Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dear Diary: no class whine

(Disclaimer: This is an 'in the moment' rant written at work. The emotions expressed herein are indicative of a continued development in my life, yes, but they are not all-consuming of my life or thoughts or energies. If you don't want to hear me rant about my mood and perception of uselessness, then please don't read this post. On the other hand, I think it's written pretty well, so please read this post.)

It’s only slightly frustrating being a deadweight.

I got to work this morning actually excited to start my day. On Friday and the weekend, I had made the worksheet activity for my first class Monday morning, the same lesson to be repeated about 5 times throughout the next several school days. I was excited because I had a hint of the feeling that I could be an active participant in this whole ‘being an educator’ thing.

I made one worksheet last week that didn’t teach the grammar-point perfectly due to over-complexity and several formatting errors. It didn’t matter too much to me, though, because the kids had a fun time. Whether the activity today worked perfectly or not wouldn’t have mattered, either. What matters to me, after the kids having a bit of fun, is that I can learn to make lessons and activities that do work: I want to learn to contribute, learn to teach. Otherwise I will continue to feel as I have largely felt so far: like deadweight that the other teachers drag to class with them.

Well, I rushed to work this morning so I would have time to photocopy the worksheet. My shirt was still wrinkled and wet from yesterday’s wash. My rice and veggies were still cooking in the rice cooker, so I didn’t bring a lunch with me. I stuffed my stuff in my bag and walked out the door.

After my usual walk, subway, bus routine, by the time I was walking into the office, I had gotten over my nervousness and was only excited to try out the worksheet. However, as I opened the office door, an exiting teacher informed me hurriedly that my co-teacher for the class was ill and absent today. Another teacher would direct the class to work on preassigned materials and – unequivocally – there would be no need to team-teach the class.

Though I sidestepped personal offence at being so irrefutably dismissed, I wasn’t able to avoid the disappointment that followed my sudden uselessness. Suddenly, I had only one class scheduled for the day, in which I might speak five or ten sentences to the class. When I offered another teacher to help, on anything whatsoever, she politely and unhesitatingly declined. Just like last Thursday, when I knew the teachers would be there till 7 or 8pm marking English tests, and they still declined my offer to help, as I walked out the door at 5. Things like that make me feel moderately useless and unwanted, deadweight.

Now, I don’t define the worth of my whole existence on whether or not I can help mark tests, or whether I have one or two or three classes. And I don’t greatly desire remaining at work every day until 7 (or 8 or 10pm). Yet, a large part of my time every week is taken up pretending to be a teacher, and if you are what you do that creates an obvious potential for me to define my identity at least partly by that role. And so there is a tremor of cognitive dissonance when I am trying to define myself as a teacher, and all I feel like is a deadweight foreign-speaking clown who sits in the office and works on his meagre nihongo memorization every day.

As trivial as it might sound, and though friends who disdain work might disdain the following comment, I think I would be more at ease at work and happier with myself if I had a steady 3 or 4 classes a day. I think I would be happier if I was asked to contribute an activity or lesson idea with some regularity.

Life truly is unnerving for a public servant who is not serving. I think this is something you can only understand after coming to work for two months, having only one or two hours of constructive work each day, not being asked to help or contribute to anything else going on, and, what makes it all the harder, not being able to communicate at will with coworkers and alleviate these frustrations.

I have expressed that I would like to help more, learn to contribute more, and I am willing to work more. Usually they politely thank me, and we move on in the same fashion. It would be inappropriate to speak to them of my frustration, or even convey by my words or intonation or body language much negative emotion at all. This is hard, because I tend to function normally with my frustrations just behind the lines on my face and subtly worked into the stitching on my sleeve.

Now, my ‘constructive’ time is not entirely limited to the classroom. Before and after school, and in between classes, I roam the halls and chat with the kids. This might sound like, well, roaming, the opposite of hard work. Believe me, it is work. It takes not a small amount of creativity to think of something that will interest the kids, and make the effort of communicating worthwhile. And it truly is an effort. Sustained communication with such varying levels of comprehension can be extremely taxing and energy sapping. At times, I love it. And when we manage to successfully communicate on any topic at all, I am thrilled. Still, it is definitely tiring.

As I might have mentioned, I also eat lunch with the kids every day. I try to engage with the kids, but I definitely don’t demand that they talk. I feel this is a productive time even if we only manage to fit in five mutually intelligible sentences.

Other than that, the kids are in class or busy with activities every minute of the day, which means my raison d’etre ici, engaging with the kids, is unrealised for the vast majority of the minutes of the day.

I just don’t feel like I am worth the yen thrown my way, if this is all I do. More importantly, I don’t feel I am learning or being challenged as much as possible (or sometimes, at all). If I have a couple classes one day, and also chat with kids between every class, I will probably be exhausted by the end of the day. Even then, I’ll only feel fulfilled if I can actively contribute to the classes and feel useful to the other teachers, as well as engaging with the kids. If I have one class, and don’t see the kids that much, and feel like a deadweight carried by the staff, well, I just don’t feel like there’s much good in me being here.

Ok, I know: Patience!! I have told myself before that it takes time to become part of a team, especially when you don’t speak the same language. And I know it is my first teaching job, so I have to learn how to fit in with other teachers, and learn how to make useful and enjoyable lesson plans. And friends have wisely counselled me to shift my mindset, and enjoy the opportunity I have been given here. I get paid to interact with kids of a different culture, possibly expanding their purview as well as learning from them myself. And, even better, I get paid to spend a good amount of time each day working on my own interests, and refreshing my energy in my breaks. Said like that, it sounds like a pretty good deal. So, as overworked ALT friends at other schools have suggested, I should just enjoy the free time I’ve got while I’ve got it.

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