The Annual Teacher Swap

Every year at the end of March there’s a lot of important events in schools around Japan. Not only are the students finally coming to the end of the academic year and the hundreds of tests that they have had to endure but the teachers themselves find out if they will be staying or transfer to another school.

Now this was something as a surprise to me since South Africa doesn’t have a teacher transfer system and it’s extremely common in SA for teachers to spend almost all their professional lives at the same school. In Japan though teachers are frequently transferred between schools. Junior teachers can only spend up to four years at a single school while senior teachers can spend up to 9 years although that is pretty uncommon.

In Kagoshima, where I teach, there’s also a problem in that we’re the only prefecture in Japan that is split between mainland Japan and a whole lot of smaller islands that can be rather isolated from the rest of the country. This means that there’s a pretty good chance if you’re a teacher or even an ALT that you’ll be transferred or placed on an island. If that’s the case then you’ll hardly ever find yourself traveling to the mainland since it can cost quite a lot of money to take a ferry or plane.

The week that the teachers finish up their contracts also has a farewell ceremony for them where they make a short speech to the students and the rest of the staff. Usually there are quite a few tears since when you work at a school for any number of years you become close with the students and the other teachers you work with. Being transferred means that you have to start your life over, make all new friends and get used to a whole new school and surroundings. Certainly not something that many people have to do often in their lives, but it’s very much part and parcel of being a teacher in Japan!

With it being the end of the year it also means that there’s going to be a lot of staff parties, especially if you’re an ALT that teaches at many schools. Staff parties in Japan are also expensive and usually I can’t attend every single one since my schools usually hold them on the same day.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to anyone who comes to Japan is that staff parties are one of the most integral parts of building relationships with the teachers you’ll be working with. Teachers will usually be more social and forthcoming in talking with ALTs and foreigners since they don’t have to worry about being formal or professional like they would have to at school. Even though they may cost a lot to attend the Japanese teachers really appreciate it if you attend and try your best to take part in extracurricular socializing activities outside school.