By Cassandra Mainiero
When I submitted my re-contracting response to the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Progamme, my elementary kocho-sensei asked one question.
“Only one year?”
“Yeah,” I sighed, feeling disappointed. “It’s a family obligation.”
He cocked his head. “Everything OK?”
“Yes. My parents just need me at home,” I said, giving a small smile.
Although it was a spark-notes version, this was an honest answer. I do have family obligations. My parents are trying to sell their house by 2020, and I left my dog and assets under their care. While they haven’t asked me to return, I recognize that this year abroad is a lot to ask of them.
‘’I just need to see if teaching is what I really want,’’ I had told my parents, after I signed the JET paperwork. They were worried. I was leaving my steady, longtime job in America. ‘’I’ll figure it out,’’ I promised.
The only problem? The re-contracting papers arrived early. There hadn’t been enough time to assess whether I liked teaching. I was still figuring out the logistics of the classrooms, the personalities of the teachers, what each class liked, and the day-to-day work flow. My memory hadn’t registered most of the students’ names. I was still being called by my predecessor’s name, learning the school song, figuring out why students simply accepted the rules of janken. The third-grade boys were still impressed that I like Dragonball Z and ate mikan. I was learning the Anpanman theme song.
Prior to moving to Japan, I had been told that the re-contracting decision would arrive in late January or early February – about six months in. This felt like an adequate amount of time to assess my experience. This year, though, the re-contracting papers arrived in October. I was told that it’s because the local Board of Education needs to make annual budgetary decisions, which includes funding ALTs. But my senior JETs said it was the earliest that they’d received the papers. They suggested I ask for an extension.
I considered it. However, I eliminated this strategy when I realized that my decision changed by the day; one day my co-teacher and I are excited and organized, the next we’re scattered. One day the students are enthusiastic to learn about weather, laughing and yelling “RAINY,” “IT’S SUNNY,” “COME ON, BABY” and “OH MY GOD” in funny, animated voices. The next day, an older class learning how to use “can” and “can’t” won’t raise their hands or name cards. The game we made is too difficult, and it’s frustrating and disheartening to us and the students.
There’s an adjustment period that comes with any new job, regardless of your experience, connections, age, skills, or confidence. To give a response while still in this transition would be difficult even in my hometown, in my native language.
I spent weeks debating the decision.
I considered my elementary school. I like my kocho–sensei. He’s stern, but considerate and amicable. Sometimes he walks to my corner of the teachers’ room just to make small-talk. He is a former English teacher, and he leads a school of about 35 teachers and 460 students. The students range from 1st to 6th grade. Some ALTs have several inattentive and wild classes at their elementary schools; I have (maybe) one out of 16 classes. My students are generally respectful, energetic, and kind, sprinkled with bouts of shyness and frustration. They’re eager to say hello when they see me at events or in grocery stores. Many of them aspire to be fashion designers, computer programmers, or soccer players. Many of them are eager to play with the ALT. When l announce that I like sports and games during my jikoshoukai, they invite me to join them for recess, where we play Jenga, dodgeball, soccer, and onigokko.
I love this school and I try to make that attitude apparent. On elementary school days, I really want to stay.
Then I considered my junior-high school. At that school there are about 500 students from ages twelve to fifteen. My kocho-sensei doesn’t speak English. I am still learning Japanese. We try to speak, but our efforts to communicate are far and few between. The teachers are friendly and understanding, but insanely busy; I don’t want to interrupt their day. At this school, my students are reluctant to answer questions. They’re afraid to make mistakes. When I attempt to make conversation, many students grow nervous and dart to friends for help. The conversation almost never continues. This makes me feel nervous, too.
There are good days and bad days at Junior High. Sometimes I speak with a girl who has an interest in London. Sometimes a third-year student and I talk about movies like The Notebook, Jumanji, and Back to the Future. Sometimes I offer my kyuushoku rice and bread to the boys, and they ask me about kickboxing. All is well. But sometimes, the students smart-mouth back in Japanese during class. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I can tell by the tone and the timing. I keep trying to engage with the students but, on days like this, I don’t want to stay.
In elementary school, the focus is on vocabulary and exposure to English. I have more say in my how classes go, and I create cards and games. In junior high, students focus more on grammar, conversation, and everyday application. They’re often asked questions about grammar points that they have long forgotten and need to research. The Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) are the lead teachers. I am sometimes asked to make games, but most of the time, I am asked to be a pronunciation tape-recorder. At times like these, I miss my elementary students.
I wrote in my JET application that I wanted to teach junior high students because I felt that I could best relate to their interests and feelings. I felt that the conversations would be more vigorous and inquisitive. In reality, the opposite is true. I feel better suited at my elementary school.
I was blindsided by this insight. I could not tell if I would enjoy my life in Japan more if I stayed longer. Could I handle this for another year? What was my end-goal again?
This last question is perhaps the best question I can ask myself when deciding something. This includes careers, relationships, finances, and hobbies. Asking this question keeps me sane and motivated. It gives me a bullseye.
My end goal in Japan was always simple: I wanted to find out if I liked teaching.
The idea was that if I liked teaching, I would continue with the JET Programme. I would move my life to Japan. I would take online courses to earn my second master’s degree in Education with a minor in Japanese. (I currently have a bachelor’s and master’s in English/Writing.) The ultimate plan was that I would become certified to teach at international schools and live a life steeped in my major interests: foreign cultures, education, language, and writing.
In coming here, I wanted to gain insight. I needed to see if this was what I wanted before traversing down this teaching path and paying for more schooling. Do I like being in the classroom? How do I like working with other teachers? How would I handle disruptive students?
I felt that a year in JET would answer these questions. I saw it as a student-teaching opportunity—to watch, listen, and learn—and several people recommended it. It took five years to forge this idea and convince myself to try this path. So, when I accepted the JET position in April 2018, it was a risk, but a calculated one. I felt proactive and judicious.
I discovered I liked the program. I liked seeing students grow. I adored being able to support teachers, whether that meant creating games or laminating their flashcards during my down time. I busied myself with organizing English cards and files, a kinesthetic joy that I got lost in for hours. I also enjoyed learning about Japan, practicing Japanese, and exploring my new town.
But, learning is the keyword. As much as I was learning about Japan, I was also learning about myself, education, and the teacher life. In particular, I learned that teachers are some of the most hard-working, dedicated employees in the world.
It isn’t as simple as going to a class and sharing ideas or having discussions. Lead-teaching requires disciplining misbehaved kids, monitoring progress, trying to regurgitate information in new, interesting ways, even when you think it’s too difficult or boring. It requires progress reports and PTA conferences, training, engaging with clubs and activities, building friendships with other teachers, running events, and serving as a role model—both in and outside the classroom. Lead teachers are instructors, disciplinarians, students, game-creators, reader and analyzers, therapists, parents, lawyers, hall monitors, coaches and cheerleaders, entertainers, board decorators, and craft-masters.
Teaching is not a job; it’s a life.
I live a luxurious life as an ALT. I don’t have as much to do. There is less pressure to stay late, help out with clubs, and strictly follow a curriculum. I have the luxury of saying ‘‘I am going to have fun and play a game with these students.’’ I don’t have many papers to read or homework to check. When I have stayed late to work on an English-board, the JTEs kept checking the clock and asking me ‘‘Why?’’
The JTEs’ tenacity and efforts have made me reconsider my end-goal. Teaching is a busy, unappreciated job, and (at the risk of being preachy) we should pay our teachers more. I have recognized that my attitude and approach are different than I imagined. I have realized that I prefer more balance in my work and personal life; I don’t want things to cross over. I am more interested in supporting teachers, not being one. To continue this program without that motivation to become a teacher felt concerning. I believe I could grow to like teaching, but is that belief a reality or just a hope? If someday I realized I didn’t like teaching, this attitude would affect my students.
So, I took my papers and signed. I didn’t re-contract.
Then, I regretted it. For a little. This regret felt the way one regrets not eating another piece of chocolate cake – it’s probably for the best, but there was still so much more to enjoy. You could have made room.
But it was the right decision for me. I am approaching the next few months with curiosity, enthusiasm, and dedication. I’m focused on nourishing the friendships that I’ve made. I aim to leave a good environment for my successor. I’m also concentrating on updating classroom materials and re-organizing information.
Someone once told me that five-year JETs are considered ‘‘unicorns.’’ They’re creative, wild, and strong, but they’re rare—the fantasy. I think one-year JETs are still unicorns, but we must be the newborn foals. We are just learning how to walk, use our spiraled horns, and hitch a ride on the rainbow when we’re asked to leap. If we don’t stay, does this mean that we aren’t as magical? That we can’t have an impact or stop and dazzle the students? I don’t believe so.
A unicorn is still a unicorn, no matter what stage of life they reach. Our job is be positive and engaging; our potential and eagerness, combined with our short amount of time, can actually be an incentive for both us and our students to learn quicker and work harder. A one-year JETs life is a fun life, but a short one.
Why should that mean that we can’t spread a little magic while we’re here?
Cassandra Mainiero is a first-year ALT in Imabari. She has degrees in English and Poetry/Writing, and has a lifelong love of Japanese art and poetry, particularly haiku and tanka. She enjoys kickboxing, writing and photography.