A Day in the Life of an ALT

Now that I’ve officially been in Japan for almost three months, I feel like I’m finally getting into the swing of things. I thought it might be fun to give you a rundown of what an average day looks like for me, and my students.

6:45am Wake up! 

Yes, waking up this early after a year of sleeping in is a bit tough for me, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I could probably sleep in later, but I like a lazy morning. Usually I’ll shower, check the news, sip on some tea and eat a bit of breakfast before riding my bike to school.

A bit of scenery near my school
A bit of scenery near my school

8:15 Ohayou Gozaimasu!

Although my contract says my workday starts at 8:30, Japanese “on time” is more like 10 minutes early. Kyushu on time is closer to 5 minutes early, but I still try and arrive on the early side. After leaving my outdoor shoes in my designated cubby I slip into my teaching shoes and make my way upstairs to the teachers’ room. The proper way to enter the teacher’s room is to say “ohayou gozaimasu!” at a reasonably loud volume and with a super peppy (“genki”) voice. This basically means “good morning,” but if I walked into work at 2pm I would also be expected to say this. It’s just what you say when seeing someone for the first time that day (at least in a work setting). Greetings are pretty important in Japan, and not being able to sneak in quietly definitely encourages me to arrive on time. On Mondays there’s a staff meeting at 8:20, and if I arrive a bit “late” I usually hit the middle of it. I’m not really expected to go to the meetings, since they’re entirely in Japanese, but I usually try and make an effort to attend. If nothing else it’s a chance to practice my listening skills.

8:45 First Class

While classes don’t officially start until 8:45, students are generally at school by 7:30. They have pre-class classes and club activities. I actually don’t really know how they spend their mornings, since I’m never around early enough to see them, and I rarely run into students on my way into school. In any case, there are 7 periods in a school day, I teach anywhere from 0-4 classes a day. Classes are usually 50 minutes long, and instead of having designated rooms for each subject, the classrooms are mostly homerooms. This means teachers are the ones who go from room to room, not students. The only exceptions are specialty classrooms, like science labs or the art/calligraphy rooms, and of course the gyms. This school structure means that each class is a tightly knit group, and they do absolutely everything with their homeroom. Each class has a different atmosphere, and it’s been mostly fun learning how to work with each class.

When I work with the senior high students we usually begin class with a vocabulary quiz. Often I am not a part of this, and teachers will sometimes just tell me to come to class 10 minutes after the bell so they can do the quiz and drill the next day’s vocab words before I arrive. They learn roughly 20 new words a day, but I’d be willing to bet money that most of them couldn’t use the words in a sentence outside of the example provided in the textbook. Japanese testing is all about memorization, reading and writing for tests, with very little time given to producing original content. Learning how to work within this system has been a bit of a challenge, one I’m sure I will never really figure it out, but I suppose that’s just the way it is. Anyway, after the vocab test I will often model a dialogue with the teacher, introduce a topic or activity, or correct the previous night’s homework on the board. Each class is different, and each co-teacher is different as well. Some teachers ask me to prepare entire lessons, while others only want me to prepare a few warm-up activities, or sometimes act as a human tape recorder (ie: reading the new vocab words aloud).

For the junior high classes I get to have a bit more fun, since they don’t take daily vocab tests. Also, university entrance exams aren’t looming over their heads, so they get to do more practical activities, and the teacher is much more open to speaking activities (many of the high school teachers prefer writing/reading activities, as these are more likely to come into play on entrance exams). I think the junior high classes are some of my favorites, which really surprised me, since I would never in a million years describe myself as someone who likes children.

12:30 Lunch Time

Everyone eats lunch at the same time, all classes, all teachers, all staff. We don’t have a cafeteria here, and the students all eat lunch in their homerooms. The junior high teachers eat with their students, but I think the senior high kids are left to their own devices, since the other teachers all eat lunch in the teacher’s room. This would be unthinkable in the US, but here in Japan, it works.

A typical lunch at my desk.
A typical lunch at my desk. It’s always a bit of a mystery as to what I’ll get…

Because there’s no cafeteria, students are all expected to bring their own lunches. Teachers get a bit more freedom. There are two convenience stores (“conbini”) within walking distance where I could grab lunch, but usually I order it in with the other teachers. Every morning there’s a signup sheet where I can order lunch from one of four restaurants that deliver to the school. It costs between $4 – $8, depending on what I order. The delivery person drops off the food sometime mid-morning, and picks up the empty plates/boxes in the afternoon. This is really nice because, although most of the lunches come in disposable boxes, garbage sorting in Japan is… often confusing. Because the school has no janitorial staff (more on that in a bit) I’m expected to take home any food-related trash I create at school. The delivery system lets me skip that step, though some of them do provide real dishes, and for some reason I’ve been told we need to wash those before we return them to the restaurant. There’s a learning curve to everything.

1:20 Cleaning Time

Japanese schools don’t hire a cleaning staff, and this is because all students are expected to take part in cleaning the school themselves. Supposedly it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility. In practice it means that most parts of the school are only surface-level clean, and dust bunnies are hiding just out of sight everywhere (though the bathrooms are always spotless). You always know when it’s cleaning time because the school blasts classical music over the loudspeakers. I’ve been told some schools play pop songs, but not mine. We have the same exact recording every day. It really surprised me the first time I heard it, but now it’s become a normal part of the day, and I can tell exactly how much time is left for cleaning by which part of the song is playing (cleaning time is generally about 10 minutes). Usually I’ll help students clean the teacher’s room or the hallway outside, and this tends to be a good time to strike up a conversation with normally shy students.

1:40 Back to Class

Classes resume as usual. There are four periods in the morning, and three in the afternoon. I often teach 5th or 6th period, but 7th is technically outside of my working hours. I learned recently that most schools have fewer classes in a day than mine, but because we’re a top academic school, the students are expected to study longer hours both in and outside of class.

4:15 Quittin’ Time!

Riding home after a long day
Riding home after a long day

Well…. Not really. Again, my contract says this is the end of my day, but I think I can count on my hands the number of times this has actually been true. Students still have class until closer to 4:50, and often I’ll be asked to stay late and help students prepare for the English Speech Contest. For speech contests the students must memorize a speech and perform it in front of a crowd and panel of judges. They are judged on their pronunciation, inflection, gestures and general impression. Most teachers are done working with their speech students by now, but because my students won the municipal competition, we’re still working hard in preparation for the prefecture-wide competition at the end of the month. These things are full-day affairs, and I’ve been to two of them already (there are high school and junior high school level competitions, as well as smaller contests from local newspapers or tv stations).

Some days I’m also asked to stay late to supervise the English club, which meets once a week. While clubs in Japan tend to be serious business, with students coming in on weekends and over holidays to participate in club activities, the English club at my school is very informal, and in the past two months I’ve had a max of five students attend the meetings. I enjoy English club, since we usually just play games or practice conversation, and the students are really funny.

On top of speech contest and English club, sometimes I just stay late to chat with students or finish marking compositions, usual teacher stuff. I’d say on average I leave work closer to 5:30 or 6:30 most days, which is still way earlier than the Japanese teachers. Teachers in Japan work some of the longest hours of any country in the world, and it’s not unusual for them to arrive around 7 and leave closer to 8 or 9. In fact, one day I forgot my keys at school, and when I came back to pick them up around 7:30 almost all of the teachers were still working, tutoring students or preparing lessons for the next day. I’ve heard from other ALTs that teachers sometimes stay as late as 11pm, even if they have families back home. It’s a bit difficult for me to understand the system here. I’ll write a bit more about Japan’s work culture in a later post, but suffice it to say, it’s a bit different than the US.

As with when I arrive, leaving school also requires a loud goodbye to the rest of the staff. “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu!” roughly means, I’m sorry I’m leaving before you! And is usually met with a call of “Otsukare-sama desu” which literally translates to something like “you must be tired” and implies that you have worked hard today. I was really confused when I got here because I hear people calling “ostukare” all the time, and it’s used as a greeting. I’ve been told this is a Kyushu thing…

6:30 Tadaima!

Time to return home! Most days I’ll run by the grocery store and grab a few things for dinner or snacks, return home and try to throw together a meal. I’ve slowly been building up a schedule of weekly commitments, such as Japanese lessons, but for the most part I just sit back and watch tv or read a book when I get home. Sometimes I’ll go down and chat with my neighbor over tea, or meet up with friends for dinner, but most weekday nights are quiet.

So that’s an average weekday for me! Weekends tend to be a bit crazier, and since summer and fall have lots of events I’ve been running around trying to see everything before the weather gets cold. I’ll write more about my weekend trips soon, and I promise those will have more pictures 🙂


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