Moving On from Japan

From 2009-2011, life in Japan was going great!

I had a great girlfriend (she’ll get her own feature because there’s a lot of girl talk to breakdown there).

Workwise– I was in the zone. I was fulfilling my dreams. This begs the question –“Why didn’t you stay then?”– especially with how hard things were when I first came back.

Well, for me, it came down to a getting some extra responsibility. Spidey learned with great power comes great responsibility. I don’t know if I actually got any “power”, but the responsibility in my third year really changed how I saw everything.

I hinted in my podcast with Patrick Finn, but the game changer for me was taking on the role of Prefectural Advisor. At that time, the duties of the role involved:

  1. Counselling and consultation
  2. Provision of information necessary for JET participants’ daily lives
  3. Mediation and promotion of understanding between JET participant(s) and Contracting Organisation(s)
  4. Response to a crisis situation involving a JET participant
  5. Keeping and handling of records in relation to 1-4 above
  6. Outreach to JETs about the JET Programme counselling system
  7. Orientation at training seminars
  8. Promoting the formation of a self-help network for JET participants

(Apparently a lot of the counseling was removed as of 2014.)

Being PA made me feel like I was “moving up”– and this was big for a position were you couldn’t get a promotion. On top of my regular teaching schedule, I was now leading meetings and workshops. It was kind of like being a manager I guess, but with even more things to do!

Something that brought a lot of stress, but was ultimate very rewarding, was being on call for emergencies. I didn’t have to deal with any major natural disasters, but there were a couple of cases that really impacted me.

I got a call once from a school because someone was missing. In the process of finding said person and sorting it all out, I had to talk to both police and the embassy.

I had the “I’m not doing okay” call.

Having this extra responsibility– all of this weight— made me re-think what I’d been doing prior. I thought I was in the zone with teaching, but now I knew I was just in a bubble.

And now that bubble burst.

Before I started teaching, my buddy Chase told me that I was going to change lives. And before working as PA, I thought maybe, just maybe, I was on my way towards doing that. I know I started off incredibly ambitious– and my first year of teaching was very humbling. But I had the drive to keep going, to make it work! Eventually, I found my groove.

But the perspective of the PA had me shaking my head. After making calls to the embassy and making hospital visits, it was hard to go back to class to play Battleship.

The ultimate test of a person’s English ability is doing well on Eiken or TOEIC, two popular English exams. Being able to understand and use English in unstructured, free-flowing communication is not.

What was I really doing for these kids?

I helped them prepare for tests, but I wasn’t preparing them for life.

I had one student who lost his dad, but the very next day he was back in school. You couldn’t even tell he was suffering. I guess the normalcy of school was his coping mechanism. Back then, I thought I was doing my part to help contribute to that. Before, it was enough just to cultivate an environment where they could thrive in class.

The role of PA kicked my focus more and more to life outside of class.

In my last year, I had a student who collapsed from a heart condition. He would make a full recovery, but I made damn sure I saw him at the hospital.

Why didn’t I try to see the kid who lost his dad?

What more could I be doing for these kids?

Why can’t I be doing more?

I can’t…

This is no knock on any ALT who’s living up the teaching life now. I hope you are. I hope you bond with your kids. I hope you’re working in a way where you feel like you’re making a difference. To be effective in that instructor role, you have to believe in the system.

I just couldn’t make it work anymore. What I wanted to do and what I actually did weren’t syncing up. To do work that really helped others grow, while growing myself… that’s what I wanted.

It was an odd feeling because I had so much fire to do the JET Program. So much clarity. And now I had a calling for “something greater”, even though I had no clue what that looked like.

I did know, however, that sticking around as an ALT wasn’t going to do me or my students any good. They needed someone who could still believe in the dream. I felt bad in a way because the freshman I had in my last year were way more passionate. But the timing was just off.

The way the PA role opened my eyes– that’s the reason why I didn’t re-contract.


Published by Jon Dao

Formerly, the Conversation Coach

4 thoughts on “Moving On from Japan

  1. I ran into some burnout myself over some similar issues. After a year or two of realizing how few of your students are actually getting anything out of the famously ineffective English education system in Japanese public schools, it can be easy to lose that vigor you had in your first year, and instead grow more and more complacent and numb. Some ALTs stay long after that, so I salute you for dipping out once you knew your heart wasn’t in it anymore, and letting someone else have a chance to experience this wonderful, woeful work.

    1. Typing this out was a good reminder for me. I mean, the way I look at things now, it just goes to show how much I really believed in everything initially.

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