Timing can change everything. Especially for new ALTs ~ a narrative

I’ll start this blog how I start most conversations that ended abruptly with no contact in while, sup?

I haven’t written for too long and not for a lack of things to say or changes in my life. The fact is many things have changed, but you’re just going to have to wait to hear about them. And, that, my friends, is Japan 101. Everything is a secret. And like most secrets I subsequently hear about in Japan, this is one that some people know, and that might not come as a surprise once I am able to talk more openly about it — BUT for now, you’re just going to have to deal with this fallacy of privacy for no apparent reason, because that is what I tend to deal with every day. Ha..Ha..Ha…. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. I’m just saying that this is the way it is.

What I can tell you is that I did not re-contract my teaching position. That was decided this winter. But, on Feb. 11, I got news from my board of education that I would have to move schools. I was half pissed about losing what I had / half excited to start something new. A normal day in V-land, in fact. By the end of Feb., I went to my new school to see what was up. There, I met with the principal and other staff who seemed super excited to have me come there. That felt indisputably nice. They even gave me a folder and information about the school — in English! Which is literally more than I got coming in as a totally brand new ALT at my other school. (And, I think that is what is normal ~ to be pretty much just thrown into things.)

What was the difference? Was my other school just total dweeb-castles? Naw, not really. The difference is the one thing we all want to forget, but it always, eventually comes back to us as the reason why: Timing. And if timing, is “everything,” well, I found out how true that can be, especially in Japan.

You see, I was transitioning into the new school — even though I had just 4 months left on my contract. It seems like it would have been easier for them to rationalize not to include me in more than was absolutely necessary. But alas, I was arriving at the time when all the other new teachers were.

This simple matter of timing turned out to be an extremely important part in the work-life equation.

***

(Quick side note for those who aren’t familiar with the JP school year below.)

  • They have year-round schooling
  • School year is from April – April, with some summer, fall, winter & spring breaks built in.
  • Teachers rotate to schools in their area. The longest you can stay at 1 school is 10 years, with little flexibility on that.
  • Teachers don’t really get to choose where their next school will be, it is assigned to them. Even if isn’t close to them. They could commute an hour or more to work.
  • Aligned with the school year is the hiring season. April is when a majority of people change or find jobs.

***

So, now that you know how basically rigid that start date is, and that teachers are regularly changed. You also know that Japan and first impressions are pretty important, as well as bonding with people who are on “the same level” as you.  (Shout out to HIERARCHY.)

What I didn’t tell you yet is that almost ALL ALT’s come in at the very convenient time for the western world, July/August, but a very awkward time for the Japanese school year. The fact is, most ALTs are coming in by themselves. There is no other person to bond with or to have the feeling of “we’re in this new situation together” at their actual school(s). It’s something a lot of westerns might not feel significant to how they create relationships (I know I didn’t think so…), but from a Japanese stand-point, I found that to be essential. After all, it takes two people, two perspectives to build a relationship.

In coming into a new school as the first full-time ALT and first full-time foreign person, I was obviously different. I knew that. I was used to that. 

What I didn’t expect was how the timing of coming in, in April with all the other teachers affected their perspective of me, and how that drastically changed interactions.

The Japanese term equates to something like the person with the similar ranking, having to do with that ever-fragile time element.

Another way to think of it, is when you arrive late to a party where you didn’t know many people. Even if someone is in the exact same situation as you, they already had an hour or two to build some connections with even those who were totally new. And that 2 hours is something that is hard to catch up on.

Now, imagine that party is your work place, sans the drinking and bros.

And that 2 hours is months later. Now you’re starting to see how this could be more dramatic than it originally seemed, and a bit easier to think of that if you had a friend along with you who arrived 2 hours late to the party, how much easier that might be. The idea of people who are in your same ranking. At the very least, you saw a rando outside the house before you stepped into the party who also didn’t know anyone, at least they have this bond and shared experience to be new.

Although it is only months after the new teachers come in, in many ways, teachers cannot identify with ALTs in that special way. I’m sure that this isn’t always true. Some teachers my treat you the same no matter what time you came to the school because, after all, you are still more or less an outsider, which makes you immune to things both good and bad.

But, I found that having that one “insider” quality of at least starting with the new group of people brings a whole different dynamic. Generally, I am an out-going person, and it’s not all-that hard for me to have small-talk (or more) with anyone, but even I felt the comfort of being included in that group of “Newbies.” It was a nuanced comfort I felt could be totally unique to Japan.

Additionally, I got to participate in activities like a tour of the school, tons of documents and handouts about the school, and explanations that I completely missed coming in as a new ALT in August 2014. (This isn’t to say the first school didn’t help me. My advisors are/were my guardian angels to get used to life in Japan, but in terms of fitting into the school and developing relationships there, I feel there could be no supplement nor replacement for that bonding experience I had by arriving at the same time as the other new folks.)

This is, from my experience, the most compelling reason to change the incoming JET’s and other ALT’s arrival from Summer to Spring. When people feel bonded or like an “insider,” it’s simple psychology that their behavior is more positive; they’re more productive and can find more meaning in their work with strong bonds to co-workers. Despite the many shortcomings of how the program helps foster teacher-and-ALT relations for the better, Japan has done a reasonably good job of having a structure which gives this type of bonding to new people who are otherwise pushed into a hierarchical and (in my opinion) completely unfair and (often) useless system. (And thats speaking as someone who mostly looks into the system and who is not fully affected by it.)

In the end, it was expensive and a lot of stress to move to a new school and city with just four months left on my contract, but the experience I got from it was one very few ALTs get to fully be immersed in. From this, I was really quite grateful and hope to use the knowledge I am acquiring to help others in whatever way possible.

The end!

 

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