Forward All Inquiries

Getting on With the Office

By Jackson Hale

Hello and welcome to Forward All Inquiries. Here, we answer any questions you have about your life in Japan, your time spent at school, and any other questions you might have about anything!!

So lets go to our question!

Dear Jackson,

Lately I am having some issues communicating with my JTE. It’s not that we don’t get along,  but we just don’t talk very much at all. I can’t really tell how she feels about having me in the classroom, because half of the time she has me just reading from the book like a tape recorder, and half of the time she lets me run the entire class basically by myself. Outside of class, my JTE is so busy that it can be intimidating to try and approach her, so that makes it difficult to plan classes with her in advance. I’m honestly not sure what role she wants me to play in the classroom. How do I overcome this awkward situation and bridge the communication gap?

From ALT-ernative Alyssa


Wowee what a question we have this time! Usually they are shorter and the stakes are a wee bit lower. But still, it is a good question nonetheless.

Every single ALT in our position will be in this situation and some point or another. If not with your JTE, than a HRT. If not a teacher, than maybe someone in your community. There is this gap of understanding that is filtered through our ideas of ideal communication (and surely the other party’s’ ideas of ideal communication). As a result, we get this weird static-like chafe, where it is difficult to parse out familiar cultural body language or we get freaked out by what looks like we are annoying people.

Especially for  people who are newer, you may not be sure how to talk to people (and they might not know how to talk to you). Probably many people have tried to use some familiar office banter or sarcastic teasing.You say something vaguely sarcastic with the expectation that they would recognize your statement as absurd and then catch on that you meant the opposite of what you said!  And everyone would have a laugh at the little secret mind-meld you just had…


Or something like that.


Here is an experience I have had.

I stopped by a delicious curry shop in my town to get some delicious curry. It is called Ginya, and it is in Kuraishi, Gonohe. It is delicious (but unhealthy).

While there, teachers from my school came in and saw me. We nodded and then ordered our food separately. After everyone was finished eating, the teachers came to pay at the register. Three teachers who I know well all shared a laugh with me about what I had eaten. They joked that it was unhealthy, maybe I didn’t know the meaning of moyashi. All jokes and all fun. (Because we often talked about Japanese and American cuisine, and it is a great conversation topic for people trying to break the ice.)

The fourth teacher, who I didn’t know well, came up to me as well and I asked her what she had ordered. She said she ordered the omu-rice. And then she told me that it probably wasn’t enough food for me. And then she clammed up because – unlike the people before her – we didn’t know each other well enough for that not to be super insulting.


Point 1 of this story: It is easy to talk to people about the differences in food from Japan and your home country. If you need to break the ice, it is a good place to start. Japanese people love hearing what foods you can’t eat.

Point 2: Even multicultural relationships that are fraught with the peril of cultural misunderstanding are subject to the law that ‘getting to know people changes the meaning of what you say’. You build up this cache of context about the other person and really peel back their personalities, and then things that may have been awkward before take on new meanings.

Point 3: The longer you know people, the more open people are with you. If you are new, maybe the teacher is going to be a little more dismissive of you then someone who has been around for years.


Ok, I have walked around your question enough, let me get to it.

I think you probably are going to have to stick your neck out a little bit, even if it means you might get on her nerves.

First, if she is at her desk typing up a worksheet, a little conversation about what her goals are for next week won’t kill her. If anything, if you come to her with something prepared, she might be more willing to talk with you about what she might have in mind (and then tell you what you have prepared is no good, and that is ok).

If your teacher is often very busy, maybe once a week wait around until after school is out (preferably a day where club activities won’t last until 9 PM) and then just corner her as she is heading out the door.

Also, when her class ends, even if you can only talk to her for the 10-15 minutes from the end of one class to the start of another, wait outside the class and squeeze as much as you can out of the time you know she isn’t busy.

And this is just finding time to plan out the next week’s lesson. There is also the matter of defining your expectations.


And the truth is here, some teachers don’t know what expectations they might have. They just know you show up, can speak like, super good English, and that they have to teach xyz. So if that is the case, maybe you would be better served to have the conversation about their expectations of you. It is a conversation you need to have, and while you need to have it at a time convenient for your JTE, it is part of your job.

You are being paid to both act as a representative for the forces of globalization and for the English speaking world. It is your job. Maybe some people are content to just hang back and feel their position out, but if you aren’t sure how the teacher wants to use you to do your job, it is 100% ok for you to initiate the conversation. If you are feeling like the conversation might bother them, remember this.

In the short run, maybe they feel pressured to consider your use in the classroom as it relates to their plans. And maybe in the short run, that is difficult. But in the long run, it will improve the quality of the JTE’s life so much because you can act as an extension for the JTE in preparing materials, speaking to students, and directing class. Your initiating of the conversation will be positive.


And lastly, sometimes teachers are busy and they want to talk and you talking to them might give them an excuse to take a load off, both culturally and professionally. And you saying, “tell me what you would like me to do” might be something they didn’t know they wanted to hear.


One thought on “Getting on With the Office

  1. Pingback: May, Volume 1 | Good Morning Aomori

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