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Being a Homeroom Teacher (HRT) in Japan as a Foreigner

For the past 9 years, I have taught in various schools and levels as an ALT (assistant language teacher) in Japan. I've taught in public schools and private schools, and I've also taught kids from elementary to high school. So I've experienced it all.

Except for being a homeroom teacher.

Which was thrusted upon me when I had lost my job after 5 years at a direct hire position due to companies not willing to hire contract workers for more than 5 years at a time (in short, it's due to a law stating that you must tenure hire someone after 5 years and most companies aren't willing to do so - perhaps a discussion for another time).

I do not have a proper teaching license, so I have never been properly trained to be anything but an ALT. Nor did I ever receive a teaching license up to this point. which you must be properly wondering: how the hell is this legal??

Well, for one, most elementary school's "English courses" are technically and simply a "foreign language activities" class. Note the word "activities" - this means it's not a proper subject and does not need to be taught by a licensed teacher. Students do not receive a grade nor does it count as a subject on record. So schools can easily use this loophole to have foreign native teachers teach solo in a classroom. In theory.

But most schools, especially public schools need to work by the book and will still have a homeroom teacher in the classroom - just so there's a proper licensed teacher in the classroom.

Which brings us to MY SITUATION.

In my case, because I had to teach Science, Math and English (a proper subject) in English, I needed a Japanese teacher in the classroom in order for everything to be legal and well. And I did. So while I was still an ALT by name, worked with a Japanese teacher alongside - I was doing everything like I would an actual homeroom teacher in Japan.

Whether you and I agree with this method is questionable, but this isn't me writing a thesis on "English education sux". I'm simply here to share my experience, and yes - there are jobs like this. And yes, you can be a homeroom teacher in all but name in Japan.

Though of course, these schools are few in numbers. And they are continually being axed as we speak... which I will get to at the end.

What I Do As a Homeroom Teacher

As a homeroom teacher (HRT) in a private school, I was expected to do everything a normal Japanese teacher would. I'm sure this might be similar to any homeroom teacher in any country, but for those of you who don't know Japanese schools well or if you've come upon this blog with little teaching experience, let me give you a run down:

(side note: tiny details are altered or omitted to protect my privacy but the general gist and my points should remain in tact)

I have my own homeroom class. I am required to be with that class in the morning to get them ready for the day, any breaks in between like lunch time and end the day with them, making sure they go home when school ends. If anything happens to the students in an elective class I am not teaching, I am responsible to follow up and make sure the parents are notified, if needed. Things like that.

All core subjects are planned and taught by me, to my homeroom class. If a certain grade doesn't have... Science for example, they might be asked to teach another grade's core subject or a specialized elective. But wherever possible, we are 100% responsible for the curriculum of our grade and class.

Curriculum planning. I am responsible to talk with other Japanese teachers of my own grade to make sure we are all completing the entire grade curriculum for that year. So no, I can't just go off and play jeopardy for English class all year long. There are textbooks to use, and topics we need to get through - the same as the Japanese curriculum, but in English.

Making and translating tests off the Japanese curriculum. Ah, the bane of our existence...

(you better know how to edit PDF files and if you don't, you will)

Meetings. Yes, they are almost always in Japanese with some exception. And yes there is no gaijin card to get out of a 3-4 hour long meeting ALL IN JAPANESE. Good luck.

Talking to (angry?) parents. This is sort of where your Japanese teacher will mostly step in to do most of the legwork for you, but as an English homeroom teacher, you will still need to attend parent-teacher meetings at the minimum. And any meetings with parents in between if your student runs into any troubles (serious injuries, unhappy "Karen" parent, bullying issues, etc).

Giving grades to your homeroom class (and any electives you teach). And in the same vein, mark and grade your students' work. Yep. That's all you.

Plan and help out at school events. All open school events where they try to promote the school is hands on deck. School festivals, school-wide music competitions, and sports day are all completely hands on deck. So yes, there are certain weekends that you will need to give up.

I say this last point lightly, because this differs from school to school... but: club activities. At the school I taught at, we didn't have a lot of these to offer and if any, they were outsourced to companies and others to run them. If you're familiar with Junior High and Senior High club activities, which are a job and a half for ALL teachers at the school due to the commitment and time consumed, they don't exist at elementary school level. Yay!! But I have worked at an elementary school in the past where every Friday, a teacher needed to supervise "basketball club" which was essentially just any kid who wanted to try basketball for 40 minutes before school started.

Field trips and school excursions. Not only do I need to take the kids and make sure no one falls into a ditch, I need to make sure I know the rundown of the day by visiting the excursion sites and figure out the best course of action in detail with my fellow teachers. This applies to everything that my homeroom class will go to. (so of course if my own students won't go on the trip, I don't need to plan it)

There are other more mundate school duties you will need to do, but in essence, I basically can't just sit in the office and twirl my thumbs on my down time.

So if you ever felt like no one included you at your school as an ALT, well... here is a job for you! Except you basically go from 0 to 200 taking up this job......

Level of Japanese Needed

As I mentioned earlier, you WILL need to attended Japanese meetings. How much or how little depends. I was basically expected to attend MOST of them. There are a few trainings and meetings about the curriculum of Japanese class for example (which has nothing to do with English teachers) that we got to skip, but if it's about the integrity of school and anything about our students, we needed to attend.

So if you do find yourself with an offer for a job like this, I highly encourage you to have at least a high level of CONVERSATIONAL Japanese. The more you can understand, the more it will benefit you.

As for me, I never passed N2 (failed the grammar part gg)... but as someone with fluent Chinese background, I can easily read kanji and understand the gist of everything. I can also converse well enough to express a simple thought I had about concerns of a Field Trip we had, on top of all the basic stuff. Not a flex, but I did converse better and can listen better than someone who supposedly passed N1 JLPT (though of course with writing, and grammatically this person's Japanese is miles better). And I can safely say all of this really made my job much easier because I didn't need to bother someone to translate it in broken English for me, and it just speeds up the process.

But not knowing Japanese isn't the end all be all. Certainly, your students would and could benefit from someone who doesn't default back to Japanese when something isn't immediately understood. And it forces your students to try to speak English more, how ever little.

Since I spoke and taught in English, even in Maths and Science, I didn't need to know Japanese. But as always, knowing goes a long way. Especially to help you lesson plan as all the curriculum and pre-written lesson plans are all written in Japanese, for the Japanese curriculum.

I also needed to translate tests, but this isn't so much a big deal as I often ask my Japanese teachers to do them - and yes, they are required to speak English. But again, if you know more Japanese and use google translate to supplement your translations, this will go waaaaaaaaaay faster for you.

The Hardest Part(s)

For me, since I had no real teaching experience, not only did I have to get used to having resposibilities of a homeroom teacher to my students, but arguably one the toughest part of my job was to understand the Japanese curriculum and how certain things are taught in Japan.

Sure, you can somehow gaijin smash and use ways that you learned something to teach it to the students, but for Maths for example, lots of the knowledge is built of previous knowledge and if you SKIP teaching them a way to do something, they will 100% struggle in the future and it will come back to haunt them... (and potentially you if you've got some "Karen Parents")

Let me give you an example.

For geometry, students need to learn about parallel lines. Not only do they need to know about them, but they need to draw them *perfectly*... and there is a method they NEED to learn using the triangle ruler.

That means YOU need to first learn how to do this if you've never even in your life owned a triangle ruler, let alone asked to draw parallel lines with them.

I don't know about you... maybe your education curriculum is more similar to Japan's, but the only time I've ever seen a triangle ruler was on a blackboard and was told what types of triangles these are and the angles on each of them.

So things like these happen on the daily for me... and they are so, so time consuming.

That is, if you care about your students' learning.

Oh, and yes - if they don't grasp this, this will 100% come back to haunt them in the next grade when they need to draw shapes, potentially using triangle rulers.

A Dying Program??

English programs like these are technically made for families who want their kids to continue English exposure but can't afford International School. Often times the parents themselves don't speak any English, but had put their kid through an International kindergarten for exposure and want to continue through without all the demands of an International School. It can be good for those who are unsure of what path to steer their kids in once they get to Junior High, assuming the kids reap the full benefits of the English they learnt at the school.

But there are far and few in existence, and the ones that do exist aren't surviving and thriving.

With the declining birth rate, private schools themselves already have a hard time attracting students. While these programs are supposedly meant to be a selling point of the school, most of them actually end up being deadweight to the school in question.

After all, you already don't have the luxury to be picky about the kids you accept due to the limited pool. And now you want to find a crazy niche to attract students to?

If they're serious about English enough, especially if both parents speak English, the ideal choice are International Schools. And they are slowly increasing in numbers. If there's more International Schools, there's more options for kids who truly want to better their English and eventually the competition of these schools will (hopefully?) lower their tuition fees.

Learning Maths and Science in English in a Japanese predominant education system really puts the kids at a disadvantage if the kids decide to return to a normal Japanese school in Junior High (which is highly likely). Especially if the kid in question wants to continue with a Japanese private junior high school, meaning they NEED to take an exam... in Japanese. Kids often struggle with terminology during their time in the English program in English, and again struggle with the terminology in Japanese for the exam. It's a lose-lose situation.

Lastly, there really is no guarantee that the kids' English will be better coming out of an English program like this. Subjects other than the core subjects are still all taught in Japanese, and the reality is that most of the student base is all Japanese. This means it's really difficult to enforce and make students converse in English during the students downtime and outside of the classroom. Especially at home if their parents do not encourage English nor speak even a bit of English themselves. All their immediate surroundings are filled the Japanese language, and with no encouragement and outside support, it's a bit of a losing battle.

So What...?

What I mean to say is really, while these jobs as homeroom teachers exist - don't expect them to be available, and they will only be rarer as these programs die out. You are also in competition with non-native speakers of English with a teaching license, which is actually great if you're a non-native English speaker (yay to a job that hires not based on how American your English sounds and simply because you speak English!).

And do note that my experience is quite limited in scope. There could be SO MANY other situations that differ from mine, and someone who may have a longer and more in-depth outlook on this. But I do hope this shed some light on this job in question. And that I've opened up a possibility you never quite thought of so you can be on a lookout of them.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions! And do share your experience if you have any regarding to homeroom teaching in Japan (that is not International School).

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