Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Random thoughts

So Randal said it best. I advise you go read his post first; I'm going to make some random comments about life and living in Japan, and our decision to not recontract.* He covers the general reasons very well. I'm going to talk more about teaching, and also a bit about Japan.

I haven't blogged a lot about how I like living in Japan, for the simple reason that, well, I don't think I really do. I like Japan. Gifu is even okay some days. I like teaching. My school is fine. There are a number of gems among my students, and every now and then, something happens that makes me feel GREAT about teaching there.

For example, last week I found out that two of the 3rd year students who have been coming to see me for the past month or so for a bit of extra help with translation work and conversational practice (I don't teach 3rd years at all, so this was nice) in anticipation of university entrance exams, BOTH got accepted into the Tokyo University of Foreign Languages (one to study Portuguese and the other, Polish), which is apparently a very difficult university to get into. That was nice.

The reason I usually give to other JETs when they ask me why I chose to not recontract is that my job is unfulfilling. (I didn't tell my school this, as I don't think they would have understood; a bit of a selfish Western concept. I simply told them that I wasn't in a position to commit to what was, in effect, another 18 months in Japan. That is also true.)

I like teaching. I have been lucky enough to do some teaching twice in the past - at Dalhousie, when I was assistant teacher for an undergraduate course in communications, and, of course, last year, when I taught a first-year law school course in legal research methods. Also, when Randal and I took a short certificate course in TESL methods in Jan 2006, I ate it up.

However, I just don't enjoy teaching in Japan as a JET. Though I am luckier than some others, in that I am pretty much given free reign with my lesson planning, teaching what I wish and what I think is important, most of the time I feel like I am more The Resident Gaijin - amusing, but a sideshow to the real work of learning and teaching English.

English is a mandatory course at all junior and high schools in Japan, for all grades, but there's a major disconnect between what the Ministry of Education says and what actually gets implemented at school level. Reading and writing are taken very seriously, in a let's-learn-English-the-way-they-used-to-learn-Latin kind of way. But speaking! Let's leave that to Julie. Oh, and let's make her class worth NO MARKS so the students know it's as important as dirt. I'm at a high school which is quite academic - we're the second-ranked school in the prefecture, and most of our students go on to university. However, being smart doesn't mean these kids WANT to learn English.

I come from a bilingual country. Most provinces allow you, at some point, to stop learning French if you should so choose. (Quebec is an exception, for understandable reasons, and you must take French every year; but note that students at French schools must also learn English every year until graduation.) The onus is then upon YOU to decide whether or not you want to become fully bilingual; that is, whether or not the second language (in some cases, of course, it is a third or fourth language) will be useful to you in the future. I think this is smart, and I think Japan could learn a lesson or two from this.

Part of the problem, I think, is that, in Japan, the group is more important than the individual. Always. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, is a well-known expression. In education, this translates to everyone learning the same thing at the same pace. Of course, they are streamed and re-streamed at various levels (the JHS students write tests to get accepted into various HS, depending on their academic level and career goals; students at my school can focus on science\math courses, or just take a general curriculum), but accepted to a school or university, everyone is pushed through at the same rate. It's really perplexing, and it doesn't work.

It also drives me batty a lot of the time.

Other than work, Japan is okay. There are many days where I wish I could go into a store and NOT have the store clerk say, "Irrashaimase" ("Welcome, thanks for shopping") and then blush furiously and avoid my gaze when he/she realizes I am not Japanese (and break into a sweat if, god forbid, I have to ask a question, which I only ever do if I'm fairly certain I will understand the response). Also, and don't tell my school I said this, but I don't really like a lot of Japanese food. I didn't think I was a picky eater. But they do weird things to vegetables, and are fond of weird cuts of meat. Ebi (shrimp) is virtually impossible to avoid (I'm getting almost fond of it...almost), and eating ika (squid) and tako (octopus) are, unfortunately, national pastimes. Mostly, however, it's the vegetables. No more tsukemono! Not every vegetable is improved by being pickled. Ugh.**

Anyway, I wanted to keep this short and I did not.

Before everyone freaks out and thinks I am miserable here, I am not. I find small moments, small tasks that give me some satisfaction. I plan on enjoying my last 5 months here. I want to do a good chunk of traveling, both in Japan and elsewhere. There are a number of things I still want to see and do. But could I do this for another 18 months? NO.

In other words, I'm looking forward to coming home, but I'm glad I'm not leaving next week. I think that's key.

So what's next?

When we return to Canada (we don't know which city yet), I want to go back into a library, and hopefully one where I can do teaching/training (not necessarily an academic or law library). I've even toyed with the thought of - gasp! - working in a public library for a bit, just to get the experience.*** Or maybe not. Anyway, I'm lucky, since, unlike many other JETs I know, I'm already highly employable in a profession I truly like. I would be interested, however, in teaching part-time at a private English school once I return home, if at all possible. I really do like TESL teaching. I'm also interested in maybe, maybe, maybe, at some point (in a year or two), doing some further studies in the educational field (like a Master of Curriculum Studies or something). Just ideas. I am also lucky in that, with my library training, I am qualified to work anywhere in the world, and I hope to someday be able to take advantage of that fact. If you hadn't noticed, I like to travel.

I am now going to amuse myself (and hopefully you) by posting some random pictures to Flickr.

* Or not-so-random. If your name is Mark Reynolds, please don't blow my cover by pointing out that many of the thoughts I have set down here are stolen almost word-for-word from an email I sent you back in January.

** Also, Canada has better sushi. Yup, I'm definitely a 3 on Randal's Re-contracting Regret Scale.

*** Public libraries scare the frick out of me. I'm not sure why. It seems to me that you'd need to be smart and quick-thinking as all hell to survive as a reference librarian in one, however.


jerome said...

Not a picky eater? I must've typed in the wrong URL...

Erin said...

I'm going to turn this post into a form response letter. Thanks for typing it all out for me, Julie!

julie said...

Even the bit about going to work in a library? I'd beware if I were you : once librarians get their claws into you (and the library gets into your blood), there's no turning back.

I often wondered why I have never met a single librarian who didn't like his or her job.

Waterlily said...

Shush every conversation; hand out fines to slow readers; get first dibs on every new Shopaholic; what's not to like? :)

Stuart said...

Julie, thanks for the commentary on Japan and teaching there. Enlightening to say the least. Enjoy the return to Canada and library-land. I may do the former some day, but never the latter. I am your one librarian who never liked his job. I guess I managed to escape the 'claws' :)