (roughly 300 yen each meal on average) and if so, "Will you eat lunch with the kids?" These were actually the ONLY questions I was asked.

Important questions you might ask should be:

  • Are there any rules on parking? 
  • How many students will I teach per class? 
  • When will my first teaching day be? 
  • At what time do you expect me to arrive at work? (Often 15 minutes before your scheduled time) 
  • Where is the (copy room/laminator/bathroom)? (Make sure you see these during the school tour).

Some of these questions will be answered on your schedule, but I think it's important to double check the school's expectations against Interac's schedule. If there is a discrepancy your schedule should be followed in most cases, but you should inform the school so they don't think you're being lazy! Working as an ALT is a constant tug of way between your company and your school.

After this, I was shown to my desk in the teacher's lounge, shown to my locker (if I had one) and shoe locker (you will have one). Many schools have an intercom system to get inside. You can ask for the code, but the doors are only ever locked after school. For my JHS, the teacher's entrance is next to the student entrance, so I usually just enter with the students because I'm lazy.

And that was the end of my first visit--quick and to the point! Take notes of the important things, but mostly all you do is nod and smile. Don't worry about being a perfect example of Japanese politeness; they recognize that you are a foreigner and, while any effort to mimic Japanese etiquette is appreciated, they won't hate you unless you do something EXTRAORDINARILY rude.

Everything was almost identical for my elementary schools. In summary: the first visit is relaxed, friendly, and even entertaining!