I know a lot of JETs who are trying to decide if they’ll stay on for another year right now so I wanted to offer up my own thought process in case it might help someone out there trying to make a difficult decision.
Basically, I decided to stay because my responsibility to my school is more important to me than my sense of personal happiness, so here’s how I came to that conclusion, in a highly roundabout way.
I’m sitting in my apartment and it’s officially winter break, but I’ve got about 8 tabs open for different American universities, my email, and a little pile of terribly disorganized notes I’ve taken next to a tragically squished melon pan that I’m trying to convince myself is an acceptable form of breakfast.
I’m trying to help a third grader get into university at the moment, and I’m feeling very underqualified and very, very determined for him to succeed.
This kid is one of the first students I really hit it off with when I got here. He was in my Speech and Debate class, and he was easily the most talkative, wild kid in the class. Every time I’d walk around checking students’ work he’d yell “Kaaaate” across the room and then ask me something about American politics, or if I had seen the latest Jimmy Kimmel, or offer his opinion on the topic we were using in class until I said, “Okay, okay write that down on your worksheet, please”.
Now he’s about to graduate and I’m helping him to apply to university in America. I’m the only one at the school who knows what to do kind of, and he trusts me. So here I am, having recently woken up from a dream about mailing high school transcripts (after having woken up from a different dream about work).
I had the thought recently, as I was trying to decide whether to recontract or not, that if I met only one kid like this one every year and could make some kind of contribution to their life, it would be worth it.
It turns out I was thinking too small, though, because since the new school year started in April, my relationship with the school totally changed and I have gotten to know so many really wonderful kids. I’m not close with even a majority of the students, but I love all of them a lot, and there are quite a few who I feel really close with.
When I asked friends and family for advice about whether to recontract, most of them said the same thing, which was “Do what you think is best for yourself. What will make you happy?”
I think that that’s important advice, but ultimately I decided not to follow it when I left my contract, signed for another year, on my supervisor’s desk the other day.
Not to be reductive or oversimplify the “unique characteristics of the East and West”, but to my understanding in Japan there’s more of a priority placed on your responsibility to the group than to yourself. And I think that, as a life approach, that has some serious problems and it’s really important to check in with yourself and do what’s right for you even if–especially if–it’s against the grain of your immediate society.
However, I feel that, having signed on at this job I have accepted a responsibility to the students and to my coworkers, and ultimately I decided that the most important thing to me was to honor that responsibility. Maybe I’m not super happy here all the time, but I want to put myself aside and do what’s best for the people I’ve made a promise to.
First, the coworkers. The relationship between the Japanese staff and the foreign teachers at my school hangs in what I see as a delicate balance, and the school has only recently been seeing JETs as closer to full-time teachers than other ALTs. So it’s really important to me to keep fighting for that, since so much progress has been made already.
There are also people who I’ve really connected with at work who I work well with and who I want to stick around to support. I’m sure they could easily get by without me, but I want to be there for them. A lot of people I work with are really stressed out, and if I can make their lives a little bit easier then that’s good enough for me.
And I do believe, in spite of my total lack of qualifications, that I can be an asset to the school. If I felt like I really couldn’t contribute anything I wouldn’t stay, but in some small ways I believe I really can help the school be a better place.
Then, the students. The way my schedule worked out last year and this year, I started teaching mostly the first graders in the English course, and now I teach mostly those same kids in their second year. I really enjoy teaching all the classes I have (there are 10, so 400 total), but those 80 kids have become really special to me.
Every time I’ve come into work and not really wanted to be there, or had some falling out with a coworker, or just wasn’t feeling it, I have walked out into the halls and seen some kid who would invariably yell down the hallway to me and it has never failed to cheer me up.
And with those 80 kids I taught last year and this year, I’ve watched them go from cute but kind of belligerent first graders to more serious, thoughtful second graders. I started out this school year dreading one particular class I had with some of those kids because they never listened and were always messing around and generally had a kind of bad atmosphere. Everyone who teaches them agreed that they were a problem class. In the past few months, though, they’ve become one of my favorite classes and we have such a good dynamic. Our class is more like a big conversation, and when I have to talk to them about something they really listen.
I asked the Japanese teacher I work with in that class what had happened, expressing amazement that they changed their attitude so much, and he said, “I think they really like listening to what you say. They’re really interested.”
In small, silly ways they’ve made my life a lot brighter, too. With one of the first grade classes, they stood up to bow as they do at the start of every class, and then the kids in charge of instructing the bow paused and said, “Tomorrow… is Kate’s birthday. So let’s all sing to her.” And then the whole class sang happy birthday. It turned out that their social studies teacher told them about my birthday for reasons I still don’t understand, but because of him it spread to all the first grade students and people were coming to sing to me and give me things all day. An office with that kind of atmosphere is an office I want to be a part of.
With a lot of those kids, too, I’ve helped them get ready for study abroad trips, spent hours talking to them about classes they don’t like, their hobbies, what they want to do in the future. I’ve read every essay and speech they’ve written, helped some of them prepare for contests, and worked like crazy to take some of the burden off of the one senior student we have in English club.
An ALT won’t be the most important person in these kids’ lives, and if I left next year they would get on just fine. But having taught them since they got to this school, I feel like I’ve made an unspoken promise, which is that I’ll be with them until they end, and I’ll look out for them and help them as much as possible.
On the other hand…
Speaking personally and putting work obligations aside, I’ve found Japan a difficult place to live. Relationships here have been especially hard. I’ve found it difficult to make friends outside of work, and some of my friends at work have been more a source of stress than anything else. And my school is not always very welcoming. I’ve definitely wondered, at times, why I give so much of myself to this place. Do they know how hard I work for them? Do they realize what it means?
One person even said to me recently (disclaimer: everyone was drinking, but still this is inexcusable) “It’s better if you’re not here next year.” He was standing behind me when he said it, and I wanted to push him over but was kind of in shock. We dispersed soon afterward, and I sat on the train platform with one of the Japanese teachers who was so, so nice. This Japanese teacher, in spite of being one of the most overworked people I have ever met, is always willing to listen to people’s problems and cheer them up in the most ridiculous ways. But no matter what happens, I will never forget someone telling me “It’s better if you’re not here next year.”
Even thinking beyond work, I wonder if I’d be happier elsewhere. Especially when I go to Taiwan, I think that I’m really not cut out for living in Japan. I don’t think I’m well-adjusted to the social atmosphere and I don’t know that I can become better adjusted. I’m really frustrated most of the time, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up from dreams about not speaking enough Japanese, not being accepted here, not succeeding… I would be much happier in a warmer place–both in terms of weather and people–a more free place, a place where I’ve met people like myself for the first time. After JET, I have every intention of moving to Taiwan. It’s now a matter of when, not if.
And finally, I don’t really want to be a teacher. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, but it’s definitely not this.
I told someone all of that recently and they said, understandably, “…and you decided to stay?”
It’s possible that I would be much happier elsewhere, doing some other work. It’s possible that I’m really not cut out for any of this and by this time next year will regret this a lot. But it’s equally possible that some other place would be worse. Or most likely, another place would just be different, with its own ups and downs. So why not take a chance and really make something of my life here? Happiness isn’t going to fall into your lap when you change locations. You’re not going to suddenly find the “right” place where everything works out. Some places are certainly better than others, but basically you will always have to fight for what you want.
Most importantly, I have an obligation to this school and that obligation means something to me. I can be fine anywhere, and one year in my life isn’t going to make or break anything. I have a responsibility to these wild kids and my lively coworkers. Ultimately that’s more important to me than fulfilling some ideal of personal happiness. I’ve spent a year and a half trying to prove to them that I belong here and can contribute meaningfully to the school. That’s a promise I intend to deliver on.