Monday, June 21, 2010

Random thoughts for incoming ALTs & future JET applicants

After spending almost three years working as an ALT on the JET Programme, I admit I've gotten kind of crotchety. Keeping that in mind, here are some things I'd like to pass onto people who are coming to Japan this summer as ALTs and/or are thinking about applying for the JET Programme.

  • please remember that the JET program hires people to **teach English**--NOT to study Japanese, learn about Japanese culture or to travel around Japan/Asia (the ability to do so is a nice side benefit, but that shouldn't interfere with/take the place of doing your job)
  • use English as much as possible on the job (this is one I still really need to work on); it's easier to be friendly with students if you're constantly speaking in Japanese outside of class but it's invaluable for students to get exposure to real English so try to talk with them in English even outside of class; and if teachers/co-workers speak with you in English, I think it's only courteous to respond in kind: it seems kind of insulting to insist on speaking Japanese when people are making efforts to communicate in English--like you're saying "I don't understand your English, so let's just speed things up and speak in Japanese (although I *do* switch to Japanese when I feel like it better conveys the nuances of what I want to say...)
  • there are many things you can't control in the JET Programme--where you live, where you work, who you work with, etc.--but you CAN control your own attitude/response to situations; thinking positive really does make a difference
  • students are, for the most part, very well attuned to teachers' moods/attitudes; if they realize that you genuinely enjoy being with them and are happy to see them, they will generally respond in kind 
  • if possible, please consider staying for at least two years; since it takes pretty much a full year to get used to the job, the first year you're probably taking more than you're giving back; the second year is when you really start to actually make valuable contributions to your school(s) 
Money Matters:
  • be aware that ALTs (particularly in rural, cash-strapped areas) are quite highly paid relative to other Japanese city/government employees (e.g. I probably earn about as much as someone in their fifth year working for the city) and make it a goal to do more every year to earn the salary you are being paid; even after almost three years on JET; I still feel like I'm not earning 100% of my salary (maybe only 90%?)
  • our salaries are paid (once) monthly; try to avoid being stuck in the situation where you have to live off of rice and soy sauce while waiting for your next pay cheque; if possible, it's also a good idea to build up a reserve fund that you can draw on when unexpected situations occur (like car accidents)
  • a lot of people get up in arms about their vacation days and get mad when they are requested to only take holidays during certain periods (like when school is not in session); personally I don't understand why people think that being JET ALTs in Japan gives them "rights" they wouldn't even have in North America (or wherever your home country is); I mean, chances are if you were working for an office/company you'd have to make a request--which might or might not be granted--to take time off and obviously employers would prefer you to avoid taking long vacations during busy times at work
  • in my experience, the earlier you make requests for vacation days, the more likely you are to have them granted; I recommend asking as soon as you even think you might want to take the day off--before making travel/accommodation arrangements, etc.
  • it doesn't hurt to request Tokyo or other large cities, but if you seriously expect to get placed there, you're probably going to be disappointed; large cities can have their pick of native English speaker teachers, so they don't need to get random assignments from the JET Programme
  • most of the JET Programme placements *are* rural (I think pretty much all of Aomori Prefecture is considered rural by definition), but there are also varying degrees of "rural"--consider yourself lucky if you have a Jusco =P 
  • there are various inconveniences that come with being in a rural placement, but on the bright side I think you get a more "real" experience of Japan living in a rural community than if you lived in a big city; you can always get the "big city experience" as a tourist, but you can't truly experience rural Japan unless you live in it and become part of the community
  • don't post anything online that you'd be embarrassed to have your co-workers--or students, for that matter--read; you might not think that they'd be interested or that the English is a deterrent, but you'd be surprised...
  • it's really helpful to have friends who will sympathize and listen to you complain about issues you have regarding work, Japanese culture, etc. and it's important to express your frustrations so they don't build up and explode, but you'll probably be happier in the long run if you try to keep a positive outlook on things in general
  • no criticism intended for those who can make it work for them, but personally I've never understood the whole "you speak in English and I'll speak in Japanese" mindset for language learning/exchange; I think language learning is most effective when both people are communicating in the same language, so if people want to practice their English, I respect that and communicate with them in English (using Japanese only to facilitate understanding); if I want to practice my Japanese I find/make friends who don't care to/aren't trying to learn English (although I admit that I don't always reply to text messages in English because I've found that typing in Japanese makes for shorter and faster messages--since I don't have a data plan for my cell, the "shorter" is important as I get charged based on the amount of data I send/receive =P)

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