My life with my predecessor

As always, this is a cross post from my personal blog, Scooter vs Japan. I try to post my most applicable thoughts here on JET Coaster, but more personal and interesting topics can be found on my personal blog.

It’s finally come. I am finally alone.

I should back up a moment to explain. My predecessor, C, is an old university friend of mine. We were in the same Japanese classes together and studied and worked together often. He was offered a job with the town, and is thus staying in town following the completion of his JET contract. He’s been working alongside me for the last two months until Oct 1, when he started his new job.

All you jealous JETs are probably thinking, “Wow! You’re so lucky! I wish I could have bee trained with my predecessor.” But that’s not really the case. I can only describe my feelings about this as a pleasant miasma of oppression. I’m friends with C, and it is really nice having another foreigner in town. And I loved having someone to train me and help me along while I got settled. But working along side him for the last two months has been both a blessing and a curse.

The Good

That young feller is so kind and helpful.

Working alongside your predecessor is really cool. Not only can they help you learn the lay of the land, but they can walk you through your job. I worked alongside C, bouncing ideas off of him, comparing lesson plans, and actually team teaching with him. C left me a wealth of knowledge in his old lesson plans, materials, and such, but was also able to explain what everything was.

The other day, he was going through the ALT’s desk at the elementary school, and he explained how a number of the flashcards were used and even who made them. Instead of just finding them after he was long gone, I know how I can use them, both following the plans of ALTs past as well as well as coming up with my own uses. It’s like sitting on a warm seat, provided that kind of thing doesn’t freak you out.

We also talked about the history of the town and it’s previous JETs. I feel like I’m part of a legacy while also being in touch with it. C succeeded his pred, W, who also stayed over to train him, and has been in loose contact with another previous local JET. Being the town’s JET is suddenly more real that I thought and I can appreciate the history a bit more.

Linguistically, C has been amazing. Since he’s been here for the last 5 years, his Japanese has improved greatly while mine atrophied in menial jobs in Canada. He has been by my side to help me open my bank account, help with the initial call from my internet provider, and translating during the process of buying my car. Since I live in such a small town, few people here know more than a trivial amount of English, so having him by my side has been a tremendous help in meeting people and getting things done.

Lastly, as I mentioned above, having someone else here has been great. I know someone if I’m feeling down who lives feet away from me. If I need help with my garbage sorting or recycling, help is just a text message away. I can talk with him about movies, dating, foreign residence, and other topics that might be too hard or awkward with a co-worker or other resident.

The Bad

Me after a few weeks at work.

While a lot of good has come from my pred working with me, not everything was sunshine and rainbows. I left university with a complete breakdown, and spent years struggling to get back my independence, medically, emotionally, and psychologically. Having C around, telling me what to do, has been insanely frustrating. I finally go to a point where I was ready to be dependent again, only to have to surrender that at times.

I needed C there to help open my bank account. I needed him to translate the call from my internet provider. I needed him to translate the car buying process. I needed him to introduce me to people. It was maddening to have to rely on him for everything. But it didn’t just stop there.

At time, I came to rely on him for everything. I need groceries. Can you drive me there after work? I need something for my house. Can you drive me to the city? No? Well, I guess I’m staying home then. Stuff like that. It was so difficult getting settled that I started leaning heard on my pred for almost everything.

I think the worst was when I needed to buy some rubbing alcohol. One of my toes split along the bendy-fold and wasn’t healing over right. After a few days, I knew I needed to find a drug store so I could get some proper medical supplies. Not that there is anything embarrassing or concerning about, but I lied to him about needing to go anywhere after work just so I could go there myself and be alone. It seems so stupid now, but this was driving me mental. I didn’t want to talk to him about this. I didn’t want to tell him that I might have an infected or troublesome cut. And I didn’t want him to look after me. I wanted to buy the damn rubbing alcohol myself, and I wanted to do it on my own terms and at my own leisure.

Life problems aside, I also felt that my job growth was stunted. It was almost a battle to get him to start relinquishing control in my job over to me, and that control really didn’t fully pass until he started his new job. It was more like I was his assistant than his replacement. But it wasn’t just us. While one of the teachers at the main school started coming to me more and more, the other kept going to him first. He was still the ALT, and it was really confusing where I fit into all of this.

The Ugly

Where does this guy buy his pants?

This is where things get weird. I don’t mean to badmouth him, but I need to call this out. C was a shitty teacher.

Maybe this is a consequence of being a 5-year JET. Maybe it’s a consequence of our different backgrounds. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to be a teacher. I don’t know. But it meant the result was that he really wasn’t that good at his job. He didn’t innovate. He didn’t push for better lessons in the class. He picked favorites among the teachers and gave the cold shoulder to everyone else. He didn’t take on new teaching responsibilities (he did do other things for the town though).

And what’s worse? Everyone loves him. He’s the superstar of the town and he didn’t really do anything. He openly told me that he just gave up a few years ago and did little to push the job forwards. Yet everyone things he is amazing. And here I am, trying to put the students first and improve their language skills, trying to work with my JTEs and other teachers, and trying to build new bonds, and it’s not going well.

Another annoyance was over a semi-private lesson we were teaching in order to prep some students for a week long trip to our sister town. They were having trouble with a presentation they will be giving and the teacher asked if we could help out one more time to get them ready. When the time came, C tried to blow them. Like, literally blow them off. Something to the effect of saying “let them fend for themselves.” I insisted that I wanted to go and help them, because a few hours could really help these kids and change their experience. He agreed and it went well, but it was frustrating that he was ready to dump this the second his obligation was finished (but a few days before his ALT job ended).

Finally, there was a lot of passive aggression going on. He would baby me at times, doing things like telling me how to behave or how to dress (not that I was actually doing anything wrong). He even had the gull to ask me why I felt the need to use and ask people about Japanese sign language, something that is unique and rather important to me.

Moving forward

First thing was to take a deep breathe. I have to take the good with the bad. For some of the dickery, I know that he was just trying to help. For the poor performance, I get that he isn’t on a teaching track like I am and maybe just got tired of the job. Further what’s important now is that I’m here and I’m free to approach my job how I want. I’m free to make my own relationships with my teachers and free to try and build better lessons.

I started my approaching some of the classes differently. Instead of using flashcards to teach shapes, I also got the students to draw them. They were in kindergarten, so it was pretty brutal, but by varying the activities, I can better present the material and do so in my own way. I can build on this and try and bring new ideas into my other classes.

One thing I want to push for is more time in different classes, part of which is something C can actually help with. I teach more classes in high school than anywhere else, yet am only there once a week. In C’s new job, his first assignment was to brainstorm ideas on making the high school more prestigious and improving the English content. I suggested, in the future, hiring a second ALT, thus allowing one to work in the various high school classes while freeing up the other to work more closely with another seldom visited school. He completely agreed, and we might be able to work together on that and other proposals in the future.

I also want to start approaching my schools in different ways. One thing I’d like to do is sit in on a class for the entire day, aside from my teaching time. I’d like to know how a Japanese classroom ticks and what other teachers in other subjects do. I also want to see what life for a Japanese student is like and how I can use that to build new activities and opportunities for them.

On the heels of a JET survey about free time, I want to start exploring what else I can do between classes. I mentioned to one of the administrative staff about putting together super short English lessons that I can teach in the office between classes or as teacher have a few moments of free time. She liked it and wanted to know that that day’s lesson was.

Lastly, I want to push for a greater role in the classroom. One of the teachers already asks me to help mark for her (which is awesome). I want to find ways to build on that while also presenting new content in the classroom. I also want to meet some of the single-student classes and maybe visit them once every few weeks. They are learning English too, and being in a special needs class shouldn’t rob them of that experience.

In my predecessor’s absence, I am finally free to approach my job the way I want to, and that’s not a bad thing. He put in a lot of time and paid his dues, but now it’s my turn. Maybe I’ll do a good job, maybe I won’t. But now it’s my time to try.

What did you learn?

I’m not really sure why this picture is here.

So while the thought of having your predecessor working with you might sound kind of amazing, it comes with some strings attached. There are good and bad things that went with it, and I’m not sure which way I would have preferred. I definitely appreciate all the work he’s put in and help he’s given, but the experience wasn’t entirely positive. When my time comes, I’d certainly like to stay and help, but I’m not sure if I would do it for as long, or if my successor won’t end up having the same feelings. You’ll never run if someone is always holding your hand, regardless of how much you may want that.

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