Being an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) can be a lot of fun for some and miserable for others. A lot of factors go into what makes that difference. Some you can control and others you can't. For me though it has been a truly wonderful experience. I was very lucky in the placement I received. The children made every day a joy and I couldn't have asked for a better teaching staff to work with. I learned a lot from them. But if you ask me what the most difficult thing about being an ALT would be, the answer is simple. It's the period of time just before your contract ends.
It's true that the nature of your job as an ALT is typically on a year by year contract base if you are working through a dispatch company. This is something you know and are told up front going into the position. Of course this is different for those in the JET program or anyone who has been able to secure a direct hire position, and thus irrelevant for them. However a large number of ALT's and post JET ALT's receive work through a dispatch companies. Because of this year by year contract work, there is a lot of uncertainty as the end of the school year approaches. Its that process and the uncertainty around the nature of this type of contracted position that makes it the most difficult. Here is what that looks like and a few reasons why this can be difficult.
Why its difficult
First, you have to make a decision about whether of not you will seek renewal of your contract for the next school year which typically starts in April. Assuming you do, then you have to choose whether to request a new placement or try to keep your current placement. Generally this is a decision you have to make sometime in the winter with only a few more months before the end of the school year in March.
Second, After submitting your intentions it's a waiting game. There are a lot of things happening beyond your control at this point. Assuming you found a good placement and want to stay, the final decision really isn't yours to make. The company has to seek a new contract with the city in which you work. This involves negotiating with the Board of Education (BOE) there as well as competing against other dispatch companies and the JET program to win the contract. However, despite the desires of the schools and BOE, the city council has to account for it in their budget. This can be a key factor with Japan's declining population in terms of what they can afford. Unfortunately, your company really wont be able to tell you anything until the city and BOE have made their decision. Sometimes this can mean not knowing until the very end of March with less than two weeks until the start of a new school year. If you are lucky, you will be able to continue in your placement another year.
If you are not lucky enough to get to keep your placement, then you will likely have to relocate. Staying with a dispatch company means going where they have contracts to fill. It doesn't give you a chance to settle down, but then again the nature of the job really isn't one for someone looking to settle down. The timing of everything means you have to be prepared for many possible outcomes and be efficient working deep in the uncertainty that surrounds you.
Finally, There are the secrets and communication hurdles you must face from your coworkers and students. As part of my contract I also teach a community English conversation class and every year around January I am inundated with questions from my students there. They ask if I will still be here next year, when will I know if I will be able to stay, and they make it harder not to be able to tell them anything by telling me how much fun they have had or how much progress they have made because of my help. I really wish I had answers for them, but even if I knew I would not be able to say anything until the city and BOE make it public knowledge. Until then, all I can tell them is that I submitted my request to stay but its not my decision to make.
In the same way, If I happen to find out anything early about a major change coming, I am unable to tell my coworkers anything. Until its public knowledge, your coworkers at school are just as in the dark as you. No matter how much the school likes the ALT or wants to keep them, their power is extremely limited and they too are at the mercy of the city and BOE. The same secrets must be kept as well should I decide to move on of my own accord. Telling them anything too soon can disrupt the balance for yourself, the relationship with the company, and more.
Conclusions (aka TLDR)
All of these things can be very stressful. They make it very hard for you to plan your next move or really settle in to make any place feel like home. Even if you do manage to settle in and become a part of the community, there is that ever lurking presence of the knowledge that next year isn't guaranteed. It's difficult to clean out years worth of materials you created from your desk without the other teachers knowing. It's difficult to not know if you will have to move somewhere else each year. It's difficult to not be able to have an answer for those people around you who you have built relationships with. That is why the time period before the end of your contract can be the most difficult part of an ALT's job.
Advice and Opportunity
My advice to any current and aspiring ALT's out there would be, don't be discouraged by this one difficulty. There are plenty of fantastic things about the job that I would say far outweigh the negative aspects. There are also things you can do to make it not so bad. Planning ahead and communicating with your supervisor can be key. By getting an early start, you can use this time as an opportunity to provide yourself with many options. By speaking with your supervisor, you can communicate your intent as well as request placements depending on your what you want to do and where you want to be. This of course does not guarantee you anything as your contract is still likely year by year, however it may provide you with more options or a fallback plan. You can also get an early start on applying for new positions elsewhere as another precaution. Possibly even finding a more permanent role in an international school or elsewhere. the key is to be prepared for anything and everything.
By preparing in this way, I am ready for anything. If I get to stay, that's ideal for me. If I can't, I might get another placement with the company and will at least still have a job next year and be on a new adventure in Japan. If I don't like the placement I receive, hopefully my job hunting would give me another and better option. Whatever the case, it all depends on what you want to do and where you want to be. Embrace the change and make it work for you. Being an ALT is a great way to lose yourself into the country and culture that is here for you to find. A new location is just another year getting lost somewhere else in Japan.