My ALT Motto

I recently came up with a motto for ALT-ing that is — if I do say so myself — so good that I have to share it with you:

If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.

Anyone reading this who is already working as an ALT will know exactly what I mean, but in case you aren’t or you don’t, allow me to explain.

As it happens, I have just been talking to one of my English teaching colleagues about how there is a shortage of English teachers in Ibaraki — compared to P.E. teachers, for instance — and how he wanted to become the latter but ended up as the former. This reminded me of my career in the media: when I entered film school, my dream was to become the new Woody Allen or the new Martin Scorcese; when I finished film school, through a combined lack of confidence, excess of fear, and sufficiency of pragmatism, I had set this dream aside and settled for becoming a sound recordist instead.

Being an ALT in Japan is similar, in that it is an easy job both to get and to do, and the other, more attractive options — manga artist, sumo wrestler, that kind of thing — seem daunting or over-ambitious. Particularly when you have just arrived in Japan and can hardly speak a word of the language, you are not going to walk straight into a job as a manga artist or a sumo wrestler, and if nothing else, being an ALT is less like being employed to work than being given time to study. But there is a law of diminishing returns, meaning that the longer you stay in the job, the less satisfying it becomes, and the more active you should be in seeking an alternative.

I could and should have quit my own ALT position about five years ago, when I was being bombarded with translating and proofreading work (including a very attractive offer from an American publishing company, not to write but to translate manga). For various reasons, though — my children were still young and I had just begun to suffer from insomnia — I did not. One of the things I learned from that experience was that even if I had to wait few more years to go freelance, I must not waste any of the time that being an ALT gave me.

Famously, Noel Gallagher wrote the first Oasis LP while he was working in a warehouse. For the past few years, I have not been writing songs, but I have been “doing” a Noel. Here is a list of the kind of things that I get up to while being paid to be an ALT by the local board of education:

  • Writing this blog
  • Writing other stuff (specifically, my chapters in the Inaka anthology and my forthcoming travel book, provisionally titled Gaijin on a Charinko: 2,500 Kilometres Across Japan by Bicycle.)
  • Translating and proofreading
  • Creating lesson plans and materials for two evening classes that I teach at the local community centre
  • Creating other materials for one-off assignments (for example, PowerPoint presentations about British culture)
  • Managing my finances (both in English for the U.K. and for the first time this year, my online tax return for Japan)
  • Studying Japanese (this no longer comes in the form of formal classes and homework, but reading news sites, blogs, Wikipedia Japan, etc., and looking up the words, kanji, phrases, and grammar that I do not know or am unsure of)
  • Speaking Japanese (with varying degrees of success: some of my colleagues are keen to chat and easy to understand, while others ignore me completely or speak in such a broad Ibaraki accent that coherent conversation is impossible)
  • Listening to Japanese (a work environment is the perfect place to overhear, make a note of, and then try keigo — polite Japanese — for yourself: how to greet people at various times of the day and in various contexts, what to say when you answer the phone, how to introduce yourself on your first day, etc.)
  • Buying cars (actually this does not happen often, but in the past year both of our cars passed, as it were, their sell-by-date. The experience of finding their second-hand replacements on and was an education in itself)
  • Buying other stuff (food and books from the U.K., for example, but also shopping online in Japan. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a pine tree sapling for our back garden, having realised that it is practically impossible to find one in real-life hardware stores and garden centres)
  • Bicycle maintenance (I do not have enough time to do this at home, so keep my bike stand, chain oil, foaming degreaser, and so on in the staff locker room)
  • Stretching (I already use a standing desk — which in the staff room consists of putting my laptop on an upturned plastic toy box — but even with this, if I spend a lot of time typing, I need to move my ageing joints and limbs so that I do not get a recurrence of the nearly slipped disc from which I suffered a few years ago)
  • Press-ups (when I pulled a hamstring last year, I had to rest my legs for a few months and concentrate on upper-body exercises. At one point I managed 1000 press-ups in a single day — at home before and after work, but also whenever I had a spare few minutes to pop into the locker room, or into a vacant classroom or meeting room. As I discovered, press-ups are good for your arm muscles but bad for your shoulders, so I am now back down to fewer than fifty a day)
  • Holding my breath (this is a bit of a weird one, but last year, before doing my stretches I began experimenting with how long I could manage. For what it’s worth, my personal best is 2 minutes 15 seconds)
  • Listening to podcasts (I am not keen on wearing headphones at work, so did this for a few months at a particularly quiet school, while I was stretching and in a vacant classroom with no one nearby to overhear. My favourites are a combination of Japanese podcasts that help with my listening ability and English ones that help me feel a little closer to home)
  • Editing photos and videos and posting them online (mostly of our children so that friends and relatives in the U.K. can see how they are growing up)
  • Designing and writing Christmas/New Year cards (not to mention addressing the envelopes — also for friends and relatives in the U.K.)
  • Email/social media

Elementary school ALTs are likely to take sole responsibility for teaching English and to be busy from the moment they enter a classroom to the moment they leave, but in junior high school, I find there is also a lot of downtime during the classes themselves. So, when one of my teaching colleagues asks me to, “Check please!” (i.e. assess the students’ written work), instead of wasting valuable staff room time, I do so when he or she is analysing a grammar point — in Japanese and in great detail — or when the students are doing something that does not require me to interact with them.

In particular, I monopolise the homeroom teacher’s desk during lessons and use my time for:

  • Those rare occasions (in my experience, anyway) when I have been asked to make a worksheet or flashcards, or to come up with an activity to be used in class
  • Planning and making materials for my evening classes (see above)
  • Listening to the students talk to each other, making a note of, and then trying kōgo — colloquial Japanese
  • Looking up Japanese words, either in a paper or electronic dictionary (I have never taken my iPhone to an English class except by accident, although I know of both ALTs and JTEs who do)
  • Drafting emails, speeches, etc.
  • Collating the following week’s schedule
  • Studying English (or at least, making a note of grammar and vocabulary points about which I am liable to be asked for an opinion. For example, I now have a long list of the two flavours of adjective — excited/exciting, surprised/surprising, scared/scary, etc. — that, because the same distinction does not exist in their native language, consistently wrong foot both Japanese students and teachers)
  • Compiling to-do lists
  • Holding my breath (well, why not? My record while standing at the back of the classroom and listening to my JTE is about two minutes)

These kinds of things are rarely taxing, so can be accomplished while keeping half an ear on whether you are needed to read something from the textbook or to answer a question from the JTE (“What’s a famous food in the U.K.?” or similar). Also, it goes without saying that even on busy days, I use the ten minutes between each lesson to do a quick burst of translating/emailing etc., or between third and fourth periods to brew a pot of tea in time for lunch.

There is probably plenty more that I could be getting on with, and if you are working as an ALT and twiddling your thumbs between — or staring out of the window during — lessons, I would urge you to get on with something, too. This is not a boast, either, and a lot of things in the above lists are ones that I am not good at or am doing with no particular ambition to improve. What you need to remember is that ALT-ing gives you opportunities: opportunities to learn the Japanese language and learn about Japanese culture, to teach children the English language and teach them about foreign culture, and to do something constructive with your free time. I do not have a lunch break as such — in pre-COVID times I would eat lunch with the students, whereas now I eat in the staff room or the kitchen/dining room — but I remember James at ALT Insider mentioning that an acquaintance of his did, and left the school at lunchtime to take kickboxing classes. Also, don’t get me wrong, as I spend plenty of time reading cricket reports, watching football videos, surfing Facebook, and frittering away my time in similarly mindless ways. After all, everyone has to relax once in a while and particularly towards the end of the day, my motivation to work and desire to go home decline and increase in direct opposition to each other.

Anyway, let’s just repeat that motto to help it sink in:

If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.

A cautionary tale: in a nearby town, one or two of the ALTs started complaining about the fact that they had nothing to do and were still required to hang around until the end of their working day. The result? The BOE shortened their work hours, but reduced their wages at the same time. Like I say, getting paid to do nothing (out of your own and other people’s tax yen, let’s not forget) may be a bore, but like working in a foreign country, it is a privilege, so do not waste it.

This October I am finally going to quit my nice, cushy, direct-hire ALT job and go freelance. No one is going to pay me to twiddle my thumbs any more and it will be up to me to ensure that I am earning money for as much of the time that allows me as possible. This may mean that blog posts here at Muzuhashi become even fewer and further between than they already are. It may even mean that after a couple of years, I fail at my mission and go scurrying back to a dispatch company to beg for a poorly paid ALT position so that my family does not starve. But seriously, think about how you are living your life and using your time in Japan, and try to make the most of it.

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