I’ve been home for little over a week now after ending 4 years on JET. As I try to find my next step, I’ve been thinking about the reasons why I decided to leave in the first place. Despite my original intention when joining JET of getting good enough at Japanese to teach it, I ended up so dissatisfied at work that I would say to anyone who asked me if I’d consider continuing in education, “I don’t want to teach anybody anything.”

My stance on that has softened somewhat as I remember what the draw of teaching Japanese had originally been. And I realized that hands down, what I came to hate about work was that I felt like I wasn’t getting even the bare minimum of respect that someone at the bottom of the school totem pole should get. Not consistently anyway.

Right now new ALTs are probably thinking about things such as “What should I have the students call me?” I’m a big proponent of Mr./Ms.+Last Name, especially if that is the way teachers are addressed in the ALT’s home country. It’s also a matter of respect and establishing yourself as being above the students. Maybe that sounds a bit high and mighty, but in a society as hierarchical as Japan’s, and in regions that still often treat foreigners as curiosities rather than human beings, it’s important to establish who’s who.

People who are at least vaguely familiar with Japanese culture might have some ideas about the sempai-kouhai relationship. While I was aware from the start that sempai, one’s “senior” be it at work or in life, were regarded with respect by their kouhai (juniors), I never realized how deep and important this relationship was until I’d been working in Japan for a couple of years. Students actually bow to their sempai. For example, 10th graders bow to 11th and 12th graders, and the 11th graders bow to the seniors. In my school’s English club, all the students went by cutsie nicknames, but the underclassmen never addressed the upperclassmen without an honorific, even if it meant saying somewhat silly sounding things like nickname-chan-san. When referring to the one junior in the club, the sophomores, talking amongst themselves, would always call him Last Name-sempai. When talking about him to me sometimes they’d use his first name, I don’t exactly know why, but they never called him his first name to his face.

If students show that much respect to each other, what kind of sense does it make to have them call ALTs by their first names?

The majority of ALTs might not have teaching certification, but they’re still adults. What’s more, they get put into schools, in name if nothing else, as “assistant language teachers.” When school faculty and staff address the ALT by the ALT’s first name, especially without the -sensei honorific, they are destroying what shred of credibility the ALT might have had with the students. When students don’t take the ALT seriously, they don’t take the class seriously, and the class becomes a pointless waste of everyone’s time. In contrast, the two (out of 10) homerooms that did address me as Ms. Last Name, as I had explained at the beginning of the school year, were much more open to participating in the class, and performed better on tests. Could it be because they took that extra step of actually understanding and using a basic part of American culture?

I’ve had at least two ALTs tell me that they were uncomfortable with being called Mr./Ms. Last Name because to them, that signified their father or their mother. I found that a bit strange. I can understand their sentiment but at the same time I don’t understand why they don’t also just see it as “adults are addressed this way and I’m an adult.” My mother was a school teacher but it doesn’t bother me to be addressed the same way; I just take it as “I’m an adult being addressed as adults are.”

Ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, it is up to each individual ALT to set the rules for how students and coworkers address them. I hope this made anyone thinking of letting students address them by first name alone think more deeply about their position.

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