The purpose of ALTs

Is it time to reconsider the role of ALTs in the classroom? Learn how the needs behind this position have been changing throughout the years what the future holds for you as an ALT in the classroom.

Paying for Jasmine's Gap Year

by Nathaniel Reed

This piece will arm you with a thorough overview of ALTs in the hope of inspiring and motivating your professional growth. First, a quick note: sometimes instead of “ALT”, I’ve used irregular teacher” and for “JTE”, regular teacher”. Why? Well Japanese nationals are also employed as “ALTs”, and non-Japanese nationals are “JTEs” (but they’re not Japanese). Personally, I dislike being forced to attach a person’s nationality to their job title. Imagine being in America (or any country) and introducing your co-worker, “this is Isabelle, a Mexican forklift driver, this is Adarsh, an Indian computer scientist”, I’m sure you didn’t need examples though… Off we go:

Why are we in Japan? To teach? To “internationalise” society/create global mindsets? Why have these questions been continually asked for over three decades? Why does the seemingly simple question of “what’s my job?” even exist in an educational initiative, one that has billions of yen poured into it every year?!

I’ve been looking for answers to these questions from nearly a decade’s worth of research on irregular teachers. Here is an overview, with peer reviewed references, of findings and thoughts for us all to consider. The goal here is to show a clear reality of the teaching context for us to consider as deeply as possible, and use it to become more effective educators (probably the best way to do this is by taking the open access ALT Training Online course 😉).

Candidates don’t need teaching qualifications to become teachers. They don’t need a background in teaching, or even an interest in teaching necessarily. Most “ALT” sites and employers still focus more on promoting “travel in Japan” and not on teaching. Are we really teachers? What’s behind these hiring practices – why do policy makers feel it makes sense to hire inexperienced, unqualified people, provide them with minimal or no training then send them to schools to teach? 

This is the rhetoric from a very interesting presentation I attended at the 2017 JALT conference on the JET program. The title was “JET 30 years on: still meeting needs”. It’s on YouTube here. When I saw this, I was a couple of years into developing the open access teacher training initiative you’re reading this from. The presenter painted a really clear picture of the past and present context on the work of irregular teachers. He wasn’t too critical, and he did well in outlining some future directions to move toward. His research was limited though, as most research is, as per the presentation title, he only discussed CLAIR employees. JETs account for less than a third of the total number of irregular teachers. This means that his research sample was very limited: 14,000 or so irregular teachers were excluded from his study. Many of his generalizations were great observations however and provided lots to think about; especially the “are tax payers in Japan just paying for Jasmine’s gap year?”.

Please get a nice drink, sit back and watch it, then come back to this. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

Welcome back! O.K. so let’s get as balanced a view as possible here on the irregular teacher’s role. Let’s move away from the endless list of criticisms, and more towards how we can make a difference to student lives, improving their future potentials and how they may positively influence the global community. To know where something is situated and where it’s going though, it’s essential to know where it came from, so let’s start there.  

Some background

The JET program was first established as part of a policy move by the Japanese government in 1987. As the irregular teacher position is a governmental policy, its 30-plus year history subsumes incredible detail and information to convey its intricacies. Language teachers from abroad had been teaching in Japan before JET though— the British English Teachers scheme for example. Another scheme brought qualified language teachers from America to teach, but disagreement between teachers and their methodologies quickly closed that and gave birth to a program that hired unqualified, inexperienced native-speaker teachers to work in an unclear assistant capacity – JET. One reason for unqualified teachers and the assistant position was that the government didn’t want the Japanese teachers to feel that they weren’t needed. The most detailed description of these early years of JET is best shown in David McConnell’s book “Importing Diversity” (2000), (a recommended read for a better appreciation of how the current ALT system was set up, early issues and successes).

In linear fashion, let’s look at some of the key societal themes people have written about over the decades before moving on to more of the specifics of day to day factors relating directly to us.

Social factors

The opposing paradigms of “kokusaika” and “sakoku” are still talked about in publications and books. Kokusaika means “internationalization”, a buzzword in the 1980s, and sakoku was the 200-year period of self-imposed isolation ending when Matthew Perry came to Japan in 1854. Commentators say that a “sakoku mentality” still exists in the psyche in Japan, of which one result is that “regular teachers excel at keeping the irregular teacher at a polite distance” (McConnell, 2000: 272). The compelling question of how a country can be both international and homogeneous at the same time remains a frequent discussion. Japanese anthropologist Professor Ryoko Tsuneyoshi addresses this notion in great detail. She uses the term “diversity points” (2004) to describe communities of non-ethnically Japanese people that live in large numbers in certain areas (i.e. are not scattered around Japan). Although a little bit dated in 2020 and beyond, mindsets can take generations to evolve and Tsuneyoshi’s work paints a useful image of why many people have the false homogeneous belief. Incidentally, ALT employers sending teachers to these so called “diversity points” require teachers to speak the dominant language of the community in that area (Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish etc.).

To provide some discussion to the above, consider the following factors that work to perpetuate the false ideology of homogeneity instilled in the majority: 

  • strict immigration laws
  • laws forbidding mixed nationality beyond the age of twenty two
  • an aberrant exclusion of mixed nationality in the national census (whereby you can only either be foreign or Japanese)
  • Japanese being the only language with a separate writing system for foreign words
  • the high frequency use of the word gaijin” 
  • the prefixes “-yo” and “-wa” 
  • the ALT at my daughter’s school is a Japanese national, but the school uses katakana to write his name instead of kanji.

I’m sure you can think of a lot more. 

Linked to these social trends that assist in maintaining false ideologies of homogeneity, Sato (2011) writes that as a whole, education in Japan has pursued a powerful nationalism as a counter balance to depleting educational standards. He cites the 2006 school reform that made it law to show respect to the national flag (for the first time since 1945), and that compulsory education is not compulsory for foreigners. Further, Sato puts forward strong examples to explain why educational standards are continually declining like the lowering salaries and lack of training. (Go and ask your co-teachers what they think about their 10-year renewal training, and how much they think it improves their teaching ability). Of course you’ll find arguments and opinions against these findings, and of course when we (educators) learn about them, we strive to change things for our current and future students. 

Some research on student behavior reflects these failings (the focus on nationalism, teacher training standards….). Sato notes that eighth graders read an average of 1.8 hours per week outside of school (second from bottom of 38 countries surveyed), and that 30% of junior high schoolers and 40% of high schoolers spend no time learning outside of school (Sato 2011). I guess they don’t have any time for it anyway, what with the whole staying at school until late” system – what do you think? 

One of Sato’s conclusions is that Japan needs to be more innovative in its teaching (quite a common conclusion), a call that dates back to, at least, a 1984 study conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT”) of Japan. The MEXT results came from an international comparative study that found the Japanese education system to be “outdated, uncreative, rigid and inhibiting” (cited in Lamie, 1998). On this, Sato emphasises the need to move from the current “benkyo” quasi-learning practices to knowledge-based and collaborative learning – which is where, I believe, we come in. 

While teachers are a product of their education and the cycle of “learning how you were taught” is difficult to break, we can deliver on time-relevant teaching requirements from our not having experienced Japanese schooling and our “worldly views”. In other words; it is the very fact that we are not a product of the Japanese education system that puts us in the position to have a great effect on the education of our students. The number of irregular teachers with master’s degrees, PhDs, other teaching qualifications and decades of experience is continually increasing. The mission of ALTTO is not a call to fight the system that doesn’t acknowledge our professionalism and skills, it’s a call to constructively use our abilities and expertise to the advantage of bettering the lives of our students.

Moving on…

Our world

Teaching ability, like our ability in any job and anything we do, improves with experience. My baby boy just started walking and he’s going to get better. Motivation also goes up and down, again like with anything we do, so educating ourselves on the context and background of teaching ESL/EFL is one step towards understanding how to adapt in view of it. The next section will look more at the specifics to our day to day actions and remember: knowledge and training shapes improvement.

Four main themes that could be perceived as limiting our teaching practices are well-known, and detailed repeatedly by McConnell (2000) (any many, many others). They are: the one-shot system, untrained JTEs, “human tape recorders”, and exam-entry focused classes. These issues can be traced to results of complex power dynamics of the various ministries in charge of educational policies, the prefectural offices, teachers and the numerous other stakeholders. 

The initial goal of the JET initiative did not have the aim of improving English education (McConnell, 2000: 218). My apologies for singling out irregular teachers from a single employer, but as of 2012, there were 2,560 irregular teachers (out of 8,505 in total) employed by CLAIR. A relatively significant number. And the point you’re about to read is just a generalization that may not be the view of all boards of education, but as with the rest of this piece it’s added as knowledge that we can use. Enough apologies? Let’s get on with it. Regular teachers, when they are asked/listened to, want irregular teachers with skills and qualifications (Aoki, 2004; Reed, 2015). Ask them yourself. One result has seen Prefectural offices moving away from JET ALTs (and the reasons can get complicated). Aoki (2014) says: due in part to their higher costs “why pay more for expensive, inexperienced JETs when we can hire professional and qualified teachers that speak Japanese already living in the country?”. Conversely, why are some ALTs with MAs, relevant qualifications and years/decades of experience paid less than graduate-ALTs with no experience or qualifications? Lots to think about… 

You needn’t know much about business to understand that if an initiative is deployed, its worth is measured for its continuation or abandonment. The influence of ALTs on English education in Japan has never been measured. Curiously, while MEXT’s lack of pedagogical goals were widely and openly published from the early 80s to the mid 2000s, it is unclear what its present thinking is (they are notoriously secretive and exert a strong top down managerial stance). However, the policies pushing for increased English-language skills actually support our worth in the classroom and the necessity of our teaching abilities. As in our common experience, the exam entry system focus of the regular teachers interferes with our delivering what we effectively do and what MEXT continually calls for – increased communicative skills. Conversely, here’s a stat you might want to share with regular teachers: more than half of Japanese universities have open admissions with no entrance exam (Gordon et al, 2010). Just let that sink in…

Regular teachers

Regular teachers have very little classroom-based teacher training, this is true. Their training is mostly theory based, whereas in England, for example, it is more practical-based. Most studies have found that there are around two weeks of classroom-based practice with around four lessons being actually taught, the rest being observed. Additionally, for some anecdotal evidence, the teachers I’ve asked at my schools tend to confirm this, with only one out of 36 going to continued training. Also none of the training for team-teaching is actually done with both members of the team. The only exception is the yearly skills development conference that CLAIR runs, though how much the regular teachers take away from that is questionable, as McConnell reported too. What do you think about this? 

To Team Teach or to Reverse Team Teach?

Support for the notion that regular teachers should in fact be teaching i.e. the only language teacher in the classroom, is found in a string of articles by Teru Clavel in the Japan Times from the beginning of 2014 (you can read these online here). These articles also discuss laws, policies, teaching realities and reforms at the prefectural level, amongst other things. Research for years has found what stakeholders perhaps don’t want to acknowledge. In the 1990s, the Institute for Research in Language Teaching found:

  • Reverse Team Teaching (RTT) to be conducted 30% of the time (Google ‘RTT’ or ‘solo teaching Japan’ to read accessible articles on this). 
  • 25% of the time the regular teacher was found to be in charge and 
  • 36% of the time made up Team Teaching 

Solo teaching (where if there is another language teacher in the classroom they do not teach) is the direction that CLAIR may be headed for too. In a study of their own, this quasi-governmental group found that 46% out of 1,135 respondents were solo teaching all or some of their classes (a link to AJET’s 2014 report is below). On this notion, the Worker Dispatch Act (WDA) actually prohibits a company (school in this case) from giving instructions to those from another company (the ALTs) (Clavel, 2014). This law actually prevents team-teaching as regular teachers may only speak to dispatched irregular teachers through their company. This could explain, at least partially, why such irregular teachers are mostly sent to Elementary Schools where they are the main teacher and don’t have to discuss lessons. 


Before concluding, this penultimate section will take a brief look at the students. After all: the more we know about who we teach, the more we may adapt our teaching to be more effective. Some students may not seem the most motivated, however if we consider the multiple and individual reasons loosely outlined here, we might develop a deeper understanding leading to personal and professional growth and more effective lessons. 

Firstly, some students may simply not be interested in language and, perhaps unfairly, they have no choice but to study English as the entrance exams for university (and high school) require them to know English. Secondly, students are often reflections of society. Research from a Japanese Youth Research survey in 1996 found that 79% of Japanese high school students believed they were free to rebel against teachers in contrast to 6.8% in America and 18.8% in China (Shimahara, 2002). More recently in 2006, the Mainichi Shimbun (Sato, 2011: 228) found that 60% of junior high schoolers and 70% of high schoolers had not read a book in the last month.

Outside of the classroom, OECD figures from 2005 found that 17% of Japanese children are poor—a result of wider economy issues that, for example, see increasing numbers of NEETs, FREETAs, Hikikimori and, back to the classroom, increasing numbers of part-time teachers. Figures maybe worth keeping in mind also include Japan’s public debt which in 2009 was 189% of its GDP. Compared to Greece’s 115%, it received a lot of media coverage (Aspinall, 2011). Some ALTs, who are perhaps empathetic to social realities, notice that students not headed for elite institutions have given up. Insight such as this empowers our ability to teach students as individuals and not just to “finish the textbook”. At the moment exams are the goal, but a different, more student-focused attention whilst teaching will allow us to be more realistic on how to achieve learning outcomes.  

Final thoughts

Finally, this piece aims to serve an additional purpose of providing irregular teachers with some starter tools to professionally develop themselves. A hope is that discussions will ensue on the ALTTO online Facebook group for the benefit of delivering quality education to students. Let’s move beyond observations of our immediate surroundings, educate ourselves on our positions, share our knowledge and enrich our students’ lives – we can do this by being assertive and working collaboratively among other things. 

What works to motivate me is research. Big studies or small studies like writing a questionnaire for regular teachers (asking them the questions above about their training or thoughts towards irregular teachers) either written up academically or submitted to ALTTO (the site you’re reading this from) as a guest blog really helps. 

Going to a class and teaching is great, but if I’m observing something and exploring something like the influences of first languages on learning English I’m so much more invested in delivering quality education and it massively ups my communication with regular teachers as they are interested in what I’m doing and almost always want to help. For example, this academic year (2020) I am working with a regular teacher I worked with five years ago. Back then she helped with my research on using only English in schools (due to be published November 2020). Now the table has turned and she asked me to help her research on measuring student motivation in team taught classes – fortunately I had a stack of books and papers on language learning motivation in Japan to hand her. We will publish the work sometime in the future. One finding we discussed was from a 2005 study that found 50% of students preferred to be taught exclusively by teachers with English as a Second Language (ESL) qualifications (Abe, 2013). 

Phew, thanks for taking the time to read this. Finally, we may not be able to change the world, but we can positively influence our student’s lives through understanding them and the contexts we teach in more.

Here are the references used in the text for you to look at and find out more about your teaching situation:

Abe, E., 2013. Communicative language teaching in Japan: current practices and future prospects. English Today, [e-journal]. 29(2) pp46-53. Available through: Cambridge Journals <> [Accessed 11 May 2014]. 

AJET, 2014., Assistant language teachers as solo educators. [pdf]. Available at: <> [Accessed 10 July 2015].

Aoki, M., 2014. Schools fret about assistant teachers ahead of 2020 reforms. The Japan Times. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 December 2014].

Aspinall, R., 2011. Globalization and English Language Education Policy in Japan: external risk and internal inertia. In: Blake-Willis. D., and Rappleye. J., 2011. Reimagining Japanese Education. Oxford: Symposium Books. Ch.5.

Gordon. J. A., Fujita. H., Kariya. T., and LeTendre. G. eds., 2010. Challenges to Japanese Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lamie, J., 1998. Teacher Education and Training in Japan. Journal of In-service Education, [e-journal]. 24(3), pp515-534. Available through: Taylor and Francis online <> [Accessed 6 may 2014].

McConnell, D., 2000. Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program. California. University of California press.

Meerman, A. D., 2003. The Impact of Foreign Instructors on Lesson Content and Student Learning in Japanese Junior and Senior High Schools. Asia Pacific Education Review, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 December 2014].

Reed, N., 2015. Contemporary roles of foreign English teachers in Japanese public secondary schools: An exploratory study. The Asian EFL Journal, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed on 10 June 2015]..

Sato, M., 2011. Imagining Neo-liberalism and the Hidden Realities of the Politics of Reform: teachers and students in a globalized Japan. In: Blake-Willis. D., and Rappleye. J., 2011. Reimagining Japanese Education. Oxford: Symposium Books. Ch.9.

Shimahara, N. K., 2002. Teaching in Japan. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Tsuneyoshi, R., 2004. The ‘new’ foreigners and the social reconstruction of difference: the cultural diversification of Japanese education. Comparative Education, [e-journal]. 40(1) pp55-81. Available through: Taylor and Francis online <> [Accessed 10 August 2015].