Making the Effort: Thoughts on the Job of an ALT

When I arrived here last August, almost a year ago, I was informed that my Tuesday visit school had an English Club, and that I would be expected to go to the meetings.

I was psyched. Although I didn’t know how many students were involved, or what activities the club did (my predecessor was vague), or even where my Tuesday school was located yet, I had big plans for English Club. All through the month of August (which is really a desk-warming month in the life of a new ALT) I prepared scavenger hunts, Buzzfeed-inspired taste tests, and international recipes for my English Club. My eyes sparkled with the possibilities.

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My eyes sparkled like this. So much hope.

Flash forward to September 8th, my first day working at that school. After three self-introduction lessons, I walk into my very first Club meeting with high hopes.

They were quickly crushed. The JTE who ran the English Club was repetitive and autocratic in her ways. We pushed 10 desks together and settled down for conversation. The topic of the day was “What did you do last weekend?”

Over the next few weeks, I learned that unless some groundbreaking event occurred, the topic of the day was ALWAYS “What did you do last weekend?”

(And there aren’t that many groundbreaking events happening in Ibaraki).

So I never mentioned any of the activities that I had prepared back in August. I resigned myself to 75 minutes of asking the same questions each Tuesday to my 8 English Club girls with the hopes of different answers, just like my predecessor did before me. When something new came along — “I went to the movies with my friends” — we would sink our teeth into the response, asking as many follow-up questions as we could think of until the poor student had basically described the movie’s entire plot. Then we would move on to the next girl’s weekend recap.

Admittedly, I began to dread English Club. Although I loved the girls involved, I hated the tired routine. I hated how boring it was, and how sorry I felt for the girls that club was always the same. And I hated coming up with answers of my own when the question of the day inevitably fell to me.

Eventually March rolled around, and for two weeks between the end of the old school year and the start of the new one, I was base school-bound. Unbelievably, it took me that long to have the revelation I so desperately needed.

During those days of desk-warming, I examined my own role in English Club… and I realized that I didn’t actually DO anything for the club. My mere presence every Tuesday afternoon wasn’t helpful. It certainly wasn’t inspiring. I just sat there every week, in the circle of desks, and asked a few questions. No wonder English Club wasn’t satisfying! I should have talked privately to the JTE who ran the club back in September… I should have suggested my activities, or at least suggested different weekly topics so we weren’t forever talking about our weekends!

With renewed inspiration, I formulated an English Club Game Plan for the new school year.

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And on the first day back at my Tuesday visit school in April, I handed my JTE a copy. I told her that I wanted to be more involved in the club this year — I wanted to plan real activities for the girls, and I wanted to make English Club fun again.

And do you know what happened?

The JTE I thought was so autocratic, so set in her ways, broke out in a great big smile. She was so happy that I actually CARED. That I actually put some effort in. She gave me full control.

It’s been three months since I reformed Tuesday’s English Club. Since then, we’ve had an Easter Egg Scavenger Hunt on the school grounds (practicing our prepositions!); we’ve played the Famous Person “Who Am I?” game where students have to ask questions; we’ve played a Hot Seat version of Taboo that forced students to get creative in describing words; we’ve played a really funny round of “Never Have I Ever” (although I changed the words to “I Have Never~” because the original confused everyone); we’ve had a club devoted to formulating questions, rounded off by a round of Question Volleyball; and we’ve gone back to our roots, round-tabling it  for a day with the question being “Who is your favorite historical person… and why?”

And only once have we talked about our weekends.

Everyone is happier now that I’m more involved. The JTE who used to hover over us, who used to drag answers out from the girls… now, sometimes, she only pops into meetings for the last ten minutes. Because unlike before, she trusts me now.

And although it’s more work for me to plan everything, I no longer dread going to English Club — and neither do the students, I hope!

This little tale about my  school’s English Club also relates to my thoughts about what it means to be an ALT in general. Sure, there is always the easy way — where you put in minimal effort, sliding through lessons and leaving the moment your contract says you can — but it usually isn’t the most fulfilling. From what I’ve seen, the ALTs who get the most satisfaction from their jobs here in Japan –and the ALTs who enjoy their life here the most — are usually the ALTs who give 110% effort at work.

I’m not saying ALTs have to stay at work till 7pm each night, or join every club in the school, or anything crazy like that, just to feel good about the job. And I’m definitely not trying to preach that I’m a perfect ALT (I’m so far from it. I make so many mistakes). From what I’ve experienced, though, just being involved and engaged — even in the tiniest way, like by learning names, or by really helping during cleaning time — helps form stronger ties to the school and to the students.

Making the effort.

Although I definitely tried my best to do everything when I first got here (especially in lesson planning for actual classes), around December, a few aspects of my job — like English club — fell through the cracks. Now, I’m slowly getting back on track, and I go home feeling much happier on Tuesday evenings.

Of course, my English Club activities don’t always work perfectly, and sometimes the new first year girls struggle a bit with them, as they just don’t have the vocabulary. But it’s better than nothing. And now that they see I’m making the effort, the students are making the effort too.

What more could I ask for?

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