As one who presently teaches in Japan, and as one who has a long history of teaching English at a variety of levels (from absolute basic skills such as how to hold a pen properly, to rudimentary skills, to conversation and voice acting, and on up to working with Master's students),I find myself nodding in quiet agreement to many comments.
One of the additional things I would throw in is that it is highly ineffective to teach any meaningful active skills classes to a classroom of 30-40 students. Most especially in 10-25 minutes (with the maximum being 50 minutes). It is not impossible, but it gives students less than 30 seconds apiece to engage new skills.
ALTs are largely ill used in the classroom (I am lucky as my JTEs let me engage with my students and allow me get them engaged as often as possible outside the classroom). Classroom size and composition is a problem everywhere in developed and developing nations. Language classes should all have conversation components, where a maximum of six or seven students at a time directly engage with a teacher and/or ALT at the students' current level.
Pay is another touchy aspect. For Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Japan, the pay is steadily decreasing, the Boards of Education run schools like a for profit business. Not to mention frequently breaking their own government's laws, and treating contracts like loose guidelines for themselves (the BoEs) but like iron-clad, pain-of-death documents for the ALTs. I, myself, started out as an ALT with nearly two-thousand teaching hours under my belt... but spent my initial couple years learning Japanese through silently watching English classes that were often taught in not less than 70% Japanese.
I fully agree that the system needs to be scrapped and rebuilt. But I strongly disagree with the remarks about Japanese arrogance... that stems from the lack of subtlety being used where we usually expect to find in English composition. Japanese English is quite often blunt, terse, and appears to be condescending, haughty, and occasionally downright rude. I can assure people that it is the way that English is taught that has created this odd little phenomena.
I could write a book on this, I probably should, but for now I will close with a couple last remarks... Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) are usually taught in university in the same fashion as they are in grade-school... that is to say that they are also taught by another JTE who quite often poorly uses ALTs and struggles with the clear and effective use of contemporary English. The cycle perpetuates itself from the top down... with a near complete lack of regulation or enforcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and the Ministry of Education over the BoEs, through to people with only basic conversational skill and a poor command of active skills teaching teachers who then instruct the youth who grow up hating English because it is convoluted and difficult - when it really isn't.
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As a currently active ALT, I will write from experience. JET is not for everyone, and the idea that this is a "well paid holiday" is silly. Yes, there are contracting organizations that will simply let you stay home if you have no classes, but more likely than not you will have to go to a preassigned place and either sit in an office and wait for the day to end or go to teach etc. The pay is better than nearly every other program out there, even programs like Interac who hire ALTs for precisely the same positions but pay considerably less (less even thab eikawas). I put in the time to generate no less than one to as many as five lessons every day. Of course, I refuse to cop out because I am here for the students - who deserve my daily best.
I have more than one university degree, and my CELTA certification, and oodles of experience... but how much gets used is nominal and I am left to be creative on that front. The hardest part is coming up with new and fun ways to engage the classes in short lessons that simultaneously engage their speaking abilities. However, the infamous acronym ESID (every situation is different), is very true.
The other ALTs here petty much shun anyone who doesn't fit their clique, and passing the buck is the method of teaching new hires.
That said, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. It isn't always easy to get intp JET, and certainly there are about 70% of ALTs who should never set foot in a classroom, much less br hired, and plenty of people who get waitlisted or turned down who would make perfect teachers.
All in all, it works out. Sometimes you play the role of human tape recorder, and other times you are the star of the class. Learning to adjust and work with what you are given, and adjusting to Japanese culture and life are the two major musts. Getting frustrated because Japan won't adjust to you will do you no favours save speed up and intensify culture shock.
So, is it right for you? If you like a challenge, and you love working with teens or younger, you are willing to adapt to Japanese culture, life, and work ethics... and you are simultaneously independant and also a team player... you will very likely have a fantastic experience - even if there are some bad days (and there will be).
It is a job, like any job, and the people you work with are as varied as anywhere else. You will become fast friends with some, and rue the day you ever have to speak with others.
If you're going to give it a go, then apply. Do a year if that's all you think you can do. Me, I'm here for all five and will be relocating to Yokohama in a year for a more permanent teaching position. This is a fantastic experience. I wouldn't give it up for anything. If you come, come for the students. Participate in their lives - they will love you for it.
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