What is it like to work as an ALT? Before coming to Japan, it seemed everyone had a different opinion on working at schools in Japan. I found this odd since everyone had the same job as an ALT. Seven months in, it all makes sense: your experience depends entirely on the school for which you work.
Within Interac, I have heard horror stories and love stories. One ALT has had a terrible time with her school and feels almost mistreated, while another is constantly dealing with the subtleties that are Japanese work politics. Some ALTs are loved by their school and legitimately don't mind what the ALT does in his or her free time at school. From experience, I've been gently reprimanded once for looking at funny pictures on the computer. Other friends, though, routinely go on Facebook and even show event pictures to their teachers!
There is a case of one ALT who, presented with a couple free periods, went out to the car and took a nap! This same ALT also played video games on his/her own laptop at work during a slow day. Another friend would often have at least one day a week where he (or she) didn't even have to come into work! This job can potentially come with a lot of downtime and has to be dealt with accordingly.
In Japan, schools have festivals and competitions. In the case of Sports Day, classes might end early for a week prior just so they can practice. If there is anything special occurring at all, such as a special guest speaker, you can expect to have swathes of classes cancelled, too. And during the start and end of each term, work load is light since most students aren't having 'class'--they're prepping for tests. All in all, several days might be completely devoid of work.
That doesn't mean the job is an easy one, though. Interac's contract makes it possible for you to teach six classes a day out of a possible... six. Does this happen often? No way, and thank god it doesn't. But some people consistently teach five classes a day, allowing them only one 50 minute block to prepare materials. Needless to say, if this happens to you, you might be lesson planning at home or on Sunday afternoons. I personally teach five classes a day every day at my elementary schools, and my junior high is a wild card (this week I taught three, four, two, two, and four at my JHS).
So what does this all mean?
Your experience as an ALT in Japan, and the joy you derive from it, is highly dependent on your co-workers. Never, ever take one person's experience and assume you will have the same. Don't believe the advertising, etiher. Your co-workers can make you feel comfortable and welcome, allowing you to relax. You might go out to work parties with them and get drunk, show them pictures of your travels while at your desk, and left to your own devices you could have teachers taking an interest in what you choose to do with your free time. On the other hand, you could have very strict co-workers, even condescending at times, who expect you to be stoic and always looks as though you're working hard. This is... a challenge to say the least. Perhaps you will even have co-workers who you think hate you, always seeming to drop things on you at the last minute, reprimand you for the most trivial of things, or never inform you about anything occurring at the school. Every school is different.
More likely, however, you will have a regular, average school. You can't be too casual, but teachers will largely leave you be. You're expected to look smart, act professional, and accomplish your work. This isn't so bad, as I'm writing this blog post at work (on a Saturday and before a big event, no less!)
So remember: Everyone's ALT experience is different, and anyone describing their ALT job is just giving you one picture in a gallery of artwork. Build a good relationship with your co-workers, and you will likely have a much better time.