Note: I'm kind of cheating by pre-dating this post, but this has been a work-in-progress for the last few weeks. So if you're thinking, Wait, this post wasn't here a few days ago, that's because it wasn't.
The last two times I had to do it, deciding to recontract was an easy decision. "I'll stay!" This year I agonized over it. I was completely split down the middle. On the one hand, I've learned so much about Japanese culture (I hate this term now, "Japanese culture," but that's the most succinct way to say what I mean), about my students and the teachers I work with, the people I know in town and outside of town. Very little of my time now is spent tackling WTF?! questions, and I want to live in this knowledge, enjoy knowing what's going on sometimes instead of never knowing what's happening. People have gotten to know me, too. It takes so long to get to know people here—the national temperament seems to tend toward the introverted—that I feel like to leave now would be to lose everything I've worked for. Like I've worked really hard to create something, and now I'm just gonna walk away.
I've moved three times in the last two and a half years, and I finally have an apartment I like, and I've spent a lot of money getting it just the way I like it. But that's a lie, because the vast majority of my boxes are still sitting around, perhaps scrounged through, but never unpacked. (It's true, though, that I've spent a lot of money in the hope that I'll finally do something with all this stuff. I don't know how much I've spent, but it's been too much. I was buying things right up until last month....)
I also like to tell myself that I'll finally study Japanese if I stay another year... but that's almost definitely wishful thinking.
When I think about the job itself, though, oh the ennui! because even after two and a half years, my responsibilities are very few, and I still haven't learned to teach. The job isn't set up that way. Toothpaste Maniac told me, back in October, that she hoped I could teach a class once in a while. (This, after I asked her directly, "What can I do to be a better ALT?" which was shortly after I found out that the rules had changed--that I could recontract for a fourth and fifth year at the same schools--and I was beginning the process of making that decision.) The prospect of teaching an entire class excited me--finally a goal! A challenge! A chance to improve myself!
But then I had almost no classes with TM, due to exams or her busy-ness. Since October I've had, seriously, about five classes with her. Certainly no more than ten. (For comparison' sake, at my other junior high I teach roughly five or six classes each week with each JTE--that's 10 to 12 classes per week on average.) In the few classes I've had with TM, she'd already prepared everything, and then taught most of it by herself. It's been really confusing for me. Am I a crap ALT? I mean, why else would she say, "Please teach some classes," and then change her mind and not give me the chance for the next five months? It's been really discouraging.
The situation isn't exactly much better at my other school, though. Even though I spend more time physically present in the classroom, I still don't do much. Ms. Chipmunk is better at asking me to do various things in different classes (like last year when we arm-wrestled, which was so awesome), but New Sensei has pretty much the exact same pattern for all his classes, and that pattern is pretty bland. (It's not the fact that he uses a pattern that I take issue with—patterns can be helpful—it's just his patterns.) (And maybe one of these days I'll get around to thinking up a proper nickname for New Sensei, since he's new only to my school and not to the teaching profession... or maybe I won't.) Beckham, who was transfered to another school last year, used to come to me, maybe a day or a couple hours before a lesson, and say, "Our next lesson together will be about blahbitty blah. Could you prepare some materials?" And that was great. But most of the time when I ask one of my JTEs if there's something I can do to prepare for the next lesson, they're like, "Nope, I'm cool."
I used to wish I could find a low-stress job. But now I realize that "low-stress" doesn't mean "very little work," because this feeling of uselessness has been really stressful. Even when I've had the opportunity to plan a lesson, TM's always found something wrong with it. And the worst part is, her concerns are usually justified.
As for anecdotes, there is this:
TM actually did ask me to plan a lesson for the second-years' elective English class last month. She gave me carte blanche, provided the lesson reviewed material they'd already learned that semester. As a warm-up, I prepared a worksheet with six sentences using 'can,' 'have to,' and 'must' (like "I can run fast," or, "She must getting up early"). The students would have to correct the ones that were wrong, and recognize which sentences were right. Next, my idea was that the kids (seven girls) would break into groups, invent a simple game, and then teach me how to play their games using the same target words. To emphasize how simple the games should be, I invented one of my own: Roll up a piece of paper into a ball, lean your head back and set the ball between your eyes, then walk around the classroom without letting the ball fall. Winner is the person who can do this the most quickly.
It was the day before the class was to be held that I thought of this, and I ran the plan past TM that afternoon. The worksheet was okay, but the game activity....
"It's too hard for them to make a game."
"They don't have to make a complicated game, just a simple one. I thought of my game in two minutes."
"But all they will think about is the game; they won't think about the English!"
"So, should they explain, like, basketball to me?"
She shook her head, and then got W-sensei's attention and explained my idea to her. W-sensei agreed that it wouldn't work well, and then they came up with a different idea. "The students can explain some Japanese games to you."
I think I visibly bristled at this suggestion. The very last thing I wanted was to be The Foreigner, proselytized to about Japanese Culture once again.
"How is that different from them explaining basketball to me?"
"You already know how to play basketball. There's no need to explain the rules to you. The students know these Japanese games, but maybe you don't know them."
I grudgingly agreed to rely on TM's judgment to decide what Japanese games I didn't yet know*, when I realized what had just happened: TM was planning the activity as if I hadn't done anything. I hadn't saved her any work. I hadn't done anything more than type up a worksheet that would take 10 minutes to complete. I felt like such an idiot. And fine, you know, sometimes these things happen and I can learn from them. The problem is that these discussions over the appropriateness of various classroom activities happen so rarely, it's difficult for me to make any use of them.
*She was 2 for 3; I was pleasantly surprised.
The frustrations I felt before—adjusting to life, the universe, and everything—they've come and gone as various difficulties have presented themselves to me. But the frustration I feel in knowing that I'm basically useless has only grown since I've been here, and I see no way to overcome it in my capacity as an ALT. Not only is the situation intrinsically frustrating, but I also have way too much time to sit around and think about how frustrated I am. (I try not to, but it's like trying to hold water in my cupped hands.) It's gotten to the point now where some days I walk out of the school building ready to cry, and even the kids who wave and shout goodbye to me on my way down the driveway can't do much to lift me out of my despondency.
So it's time to go.