The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program: All You Need to Know and How to Apply
The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program is not the only means to teach English in Japan, but it is one of the most popular programs out there both for aspiring teachers and those who wish to pursue other fields. I first joined this program a little over a year ago. In the short time since then, I've gained incredibly valuable experiences through my work as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).
Local prefectural governments and larger government bodies, including Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, manage the JET Program. They hire ALTs from English-speaking countries all over the world to increase Japan's international understanding at the level of local communities.
Japan is an attractive country to teach in because teachers hold a certain respect in society, and English language knowledge is highly valued. On top of that, living in Japan can be a real adventure! The country is a unique blend of old and new with far too many hidden gems to count. Wherever you go in Japan, it will quickly become your favorite place!
The History of JET
The JET Program was founded in 1987 in the hope of improving Japan's internationalization through language education and cultural exchange. Today, JET is one of the largest teaching exchange programs in the world. Since the program's founding, the number of participants has increased from 848 in its first year to 5,528 participants in its 32nd year. The number of countries participating in JET has also grown from four to 54 in that same time.
Duties of an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)
An ALT's role is to supplement the English program of one or multiple schools. This mainly includes team teaching English classes with Japanese teachers of English (JTEs). It may also include activities outside of class such as preparing students for speech contests, helping with the English Club, and even participating in annual school events.
A popular saying within the JET Program is that every situation is different. How actively you contribute to classes and what sorts of tasks you may be asked to do outside of class will depend on the school/schools you work in. For example, if you're assigned to work at the high school level, it's likely you'll only work with one school and be responsible for a decent amount of lesson planning. On the other hand, if you're assigned to work at the elementary or junior high school level, you'll probably work with multiple schools and your JTEs will be in charge of almost all of the lesson planning.
In my case, I teach at three different junior high schools and occasionally visit elementary schools. In some of my classes, I often contribute activities and special lessons. In other classes, I mostly run repetition drills and model a native English speaker's pronunciation. Every fall, I help with English speech contest preparations and school festivals. In December, I get to visit kindergartens dressed up as Santa Claus or an elf.
On top of my regular duties, I've also been able to start some things myself. Every month, I make English bulletin boards for my schools, and I also run activities during lunch.
How to Apply for the JET Program
Since JET is a well-known option for working in Japan, the application process is competitive. However, since ALTs are assistant teachers, it's possible to be accepted without having years of education experience. That said, you will need at least a bachelor's degree plus experience with kids or instructing. If you hold a degree related to education or Japan, that can help to boost your application. Holding a TEFL/TESOL certificate can be another way to boost your application, although you aren't required to have a certificate to be accepted.
Every fall, JET's application is available on the program's website or through related embassies and consulates. The deadline to gather and submit all of the required materials is usually in November. If you're a university senior and interested in applying to JET, you can start your application before you graduate so long as you provide proof of your graduation later on. This is what I did during my application process, and I ended up leaving for Japan just about a month after I graduated.
If your application passes the first stage of selections, you'll get an interview. This will happen in February at an embassy or consulate in your home country. You can choose to have your interview at whatever location is easiest for you to get to.
In March or April, you'll receive the final decision on your application. You may be officially accepted, officially rejected, or marked as an alternate candidate. If you happen to get marked as an alternate, don't lose hope just yet. In the time that I've been on JET, I've met two ALTs in my city who were alternates and were accepted in the end.
After you're accepted, JET will assign you the prefecture and town/city that you'll be working in. Your flight to Japan and any other travel expenses needed to get you to your assigned location will be covered by JET. Most ALTs arrive towards the end of Japan's summer vacation. This gives you time to settle into your new home, and attend the general and prefectural orientations, which are mandatory for all new JETs. These orientations are really helpful, especially if you've never been to Japan before. They include tips for daily life in Japan, workplace etiquette, and even some basic Japanese lessons for anyone who needs them.
Remuneration and Living
Housing situations will be slightly different for every JET. In my city, ALTs live in places that are either owned or subsidized by the city's board of education. These places include two small houses and several apartments. The rent in these places is ridiculously cheap compared to what I'm used to. My rent is 10,000 yen (about 100 USD) a month plus utilities, but since I live alone, I manage to keep my utilities costs pretty low.
Salaries for ALTs will start at about 3.36 million yen a year. A small raise will be added to that amount for every additional year an ALT stays on the program. This salary is plenty to live on in Japan, especially rural Japan. In the time that I've lived here, I've been able to take care of all my living necessities, pay off a good chunk of my student loans, and travel around Japan during school holidays.
Rewards of JET
Although contracts with JET can only last up to five years, the experiences you gain on the program count. You will most likely be placed in a little-known or rural area. This means you will probably be one of the only foreigners your students get to spend an extended period of time with. This adds incredible value to what you do, because if your students never visit a foreign country (several of my students have told me they don't want to travel abroad) they still have a chance to learn about other cultures and people through you. Not to mention, your teaching style will probably bring a good change of pace. Much of the Japanese education system is focused on study activities and tests. Both my teachers and my students really appreciate it when I make a game of Jeopardy to review the last textbook unit or volunteer to teach a recipe from my home country.
Your presence can have a lot of value outside of school as well. As an ALT, you can find a lot of ways to volunteer in your community such as running a booth at international festivals, promoting tourism in your area, or fundraising for study abroad scholarships. Wherever you go in Japan, you can have the chance to make a positive impact.
The people you work with can be a wonderful part of the job as well. Even though I never had any experience in a formal classroom before I came to Japan, all of the teachers I've worked with have been very helpful and welcoming. My students are also incredibly charming. In many ways, junior high school students in Japan are the same as junior high school students in any other country. A lot of my students enjoy school, but a lot don't, too. Still, students in Japan are taught to respect their teachers and most are very friendly.
On top of all of this, ALTs will find many opportunities on JET to learn something new and improve themselves. The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), one of the larger government organizations behind JET, offers educational grants and online courses for JET participants. These include grants to earn a TEFL/TESOL certificate, online Japanese lessons, and testing fee reimbursements for anyone who can pass the top three levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
Common Challenges for ALTs
The Japanese school system is centered around standardized testing, and the main reason students learn English is that it's in high school and university entrance exams. For this reason, many of the classes you will teach as an ALT are geared towards the purpose of passing tests. This doesn't necessarily mean that you will always teach to the test. Many of my JTEs actively try to run their classes in a way that puts English in a context outside of exams. However, students still have to pass exams to go to high school and university. In other words, there will be many classes when you have to teach what's in the textbook and on the test.
Engaging with students can sometimes be difficult, too. Many of my students, especially in the higher grades, are terrified of making mistakes in front of their classmates or teachers. Add this to the fact that they've probably had very little practice with free conversation, and they can be easily daunted by talking with an ALT. Class activities that require students to work individually may also be daunting for similar reasons. However, this may change slightly the longer you stay in Japan. Once the students become used to you and how you contribute to the class, they can become more comfortable.
Finally, depending on the ALT, daily life in Japan can come with its challenges. While it's possible you may be placed in a larger, tourist-friendly city like Tokyo or Kyoto, it's more likely you'll be placed in a small city or town. Aside from classes, almost every situation inside and outside of school will be conducted in Japanese. People will still be friendly towards you, and anyone who knows any English will try their best to communicate with you. However, there are still times when you can really feel the weight of the language barrier.
The JET Community
The community I've found in Japan is one of my favorite things about JET. Nationwide and in every prefecture, there is a chapter of AJET (Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching). AJET is an organization run by JETs for JETs. They organize community events throughout the year, offer resources for teaching and skill development, and generally support and connect JETs in every way they can. You don't have to worry about making friends in Japan because you can definitely find them through AJET.
JET also has an extensive support network for more serious situations. If a JET participant needs help with mental health support, CLAIR offers several different services. These include free online counseling, assistance in covering the costs of in-person counseling, and emergency hotlines. AJET runs a confidential listening and resource hotline as well.
In the case of natural disasters, CLAIR and AJET have communication networks in place to account for every JET participant's safety. Both organizations also distribute detailed information about how to prepare for a disaster beforehand.
On top of all of this, leaving JET doesn't mean you have to leave the community behind. JET Alumni Associations exist in every country that participates in JET, and every participant who finishes their time on the program is welcome to join.
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The JET Program is a great path for first-time ESL teachers. In just over a year, I feel like I've learned and grown so much, and I know this experience will help me in the future. If this is your first time working in a foreign country, rest assured you can find support through JET to help you be the best ALT you can be.
If you want to start a career in ESL, learn some new skills, make a difference in a community, or just try something new, I can't recommend the JET Program enough.
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