Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. IX: The More Things Stay the Same...

I've never been good at making plans.

Actually, that's not right. I've never had good luck with plans, especially those involving my course in life. I was actually quite adept at making them; during my college days I made lots of them. It also got to the point where I tended to make alternative plans, back-up plans, back-up back-up plans, alternative back-up plans, plans with Spam, emergency survival plans, emergency plans with Spam, and last-resort face-saving options (with or without Spam). They had a bad habit of not working out. Instead, things would wind up running smack up against walls of solid granite (or Spam) for reasons that were completely beyond my control. It seemed like fate, or whatever, was determined not to let me call my own shots.

And yet, as with Parsifal the Pure Fool, things always seemed to turn out for the better as a result. For example, the failure of my engineering and chemistry majors led me into fields to which I was far better suited. Disasters in my social and romantic lives actually saved me from what later revelations showed would probably have been even bigger woes. Had my plan to go to Germany and change my major to music succeeded, in all likelihood I would probably be a far poorer and more frustrated man now. Instead, a whole string of almost random choices, unexpected opportunities popping out of nowhere, people suddenly appearing just at the right time to steer me in just the right direction, and successes I never would have dreamed possible all combined to get me where I am now.

It's one of the main reasons why, despite my objective, question-asking, "doubting Thomas" nature, I stubbornly believe in God.

There's just one problem: I'm a teacher.

I know I've mentioned it here more than once before, but teaching was the one occupation I vowed to avoid at all costs. I saw what being an educator did to my father, and I had no intention of putting myself through that. However, like Parsifal, it seemed like I was cursed to wander without ever being able to find my true path in life until I was finally just led...or maybe pushed...onto it. And even then it never went where I expected.

My very first job here in Japan was as an "ALT", an Assistant Language Teacher, i.e. a teaching assistant who was never supposed to have any real responsibility. Nevertheless, I was put partly in charge of an international course I helped create and made responsible for several hours of solo teaching of that course every week. (That was what led me to stay the full three contract years instead of my planned two.) After that, having gotten engaged, I accepted the first invitation I got to work at Ye Olde Academy...which turned out to be a hoax, or at least somebody's failed pipe dream. With my visa's expiration looming only a couple of weeks away, I got the "just in case" miracle call asking me if I was willing to work for IPK English School. There I fully expected to be attached to marionette strings and made to dance to a pre-recorded script, but it turned out that they'd just ditched their regular program and were trying to come up with new ones, giving me plenty of opportunities to apply what I'd learned and test different things. Finally, when I got the second (and this time legitimate) offer from Ye Olde Academy, I was asked once again to be mainly a teaching assistant, not responsible for my own classes. I was told I'd be team-teaching 9th grade reading classes and 12th grade writing seminars. But after one year, I was told I'd been judged fit to teach solo and asked to make a 9th grade English Communication course and my own 12th grade writing seminar. I was also told that I was to be chiefly responsible for the school's international affairs.

Cut to now, fifteen years later. My role at Ye Olde Academy has evolved in various ways, but it has remained largely the same. I was asked to create and teach a 7th grade English Communication course a little less than ten years ago, but the 9th grade course is still my primary focus. My 12th grade writing seminar was taken away from me and given to a different American teacher three years ago, but now I'm teaching an 11th grade writing course which is largely the same thing. In other words, for sixteen years I've worked more or less as a specialist, revising and (I hope) improving the courses I teach but still sticking largely to the same, basic game plan. As it turns out, however, as with so many other things in the wake of the Great Tohoku Quake last March, that plan is suddenly taking unexpected and ominous turns.

For one thing, after having been a member of the 7th grade staff for several years in a row, I was quite surprisingly moved to grade 9 for the new school year starting in April. The teacher in charge of grade 9 English, himself having been suddenly plopped there to replace someone who'd gone on maternity leave, started making all kinds of demands. He told me he wants me to be at least 50% in charge of the program (though he replaced his name with mine on the official list as the "guy in charge"...which has me seriously worried) and is rather noisily insisting that I drop a lot of my other activities (i.e. my music club work) just so I can be his spare tire. With the full backing of the new chief of the English Department, he has been demanding that I completely change my whole approach to my job, let alone my longtime work (and even life) habits, apparently with the aim of somehow increasing my overall usefulness. I'm suddenly being told that I'm "bad" and "wrong" because I've been working as a specialist (as I was hired to) and largely left out of the loop for sixteen years but somehow haven't been keeping myself fully updated on and experienced in the teaching methods of the rest of the faculty in their reading courses (which, quite frankly, has been of little relevance or interest to me even if the regular teachers had wanted to take the time to indulge me with such information). I'm told that I'm "uninformed" and "unprofessional" because I value first-hand experience and concrete reality over abstract theories printed in some "expert's" book. And to top it all off, all these attempts to remake my life in his image are coming from a teacher with less than half my experience (though he insists, as one of his base principles, that experience is meaningless).

It wouldn't be half as bad if I didn't have so much respect for the guy. He's actually one of the better teachers, as far as I'm concerned. That still doesn't mean he isn't going way out of line.

That's just the beginning. I've been told that, in light of new (and baffling) changes to the curriculum to be implemented next year, my 9th grade English Communication course has been labeled "In The Way" and thus is to be scrapped. They're also saying that my newer 7th grade course may very well suffer a similar fate, blended with if not absorbed outright into the regular reading course. There has even been talk of eliminating the 11th grade writing course since it is widely accused of being "too difficult" (in a high-level academic school?). Even my work with the international affairs committee has been eroded to the point where virtually all tasks related to the sister-school project I created myself almost single handedly (after numerous administrative fuck-ups) are now being given to other teachers, and I'm being left completely out of the loop. The bottom line is that the roles I've had for the last sixteen years are suddenly being taken away. Sixteen years' worth of effort on my part has suddenly become a disposable inconvenience. And the trade-off is that now they're apparently determined to make me abandon and forget everything I've done till now and become a regular teacher teaching a regular course as part of the regular system ...precisely the thing I was hired NOT to do. Precisely the thing I DO NOT WANT to do. And I'll be damned if I give everything else up just to become another ritualistic, one-pattern, pretend workaholic member of the team.

The Great Tohoku Earthquake of last March changed life in the Land of the Rising Sun perhaps forever. Now the Great Ye Olde Academy Englishquake taking place right now is threatening to shake things up just as bad.

Still, if things follow their usual pattern, it'll all work out for the better in the end. I don't have any reason to lose faith just yet.


  • You (or life) will figure out something, just like the gang on Scooby Doo. Whatever happens, I know you will never be hum-drum regular.

    By Anonymous kehlwok, at 7:02 AM  

  • So I'm curious about the administration and your fellow teachers: does your experience not count with them? I don't understand the full complexity of your situation, but it seems to me that a little politicking on your part might serve you well at this point. After our years together teaching at IPK I know what a competent teacher you are, so I hope you don't let them pigeonhole you without a fight.

    By Blogger Andy, at 9:14 AM  

  • Kehlwok
    Rank rou, Raggy!

    Maybe I'd better explain the way the teachers are organized. Basically, all the English teachers are members of the English department, but they are divided up into grade groups. Most school functions are undertaken by the individual grade staff, who operate with quite a bit of autonomy. (Just how much autonomy they have is a matter of controversy.)

    In my case, the decision to do away with my grade 9 course is coming from the curriculum board and the administration. Basically, I was told that there's barely going to be enough time left for the regular reading and grammar classes, so I'm squeezed out of the schedule. I've been warned that my grade 7 course could suffer the same fate. I don't know if there are ulterior motives at work here regarding my position, but it's all within groups that I'm not involved with.

    On the other hand, the issue with my grade 11 writing course is within the English department; some teachers argue that it should be a Saturday elective rather than a regular, required course (which would kill it). Others feel that we don't need to teach writing, anyway.

    As for the 9th grade English chief passing the load onto me, insisting I drop everything else to do it, and getting on my case about how I do everything saying experience is irrelevant, that's an issue within the grade 9 staff but fully supported by the chief of the English department. Most likely none of the other teachers really know what's going on, and even if they did, I doubt any of them would rush to my defense.

    If anything, most would probably support the grade 9 English chief. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if some of them said, "It's about time..."

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:20 PM  

  • Basically, it has always bugged some members of the English department that I not only don't teach in the traditional way (which has changed over the year) but also teach my own, unique courses that are outside the regular loop. Getting me to be a more regular member of the more regular program (i.e. having an equal share of the preparation and marking...never mind that I have to prepare and mark for my own courses 100% by myself).

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:27 PM  

  • Sounds like a stacked deck, buddy. I wish you the best of luck, hope you can salvage something from this.

    By Blogger Andy, at 10:47 PM  

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