Issues | LEARNING CURVE

First impressions count for ALTs meeting their new Japanese colleagues

by Patrick St. Michel

Peter Frazer faced a challenge shared by all young native English speakers teaching in Japan: He had to adjust to a new workplace environment while also building good relations with his Japanese co-workers.

The 26-year-old Australian started working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme at a junior high school in Midori city, Gunma Prefecture, in the summer of 2012. Frazer says everything turned out OK in the end, as he eventually got to know and adjust to his fellow teachers’ needs.

Then spring rolled around and he had to do it all again.

“The school added another class, and another Japanese teacher of English (JTE) was needed,” Frazer says. His new co-worker was a fresh-faced English instructor — and one he says didn’t seem totally confident in her speaking ability. “The initial meeting was fine, but a little awkward. It took some time before we could develop a good professional relationship.”

April signals the start of the Japanese school year, and with it many changes. Besides a sea of new students, many native English teachers are shuffled about their city or region and assigned to work at different schools, leaving many ALTs with unfamiliar teaching partners. Many dispatch ALTs and conversation-school instructors arrive in Japan for the first time, too. It’s a season of beginnings, and a time for making good initial impressions on people you’ll be working with for at least the next year.

“The first impression has a ‘primary effect’ on others. Many people get an image of someone’s entire personality off that first impression,” says Atsuko Konishi, director of Wordrobe, an image consultancy specializing in first impressions. She started the venture two years ago, after 25 years working as a TV announcer, a profession she says taught her a lot about the value of making a strong initial connection with strangers.

Konishi says ALTs and conversation-school teachers entering into new jobs need to keep the culture of greetings in mind.

“Handshakes are one of the most common forms of physical contact in the world, but it’s still not that common here,” she cautions. Konishi reflects on her time spent studying in the United States, where it took time for her to warm up to such interactions. “I became frozen and nervous when someone I just met gave me a hug to say goodbye,” she recalls.

“Japanese people rarely say ‘stop’ or ‘I don’t like this,’ ” Konishi says, “but they will definitely find such things very uncomfortable.”

These cultural wrinkles might not seem as immediately important to ALTs who are already firmly grounded in the country when the first day of the new school year comes around. JET, for example, drills instructors on these small etiquette points at orientation sessions.

Still, more experienced individuals should make sure they don’t get too complacent when meeting new co-workers. Konishi says being punctual is critical, as arriving at work on time the first day creates a positive image in the eyes of Japanese employees. She also stresses the importance of maintaining a good physical appearance, down to shining your shoes well and making sure your shirt is fully buttoned up.

Surface appearances aren’t everything, though, and breaking the ice with a new Japanese partner can be tricky, especially in the hectic first few days.

“Timing is key,” says Joshua Briones, an American JET participant working in Mie Prefecture. “Most teachers are just so busy taking in their new roles and could be unapproachable.”

Once an opportunity presents itself, Briones suggests finding a shared interest to bond over.

“I saw that one newly arrived English teacher at my school had a Hanshin Tigers hat and pennant on his desk,” the 33-year-old says. “I mentioned I liked that baseball team too. He was pleasantly surprised and talked a great deal about how they will never win a championship.”

If no common hobbies come to the fore, fall back on circumstances. Konishi says having an interest in Japanese culture — such as appearing eager to try Japanese food — can leave a positive impression.

“Most Japanese people would have a very good impression of a foreigner who tries to use basic Japanese greetings,” she adds. “Being fluent isn’t necessary at all.”

Language skills might not be necessary, but experience can be a huge advantage. Jeng Ying Tay, who currently serves as a prefectural adviser for JET in Fukuoka, after having worked in four junior high schools over two years, believes ALTs should use their workplace knowledge to help bond with newbie JTEs.

“I had been teaching at the school for some time, so I was very familiar with the students,” the Singaporean says. “So in the beginning, the new JTEs were depending on me for input and opinions on activity ideas for our team-teaching classes.

“When we didn’t have a team-teaching lesson, I’d volunteer to help out with their other lessons. This gave me an opportunity to observe the JTEs’ teaching style and how they interacted with the students,” Tay says. “Understanding their teaching style helped me work better with them.”

Adapting to a new co-worker’s classroom approach is a crucial step in forging a good working relationship.

“I made the mistake of assuming the new JTE would make use of me in the same way that previous JTEs had,” Frazer says.

Soon, however, he found a solution — and a way to move on from the initial awkwardness.

“Once we established a regular time and means of communicating about lesson plans and how I should work with her, it was fine,” he says. “Get a copy of all the teachers’ schedules, and find out when they have free periods. Leave notes and draft worksheets on their desk. Discuss lesson plans via email or social media if you have to.”

One thing all three ALTs interviewed for this story stressed was the importance of being proactive.

“Approach the new JTE, introduce yourself in Japanese if you can, and ask how you can help them in class,” Frazer says. “From the beginning, decide on a time you can discuss lesson plans regularly. Don’t be disheartened if the new JTE rejects a lesson plan that a previous JTE let you do. Conversely, now is a good time to propose new ideas to the JTE that were rejected by previous JTEs.”

Briones had to go against his nature in approaching JTEs, but believes making the effort was worth it.

“It’s difficult for me, because I would much rather keep to myself,” he says. “But the truth is first impressions do last, and I try my best to give off an air of friendliness. I decided to take the initiative and speak to them myself.”

Konishi, though, says teachers shouldn’t be too pushy at first.

“The most important thing is to be cooperative at first, and not assertive,” she says. “For better or for worse, many in Japan still try to figure out others’ feelings by guessing rather than being assertive.

“Understanding the phrase ichiza konryū goes a long way to understanding Japanese culture,” she says. “It originates from the tea ceremony: The host thinks about the guest first, but the guest guesses and appreciates how much the host is trying to make them enjoy the ceremony. They both try to create a good atmosphere.”

Fostering this vibe early in the new school year can pay huge dividends, making the next 12 months easier for the both of you. And, even if things between an ALT and a Japanese teacher don’t click immediately, don’t give up.

“It will take some time for each of you to figure out your roles in the classroom,” Frazer says.

But with any luck, once everything gets settled, it will feel like you’ve been working together for years.

“If people can care about one another, and be respectful about the time they share together,” Konishi says, “they’ll be able to enjoy their time together all the better.”

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp