Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Abuses of Power
Back in June, I mentioned that my successor's successor had contacted me to get information about Mukaiyama SHS, where he would be teaching, (and presumably where he now is teaching at this moment.) At the time, I just thought the school hadn't given my successor his contact information yet, in one of those typical Japanese trickle-down information jam-ups. Now I know the whole story, though, and it really annoys me.

Here's what happened. Apparently, my successor never really got over the low point of culture shock where you find youself hating everything, before you begin the climb back up to some sort of acclimation. I kind of had a feeling she was going to have some shock in adjustment after reading her JET application essay. (Little known tidbit for future JETs: Everyone in the English department of your school, and probably any other teacher who can read English, will have seen your JET application. The whole thing. Essay, medical form, school history, everything.) However, I figured she was just making herself sound as impressive and gung-ho about her past teaching experiences as she could in her essay in order to make a good impression, and maybe her adjustment wouldn't be that hard. My first clue that this was not so was when she contacted me to complain about the quality of all the furnishings I had left behind for her, and demand that I reduce the price I was charging her for basically an entirely furnished apartment. (Note that I arrived to no bed, 1 pot, 1 pan, and 3 mismatched plastic plates.) I reduced the price, she eventually paid me, and I didn't really think much about her after that.

Through the first half of the school year there, I heard a few things here and there from D. whenever she ran into her. At the welcoming conference, the report was that she dressed skimpily and smoked too much. When they worked the intensive high school English camp together, she apparently accused me of having stolen the shelves out of the refrigerator and taken them back the US. (D. kindly pointed out to her that it had never had any shelves to begin with, and what could I have wanted them for anyway?) She was unpleasant to S., etc. Basically, my interpretation was that she never got over the fact that Japan was not like England, except with Japanese people. A shock, I'm sure.

[Above paragraph edited 9/30/04 for further anonymity.]

Now I've found out, though, that the reason I didn't really hear anything about her during the second half of the year is that she never went back to school after graduation in March. JET contracts run basically August-end of July, so that's pretty much 5 months of not working. She was still in Japan, though, and still technically a JET, because she was on "sick leave" for faking a mental breakdown. So that amounts to 5 months of getting paid a very handsome salary to sit around in an exotic foreign location and hang out at bars and soccer tournaments with her friends.

Whether the school knew she was faking or not is immaterial. They would have been within their rights in any case to cancel her contract and send her home. As I remember from the JET manual, they probably even could have charged her money for not completing her duties. But the fact is that schools in Japan are notoriously unwilling to terminate a contract, no matter how bad a JET is, and many of them are extremely tentative about refusing someone a chance to renew for a second year. Unfortunately, this means that some people choose to take advantage of them, and therefore the program.

JETs may complain about their teaching duties or the schools they work at, but if you really stop to think about it, the JET program is perhaps the most successful EFL supplemental education program in existence. Nothing on nearly such a national scale is in place in any other country that I know of. For all that Japanese high schoolers do not leave school speaking marvelous English, they do leave school having actually met and had instruction from a foreign teacher, which I have no doubt has a much bigger impact on their lives and education than we in the far more culturally diverse countries of the world can imagine. The biggest thing about the JET program is, I think, that it shows the Japanese government is actually trying. It has put a broad scale educational reform into place, and followed up on it full force. It has flaws, but they did it.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that JET stands for Japan Exchange & Teaching. It is an exchange program. The program is being more than generous to provide an opportunity for young adults from all over the world to come and live, work, experience life in another country in a very independent way, and be paid well for it. Most other exchange programs pay the barest of stipends for the same amount of work. What JET gives its participants is much more than it is in any way required to by the standards of other programs, most of which came into being after JET was established anyway. The problem is when people start to think they are entitled to perfection, that the program should be grateful to them that they even deigned to apply, and that their schools should allow them to do whatever they want, for as long as they want, until they feel like going home.

Being a participant on the JET program is a privilege. It is a highly selective program that is trying to fulfill the educational goals of a nation while offering very nice benefits to the teachers willing to go. When a person is accepted to the program, the person enters into a contract which states that for those benefits, s/he will do their best at what is, in the end, a rather easy job with little real accountability. The program cannot work if the participants do not do their share, and it will surely fail if the participants seek only to take advantage of it.

It is tempting, once one is in Japan, to think that the experience is all about oneself. Why did I come to Japan? What am I going to get out of it? How do I feel right now? How is life here treating me? It is easy to feel a sense of isolation in a workplace where one is most definitely the minority, and in that isolation, easy to forget that all those Japanese people are also being affected by you. The JET program is a two-way street. It offers ALTs an opportunity to go to Japan, but it brings the ALTs to Japan to give its own teachers and students a richer opportunity to learn.

It angers me 1) that anyone would seek to take such advantage of a program like this, and 2) that I was succeeded in Japan by such a person. I cannot help but think that her actions have tainted whatever legacy I might have left there myself. I tried my best, and I loved my schools, and they did not deserve her.

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