Module 12.3

Carlos, International Student

Abby is a new ALT in the Japanese English Teaching (JET) Program. She became a JET because it gave her a chance to live in a different country, while having a paid job. She is a Canadian from Toronto, with no prior Japan-related experience, but she is intrigued by Japan. She is assigned to a Junior High School in a town in Nagano Prefecture, a rural, mountainous prefecture, known as the “backbone of Japan”.

The ALT’s initial situation is ambiguous. Yet this ambiguity is seen differently by the ALT and teachers. For an ALT like Abby the ambiguity is all about the job: her role in teaching English seems unclear. For the teachers the ambiguity is all about uchi / soto.  Will the ALT remain a soto person throughout her contract period? Or will she move closer to uchi?

Abby: Points to Take Away—for ALTs and other newcomers:

Abby was able to overcome her initial Catch-22 situation by moving off her entry point (and out from under her “wrapping”). She managed this by doing exactly what Carlos did in the dorm: by ”following” her team teacher (JTE) and going along with his expectations initially in the classroom, and by participating as fully as possible in her school community.

For the ALT “timing is everything”. Newcomers must resist the urge to try to resolve the ambiguity of their entry points—which they view as their classroom roles—by starting out to refashion these roles right away. While the initial classroom role is often not to your liking (because it doesn’t fit well with native speakers’ perspectives of English teaching) you need to reset your focus to realize that the real issue here is not your classroom role, but your entry point (on which your classroom role is based). If you can manage to be patient, and pay attention to your entry point—and moving off of it, along the pathway toward uchi—you will be able to refashion your classroom role, and gain the support of your JTE and colleagues. The sticky issue here (and the Catch-22) is that in order to manage your shift off the entry point, you also have to manage a shift from your initial perspective, which focuses on “my job” —and ‘I’—to grasp the perspective of the school teachers above—who see the ALT as a part of their school ‘uchi’. Here again, the transition from the entry point is from ‘I’ to ‘uchi’; and this is accomplished by the cultural child (the ALT at entry point) growing up into adulthood (the ALT who participates as an adult in her school community). Further crucial points for ALTS and others include:

  1. The Catch-22 nature of the ALT entry point makes it especially important for ALTs to learn some spoken Japanese through a culturally-sensitive approach before they arrive on the job. It is very helpful for you to understand the cultural basis of Japanese, especially how uchi functions (in lieu of ‘I’) in this language, and how one interacts in using this language. Japanese teaching materials which use this approach are listed in the references.

  2. Notice the basic similarities of the ALT’s entry situation to the opening homestay case of Peter and the Sasaki family (Modules 2.1; 3.1). However, Peter remains at his entry point as a wrapped ‘I’, unaware of his family’s uchi; and the gulf between their perspectives. An ALT too can remain largely at the entry point, largely wrapped, and still consider his or her stay in Japan worthwhile.  But as in the Peter case, something is missing: this ALT remains unaware of another side of the school—as uchi—and of participating as a member of that uchi community. Crossing this gulf means shifting from tatemae to honne; and from ‘I’ to ‘uchi’. It may not be easy—but understanding the “inside” (including honne and ura) perspectives, as a person who has established “inside” relationships—expands your horizons enormously, and brings huge rewards. The goal of this site is to guide you across this gulf.

  3. The ALT pathway also makes a good introduction to uchi for the other newcomers. Once the ALT begins to grasp the existence of uchi, and to shift off the entry point ‘I’, the school community responds. While the reward for Carlos’ reaching uchi was a set of friends for life, the ALT can end up with a wide set of ties, including those with colleagues (outside as well as inside the English Dept) staff personnel, who can be very helpful in getting one through bureaucratic hurdles; and students whose growth—even if this is other than in English per se—is very rewarding. Just as the goal in Carlos’ dorm was for members to try to help make the dorm a better place; in the school as well, the ALT can try to make the school a better place during, even in small ways, during her time there. 
Module 12.3
Abby, Assistant Language Teacher
Complete Summary of Abby, the ALT Pathway

1. Entry Point: Appreciate your caretaker. Initially you may feel Japan is wonderful, as Abby did, or your attention may be consumed by the initial frustrations of your role. Whichever reaction you have, you need to pay attention to what has already happened behind the scenes on your behalf. Each ALT has a supervisor, or “caretaker”, who and has made numerous preparations for your arrival, including such things as writing introductions to the neighbors and community introducing you, cleaning your apt, arranging for phone installation, ordering your hanko (signature stamp); going to the bank and city office to arrange the documentation for your registration, asking the neighbors to treat you well, and organizing a welcome party for you. Begin by appreciating the caretaker, and others who have done things for you. Understand that you are being wrapped, and respond appreciatively. (If you are unsure of “wrapping” reread Part 2). You may find it frustrating that no one offers any tips on teaching in the Japanese classroom, but this is also part of being wrapped (anything that might upset the guest is avoided by wrapping). As one ALT put this: “Living and working in Japan is like being enveloped in a huge cotton ball” (Marck 2002). But if you realize there is another side to tatemae, your goal should then be to begin the process of getting behind this wrapping, to honne.

2. Being Helpful: To begin to get behind the huge cotton ball, you need to start by taking an interest in your school. In her first week of teaching Abby is asked to participate in her school’s Sports Day, but she wonders what this has to do with her job. She worries that the Sports Day activities will take time away from doing her classroom job well, and that it would be better to use this time to study Japanese. But when she does decide to participate in Sports Day she notices that after running the marathon, both the teachers and kids are treating her differently. She begins to wonder whether participating in the marathon (even slowly) might have eased her entry somehow, and she is right. There’s more to being an ALT than classroom teaching. Abby doesn’t have to break any records in the marathon; what matters is her effort to support the events at her school. This is what made the teachers and kids begin to treat her differently from a complete newcomer. In fact, participating in Sports Day is a first step in moving off her entry point. 

2. Being Helpful: Try to be helpful outside the classroom, by willingness to give information, and occasionally going out of your way to help others out. Try to be responsible and reliable, and to assess the needs in your school to begin to see what you can contribute. An interest in Japanese is both helpful, and crucial to your survival. Learning Japanese and being interested in Japan will also open doors to relationships with your Japanese colleagues. For example: one ALT started to have lunch with the staff once a week, to try to learn Japanese. The staff members responded to her and helped her a great deal with administrative forms, and information.

3. Dealing with the ExpertYour team teacher (JTE, Japanese English Teacher) is your crucial uchi relationship in the school. Your first reaction is likely to want to change your role in the team-teaching situation; but you should resist the urge to do this immediately. Timing is everything , because you need to establish trust before you can change anything. Two things are crucial for doing this: (1) The JTE is your senpai (superior); you are the kohai (subordinate). He/she has credentials and experience while you are young and may have few credentials. You have to start by giving respect to your JTE. Listen to his/her views, and start performing the initial teaching role that is given you. (2) You can’t initiate change unless you can establish an “inside position”, as one ALT put this. In other words, as a soto person, you’re not in a position to make any changes at all (since you’re both a kohai and soto). To initiate, change successfully, you have to move closer to uchi.  Doing this involves overcoming some Uchi Hazards.

4. Uchi Hazards: Leave school after class or stay later? Almost all the Japanese teachers have numerous after-school duties, which keep them at school until late at night and working through most week-ends. Although it’s going too far to try and keep the same hours as your Japanese colleagues, going home after the last period won’t be appreciated—either by students or teachers. Your job in the classroom is only part of your duties; contributing to the school community—your uchi—will be greatly appreciated, and this is what will actually bring you into uchi. What you contribute depends on the needs of your school: ALTs commonly stay late to help students prepare for speech debate contests; or hold supplementary lessons, attend a club activity (which can be a sport, unconnected with English). The shift from ‘I’ to ‘uchi’ begins here as you establish yourself as someone sincere in your endeavors, whose contributions can be useful. As an ALT reports: “I’ve worked hard at my school and they’ve repaid my commitment with the trust and flexibility that has allowed me to teach my own classes, help with curriculum development, and develop activities related to world affairs”.

5. More Uchi Hazards: Getting to teach English in different ways
Timing Is Everything. After establishing a good relationship with the JTE, you can observe, then slowly put forward ideas. One ALT reports that after doing this he was then able to begin teaching his own Oral Communication classes, totally in English. Another ALT writes that he was initially expected only to read from a difficult current affairs text, while his JTE spent the majority of the class explaining grammar structure. He was frustrated and unhappy with this role, but gradually was able to expand it by incorporating occasional discussion into the class. Eventually he was able to persuade the JTE to allow the students to conduct an exclusively discussion-based class centered on a topic of their choosing. A third ALT reports that at first he suffered through much uncertainty in his job. However, he finally stopped worrying and “realized that the position was mine for the making”. Then after establishing a solid relationship with his JTE, the other teachers, and the students, he was then trusted with teaching his own classes, and helping to develop the curriculum. 

6. Honne Messages: You need to persist (gently) in getting teaching feedback, since ALTs rarely get evaluations. But teaching feedback involves honne, if there is to be honest critique and suggestions for improvement. One ALT writes that “once the Japanese teachers began talking openly about improving our lessons I knew they felt comfortable with me”. But this took three months—longer with some teachers. Honne also can be evident as relationships with your colleagues begin to involve friendships, and you become privy to various “inside” knowledge concerning the school.

7. Growing Up / Uchi ties:  Being asked to teach a class on your own or to organize the oral communication curriculum content means that you are no longer considered a “cultural child”. Your colleagues wouldn’t give you responsibilities if they didn’t trust you. Overcoming a limited classroom role is accomplished by literally “growing up”, and this is done by establishing yourself as a “member” of the school, who takes responsibility, is sincerely trying to be useful, and has established relationships with the school community (including teachers, staff, and students). Although the ALT is not formally an uchi member, in effect, you can accomplish an uchi shift—from outside to inside—if you can manage to reach cultural adulthood. In so doing you will also have successfully navigated the seeming Catch-22 of getting beyond your entry situation.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5