Wednesday, June 18, 2008

JET Jackpot

I think (or hope) I've said it before, but I do believe I hit the JET jackpot with my placement.

When I first found out that I was: a) going to Towada, and b) teaching elementary/junior high, I was a little...worried, to say the least.

It didn't help when my dad did a little research and tried to reassure me with: "It's got an agricultural university, so it must be a pretty big city." (Actually, it's an animal husbandry university, but close enough.) If anything, that had me more convinced that I was going to the inaka (rural countryside)! But since a lot of the questions during my interview were about how I'd cope if I was sent to rural Japan, even though I wasn't thrilled, I figured I could deal with it.

What had me more worried, though, was that I was going to be teaching junior high and elementary school students. I believe I had specifically written (well, checked off) in my application that I did NOT want to teach at the elementary level. I mean, I don't like (little) kids, and I'm a certified high school English teacher, so I was convinced that I would be best utilized at the high school level.

As it's turned out, however, I now believe that I have the placement that is able to make me the happiest, most satisfied ALT I could possibly be.

Towada has really benefited from having one ALT who has stayed for five years. Andy has done an incredible amount of work to systematically improve English teaching in Towada: he has helped to put in place a quota system for school visits; to make it the standard for teachers to send lesson plans one week in advance; to start an elementary school English newsletter; to make soft copies of flash cards and other resource materials for easy sharing; and many other things!

Not only that, but he's been a rock of support for incoming ALTs. When Allie and I arrived, he met us at the airport, took us grocery shopping, helped us arrange for our internet connections and generally made it as easy as possible for us to settle in. And even now, whenever we have any problems or need help, he's there--moving furniture, explaining how to prevent insect infestations, demonstrating the weed whacker, etc. etc.

Another great thing about Towada is that it's conveniently situated next to Shichinohe, where there were (and still are) great second-year JETs who introduced themselves right away and have been great friends. They too were and have been very helpful in answering questions and assisting us whenever we need them.

We've also been extremely lucky in our office co-workers. Both our first and current supervisors have excellent English and have put a lot of thought and energy into making life and work in a foreign country go as smoothly as possible. Our other co-workers are also great about trying to talk to us (in English or simple Japanese) and have been very friendly and welcoming.

Personally, I also feel lucky to have come with Allie and Juliet. ^_^ We get along well, and they're both more social/outgoing than I am, which is great because if I wasn't going out and doing things with them every once in a while, I'd probably be a hermit.

Towada City itself is a great place to live. It's small enough to be friendly but large enough to provide some degree of anonymity. Plus it's got great scenery: Oirase Gorge, Lake Towada and Mount Hakoda (not to mention the ever-so picturesque rice fields). The city centre is also conveniently laid out in a grid pattern (owing to it's rice field origins) . There are lots of good restaurants and a decent-sized mall, and there are larger cities (Hachinohe, Aomori) within a reasonable driving distance.

As for the job, I love it. My base school only has 39 students in total and not a single one is a "bad." The previous kocho-sensei (just transferred to a different school this past April) really loved studying English, so we used to have English eikaiwa (conversation classes) with the teachers. As a result, all of the teachers can and do try to use at least a little English with me. Our new kocho-sensei doesn't have the same interest/facility in English, but he's also very nice and very relaxed. He's told me that if I'm late or sick it's OK if I just call the school directly (rather than calling my supervisor/the Board of Education first).

I've also had very good relationships with both of the Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) with whom I've worked. My current JTE and I get along particularly well. She's helped me to find a new apartment, to buy a washer/dryer (along with a fridge/TV), to inquire about various services by phone, and to do many other things. (I'm constantly asking her, and the kokugo--Japanese--teacher, about how to say things in Japanese or the meaning of various words/kanji.)

As a result of my good relationship with my JTE and the school in general (not to mention with my office), I've gotten permission to go on the school trip to Tokyo with the ninensei!! I have to use my vacation days and pay for the trip myself, of course, but I'm nonetheless thrilled to be able to go with them! It will be my first time going to Tokyo Disneyworld, Tokyo Tower, and the Canadian Embassy (hopefully the Embassy'll be at least somewhat interesting, since I think we're only going there because of me)! I really want to get to know the students better on this trip, and I hope too, that we will somehow be able to show them the practicality of learning English on the trip.

Really, if I could, the only thing I would change about my job is that I would be at Kirita full time rather than just 3 days a week. Even so, it's good for me to visit other schools (yes, even elementary schools) once in a while, particularly since those visiting days are usually the only days I have a chance to do any necessary in-person banking (banks close at 3pm!!!) .

The flipside (I don't really consider it a negative) of having a base school is that I have longer hours than Andy or Allie (but not as long as Juliet's), since my regular hours there are from 9am-5pm (but I often go earlier and/or stay later). I also do a lot of marking (pretty much everyday that I'm there) and lesson planning (particularly for the extra English classes I do on my own), but I don't really think of it as a hardship, since it makes me feel more like a regular teacher at the school. Then too, I think a lot of my good relationship with the other teachers comes from the fact that they see me putting in the extra time and effort.

So yeah, basically I feel like I've won the JET jackpot in terms of getting a placement that totally fits me. But I'd like to point out, that it's also a matter of perspective.

As much as I've been raving about how great being in Towada is, I could easily dwell on all the "negative" aspects of the placement:

- because Andy and other ALTs have built up the English program so much in Towada, there are very high teaching expectations placed on us, i.e. we need to maintain the standards already set

- again, because of the high level of the Towada English program, Towada ALTs are a heck of a lot busier than ALTs in many other cities (in the second term, I only had two scheduled office days--the rest of the time I had to go to the office after a school visit and/or after hours)

- Towada is incredibly inconvenient (not to mention expensive!) in terms of travel--there's no JR station, and it's far from both the international airport in Tokyo and Sapporo

- since it's a very spread out, rural city, it's hard to survive (although my predecessor did manage it) without a car--expensive considering the cost of gas nowadays, plus the Japanese system of road and car maintenance taxes

I'm sure if I thought a little longer/harder, I'd come up with more, but again, the point is, I choose to focus on all the great things about living in Towada.

The one thing I've really learned since coming to Japan is that in the classroom or in any given situation, the only thing I can fully control is my own attitude and (re)actions. And really, those are the only things I need to control to determine whether things will work out positively or negatively.