Dear Education Minister Yoshiaki Takaki: “How tall are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Ooh, your eyes look like sunflowers.” I guess if I got ¥100 every time a Japanese junior high school student asked me one of those questions, I wouldn’t be writing this letter today.
I have been an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Japan’s public and private junior high and senior high schools for well over a decade. If you include my volunteer work at English conversation schools (eikaiwa) and English conversation classes, that total jumps to nearly 25 years of experience.
I have taught students ranging from preschool to high school. I have also taught English to university professors, doctors, lawyers, teachers, dentists and other business professionals. I have a wide spectrum of English teaching experience.
I currently live in Okinawa and I am truly concerned about the health and well-being of my fellow ALTs, not only here in Okinawa but throughout Japan.
We are, as I see it, one of the weakest links in any school where we teach. We are hired to be a cultural attache for the world and yet we aren’t even trusted many times with knowing our own English language and how to speak it.
OK, so I am not a licensed teacher. I readily admit that. I wish I had had the foresight when I was younger to see into my future and recognize that I could be in a much better position if I had that license, but facts are as they are, I’m not.
I am here to let people know about the conditions that many of my colleagues face throughout Japan. Let me state for the record here, I love my job! I love the entire experience: the students, coworkers and atmosphere of the classroom. I finally feel in my life that I have found an occupation that fits my personality.
I have been fortunate in my time here in Japan to have gained many friends and acquaintances across the country who are in similar situations to me. Yet, every year around March and April, I find myself becoming worried about whether or not I will have a job the following month. And that goes for all other ALTs throughout Japan, I believe. I have a family, and they depend on me to support and take care of them. Without a stable job, I can’t.
There are many different types of ALTs: government-funded ones (JETs), privately hired ones (via dispatch companies) and those directly hired by their local board of education. While our job responsibilities might be different, we do have one thing in common: the lack of job security. Our contracts are on a yearly basis and could be cut any given year. That is the nature of this particular profession. It is transient. There are a few people like me that would like to attain job security and be hired full-time by our respective employers.
Sure, as with any job in any field, there are good points and bad points, good days and bad days. I could rant, rave and tell stories about students, teachers and other people like me that might shock and disturb the reader, yet that isn’t my goal today.
My goal is to ask everyone in positions that matter to take a hard look at the assistant language teachers they have working for them, and to do whatever it takes to make them a permanent part of the schools that you control. Keep us that live here in Japan working for you. Give us an opportunity to feel like you want and need us beyond a few years.
I guarantee that if you do, you will find a hardworking, dedicated person who cares just as much about the future of your Japanese children as you do.
All I ask for is the chance.
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