Expectravaganza Part 1: School Days
“I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.”
― Bill Watterson
Despite my call to literally distrust everything you read about living abroad, there is still incredible value in sharing day-to-day experiences. To think otherwise goes against the whole point of writing something like this. In that vein, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the thoughts and expectations I had before coming here, and what really ended up happening. Again, while these very well may only be applicable to my situation, my pre and post arrival thoughts may still be something to discuss and think about. In this part, I’ll specifically deal with my job, workplace and school culture, of sorts. So, shall we?
1) Expectation: School lunches will be terrible.
Reality: People are snobby!
Yes, I know full well some people get the full force of kyuushoku, school lunches, (Note: this was one of the first blogs I followed before coming here. Great read, but I was really preparing for the worst) but I’m quite happy with how the school lunch situation turned out for me. The lunches are seem pretty healthy and, while the same dishes seem to be recycled (not literally), I’m usually full and content with what I eat. Anything’s better than those square “pizzas” we had growing up. Don’t lie to yourselves.
Maybe I just have terrible taste, but I guess I did walk through a prefecture being perfectly content with the offerings of Family Mart.
However, I’ve found most often it’s the other teachers in the office, who are always up for spending $80 plus at an Enkai, who complain the most about the school lunches. I really wish I would have recorded it, but one day when it was announced bread would be served instead of the scheduled rice, the loud audible groan I heard was priceless. But these same people will eat the plain-ass white bread just as it is! Even when there are condiments provided! The day everyone noticed I made sandwiches out of the provided side salad and bread was like I had discovered a new element. My twisted American ways of making sandwiches started catching on with the other teachers, and if that’s not cultural exchange I don’t know what is.
My school lunches aren’t all that bad, but when you’re paying just under $3 for each meal, what is there really to expect? Having said all of this, I have yet to have a lunch with Natto, so someone must be looking out for me.
2) Expectation: Omiyage is critically important for new ALTs entering their new position.
Reality: Not really, but it’s still nice to do.
I actually really stressed out about what Omiyage would be good before I arrived, not just for my teachers, but for everyone around me. However, after actually giving the gifts, the general mood was “wait, you know about this custom?”
Feel free to add in a slant regarding “Only Japanese people know about Japanese things,” but even then, the general act of an ALT giving Omiyage still seemed a bit rare to everyone I met. While I gave out simple things like T-shirts, hats, tea and American candy, and everyone accepted the gifts graciously, there was still a hint of restraint to it all. I will say I made the mistake of getting an American M-sized shirt for one of my vice-principals, to then find out he is a very, very large man. I would just say be careful about clothing or anything that could break on the flight in general. Also don’t bring chocolate cause that shit will melt.
If anything, I still think getting Omiyage is a good idea and adds an extra olive branch to the entire situation, but with the lack of an expectation on the school’s end, it would probably be best not to go crazy overboard with it.
(Added note: Seeing a set of tea bags I gave one of my JTEs still sitting at her desk six months after I gave it to her was a little disheartening, but it became a game of “When is she going to take it home!?”)
3) Expectation: I would be able to actively participate in a group or club of some kind.
I said it during my days studying abroad again and I find it even more relevant for finding success with this program: join a club.
It doesn’t even have to be a school club! Anything is fine! However, I’ve found the people most dissatisfied with their situations here are the ones who didn’t go out and find an activity of some sort. Not every activity in a certain location will be perfect or the one you absolutely want to do, but there should still be something to have an excuse to get out of the house, at least.
While for me it was Judo, for others it has been painting classes, English conversation courses, sports clubs, cooking classes, the list goes on. But it’s not even in just having something else to do that has enhanced my experience here: I’ve been able to get closer with my students and fellow members of the community, which at some point is the true heart of this program’s mission. I’m positive many things would not have happened if I decided to not throw on that Judo uniform last year in August.
The important thing is to just find something to look forward to, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the bad days when they happen. These activities, no matter how arbitrary, gets the mind off the bad stuff and focuses on something much more tangible and in the moment. Don’t let the time on this program slip by; Go out and experience and do as much as you can while you’re here. For me, and seemingly for many other people, it’s been through these groups and activities we join.
4) Expectation: Although I would be an assistant, I would still be required to have materials for each class I visit.
I specifically remember telling my interview panel I knew full well what the “A” in “ALT” meant: that I would very much be on the sidelines of the classroom. Even in the introductory video included in the JET General Handbook, the ALT was used after the JTE explained the grammar point or instruction, and then was handed time to elaborate and then conduct an activity. In that same video, after the class was finished the JTE and ALT discussed how the lesson went and what could be done better next time.
OH, how I’ve come to know how such things are staged here.
While the beginning of my stay was very filled, things have drastically changed since I started. I should add: these changes are only really applicable to my big school, where I spend 75% of my time. Having said that, it has more or less boiled down to this sort of schedule:
First Years: Each first year class is split into halves and I visit each one for 25 minutes. Reading and “repeat after me” drills at most.
Second Years: Asked to come in to the last 20 minutes of class on average. Reading and “repeat after me” drills at most. I will be asked to create the occasional original activity.
Third Years: Have not seen them since they were second years in February. Before then, there was a three month period where I also did not see them. Originally, I asked every day if there was a third year lesson if I was required to go, which would almost always become a “no thank you.” The teacher has since made it “don’t call me, we’ll call you” sort of deal. I have come to learn that most third year classes are more ALT free, but I have yet to hear of a situation to the extent of mine. However, I visited every third year class that graduated this last March. When I did go, the usual structure was reading and “repeat after me” drills to get them ready for High School exams.
It hit me not too long ago that the egos of the JTEs have a large part in determining how an ALT is used in the classroom. When I first came to this realization, I was quite angry. “I’m here to help! I was hired to be implemented in the classroom!” I would quietly yell to myself.
But as I thought about it more, some things just became more clear: many of my JTEs are homeroom teachers, so there’s already the mindset of “you’re on my turf.” They interact with the kids the most and have been doing this gig a significantly longer amount of time than I have. So, there’s already attitudes of where they stand in the grand scheme of things.
Then imagine a fresh-out-of-college kid comes in and starts interjecting that some things they teach are awkward or different from what they actually use in their native tongue, even if this person points these things out with the best of intentions. After including all of these factors, my schedule and the changes that occurred started to add up a little bit more.
No, I’m not saying that teachers with big egos are in the right, as it boils down to “they’re ruining my image,” but I want to believe in some way I understand. With the status of a “teacher” being so high here, having someone come in (that they probably don’t even want to work with in the first place) and start demanding they themselves me labeled one can be intimidating, at least to them.
Yes, these sorts of people absolutely need to get off their high horse, but in the end they are the ones who decide whether or not I show up to a class.
However, it’s not just the teachers; It’s the system of teaching. For the times I have had to stay for an entire class, the vast majority of it is spent writing down words or grammar points over and over again while the teacher explains it to the students. Better teachers will use this time to ask me for other expressions or similar words the students can use, but those teachers are the exception. Many times, if I were to stay, there would be no moment or chance for me to add in any anecdotes or perspectives. The fact that teachers here feel the need to teach in this sort of manner is truly a shame, and teaching to the test in overly large classrooms will be the death of language teaching in this (or any) country.
I’ve since come to use this free time in other ways, whether it’s working on stuff for my internship, reading a book, writing or studying Japanese. I know that these actions may make it seem like I’m the lazy ALT who’s just there to get a paycheck, but these habits formed well after my fellow teachers stopped asking me to come. There’s no point on sitting on my hands, creating worksheets that will never be implemented and waiting for that final moment of “Hey, Kyle, can you come to my class today?” (Believe me, in my first month I accumulated work sheets for each section of each book, only for then a teacher to say “oh, I already made one and I like mine better.”) I’m going to use my time productively, even if it’s for my own personal benefit. Teacher’s with big egos be damned.
(HUGE note: This is by and far not the case at my small school, where I go to every class and am able to experiment much more with class activities.)
Those were largely the thoughts I had before starting the job, but this writing has gone on long enough so I’m going to split it here. Next up, I’m going to talk more about my day-to-day life and what I thought it might be like before I hopped on that plane. Spoiler alert: screw Mukade.