Why I Haven’t Been Blogging Lately

I don’t usually write about my actual job. I write this blog as a relief-valve from work. I’ve also had delusions of trying to turn it into a side project that might be an escape hatch if everything at my day job goes to shit.[1] This post is going to be an exception to my general policy of separation.

A few years ago, I wrote about Japanese working conditions. I deliberately avoided details about my job because I wanted it to be more general to the working situations of both foreigners and Japanese in Japan than my particular circumstances.

I was originally hired to work at this private high school as a non-Japanese teacher who could function at a high level in Japanese, and who could be trusted with enough responsibility to be effectively autonomous — unlike typical ALTs who don’t speak much Japanese and have little to no education-specific training or experience. As such, I expected to be given more responsibility and a bit more work over time.

When I wrote that, I had a combined total of 12 classes at middle school and high school, spanning 3 types of lessons. A solidly busy schedule, but not a horrible one. Last year, my course load had been increased to 17 class hours, with 7 different types of lessons.

I had so much to do during busy periods that I often wouldn’t leave for home until 7:30 or 8:00 PM, and I occasionally had to bring work home with me. There were nights where I actually finished for the night at 10:00 or 11:00 PM. Even compared to the Japanese teachers, my workload was exceptionally heavy.

I didn’t have time or energy for doing anything outside of work. No matter how efficient I tried to make my workflows, or how many extraneous tasks I tried to shed, I barely had time or energy for my family. My stress levels were so bad that my last physical had me at an E when my normal grade is a B.[2]

First, Establish a Baseline

It takes me an average of 2 hours to prepare plans and materials for a class of each type, in addition to the actual class time. It usually takes 1 hour to correct and enter a basic assignment for each class. This could be much longer if the assignment requires thought or detailed correction, like checking paragraph-length or longer writing.

Writing class notes so I can keep track of what happened in the last class, making copies, and doing other administration might take 20–30 minutes per class. Independent of other school duties, I have a solid workload of roughly 34–36 hours if I have 10–12 regular classes like I did when I wrote that piece.

Second term (September to December) is the busiest. I’ve been tasked with inputting the surveys we distribute to prospective students and parents at recruitment events for the last several years. The single Open School event usually nets 1,000–1,500 forms, and each intake explanation meeting between 400 and 700. Entering data and generating charts and reports adds between 5 and 10 hours of total work for each event. I’m usually also required to work a full day for the events, which are always held on national holidays or Sundays.

Tests add roughly 5 hours per class type for preparation: planning; creating the paper test; scripting, recording, and editing audio; creating an answer and explanation sheet to be passed back with the corrected test. Grading tests usually takes 2 hours per class. That extra 15 hours for test prep would need to be shoehorned in whenever I wasn’t doing regular class prep, teaching, grading assignments, or entering surveys.

For the math-impaired, a minimum week during second term, with just base duties for about 10 classes — no time-wasting bullshit or extra days of work — is 47–50 hours, and I’m required to be at school 6 days a week. We get the second Saturday each month off, in theory. Sometimes, those end up being required work days too.

Also note that this is work time — time I need to be actually doing something and making progress on it, or teaching class — it is not simply desk time or time at work. This does not include meal times, bathroom breaks, or anything extraneous. Actual time-at-work is therefore at least 1.5–2 hours per day longer than logged work time. Just transit class-to-class takes up a total of more than 30 minutes during a typical day.

Next, Add Work Until Subject Shows Signs of Distress

At the beginning of the school year in 2013, we got a new principal (this happens every 3–5 years at most Japanese schools) and my classes changed radically. I had to create a new curriculum for all of my high school classes. I went from teaching 3 class types to 8. The number of classes at high school went down from 12 to 6, but my actual workload more than doubled because every single class required new material or planning.

I went from teaching all first-year students to teaching the “sports” classes exclusively, which are made up of students who normally wouldn’t have passed the entrance requirements. Their motivation is truly abysmal since they are not academically inclined to start with, and know that they are there essentially to fill a desk during school hours and participate in whatever sport they were recruited for after school. As far as I am aware, there is no academic requirement for eligibility to participate in sports in Japan, as there is in the US. These students don’t care, and don’t care about letting you know that they don’t care.

Not only did that murder my motivation over time, but it didn’t benefit the school one iota. In my not-very-humble opinion, the main reasons to have a native English speaker teaching are to provide students with exposure to real English, and to catch problems or common errors in English that even competent non-native speakers won’t. Neither of these roles are of any benefit for low-level students. I would have been vastly more useful teaching intermediate to advanced students.

I also went from teaching by myself to having to teach with Japanese teachers again. This resulted in both a loss of autonomy, and even more time spent in planning and meeting with several different teachers. I often had to adjust plans or create completely new material based on what each teacher wanted to focus on. Instead of three bosses (principal, head teacher, English dept. head) I effectively had nine bosses (6 Japanese teachers, plus admin officers).

Finally, Try Not to Kill Subject

Several years ago, the trustees invested in building a middle school that feeds students into the high school. Every year beginning in 2012 I’ve had those classes added to my high school workload.

My curriculum was entirely outside the regular classes and I had to create or adapt all plans and materials myself, essentially writing my own textbook. This is not a completely new thing; I’ve been compelled to work without a textbook for most of the time I’ve been at this school. Initially, I was teaching the same class every year to all first-year high school students, so after that first year all I had to do was polish and adjust things that didn’t work well the first time around.

With middle school added to my plate, I have had to spend a huge amount of time planning and making materials every single year. I was creating the curriculum for each class as I taught it, which meant that I’ve been chronically short of time for years now.

I’ve never had more than a couple of months warning about these massive changes before they happen. Getting actual details about anything in Japan is like pulling proverbial teeth. Direct questions are a waste of breath.

I’ve learned that it takes an average of 4–5 hours per class to prepare everything from scratch, and I have to spend at least a little time revising previously-created material and changing plans for the next year based on class notes about what did and didn’t work.

Last year, the first class of middle-schoolers entered high school. The appeal of the middle school is that the curriculum is “advanced”; the pace is faster and the material is more ambitious. This theme continues with the high school courses for these integrated students. Again, I was in charge of creating a new curriculum for my classes, and again I had no textbook.

Last academic year, I also asked to not teach the sports classes exclusively anymore. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake. I went from teaching 6 classes of 6 types to 11 classes of 3 types for the high school classes. On paper, that looks like a win, but in reality that meant: Oh, look, new curriculum!

And again, I had to schedule time for meeting (or even worse not meeting) with several teachers to try and plan classes. This was in addition to the middle school classes and the very high-pressure time-intensive planning needed for the new class of integrated first-year students.

Seventeen class hours, plus planning 3 sets of new curriculum with 6 different teachers, plus creating a whole new curriculum for academically advanced students on my own, equaled unbelievable work and stress. My base work ratcheted up to over 50 hours.

Surveys easily added another 10 hours per week. Tests still took roughly 5 hours per class type, with 8 classes to plan for, so basically an entire work-week on top of regular duties. To make things even more complicated, the schedules for middle school and high school are different, so test prep and grading at one school overlaps with regular classes at the other school, extending a busy week or two into a busy month or two. I routinely worked 60–70 hour weeks from September to December. That doesn’t count the several holidays I am usually required to work during this period, which meant that I had no days off for up to 2 weeks at a time.

That also doesn’t count the club activities that teachers are assigned to supervise. I ended up having to cancel more than half of the practices for the fitness club[3] from the second term on, since I was informed that the students weren’t allowed to use the weights without my direct supervision.[4] When it came down to a conflict between class preparation and club, class had to win every time. I had to reorganize the English club so that the students were mostly running things themselves when one of the other teachers who were nominally co-chair with me couldn’t cover the meetings.

Subject Realizes Experimenters Are All @$$Holes, and What’s With All the Electrified #&¢*ing Floors?!

I haven’t been able to blog at all since around October last year because of being overworked so heavily.[5] It was so bad that I spent over a week preparing for the end-of-year interview with the principal that all teachers have to do as part of their evaluations.

I explained the situation in detail and negotiated aggressively for some changes to my class load and other duties, and — what the hell — I even threw in a request for a raise since I haven’t had one in 8 years, as well as a longer contract period. I’m still on a yearly contract like a temporary employee or ALT, despite promises that I would eventually be brought in as a regular full-time teacher. I saw no real downside to getting fired at that point.

No joy on the raise, with the excuse given that I make more money than the standard ALT (but I do twice the work) and am not a fully qualified teacher in Japan (because the promised training and support for doing so never materialized). The contract period is “under consideration”, but my class load has become slightly more reasonable.[6]

I may not be able to make blogging a paying consideration, but you bet your ass I’m going to be working on side projects that might be a lifeline because, even with the slight concessions I’ve won, this situation is looking increasingly untenable.

My outlook on working in education in Japan has been dim for a while. The lot of any non-Japanese working in any field is always a bit precarious, but particularly in education where declining enrollment due to demographics continue to make the situation worse. There’s also next to no chance of professional development or continuing education to allow you to transfer to a different field since you work all the time and there’s absolutely no tradition of continuing education for teachers in Japan, for either Japanese or foreign teachers.

I have been working on annual contracts for the whole time I’ve been here, which is (unfortunately) standard for teaching jobs in Japan, whether you’re working for an eikaiwa company or have a serious full-time position at a college or university. Since I’ve become somewhat troublesome by actually pushing back a bit, who knows if I’ll be offered a new longer contract next year, or if they’ll just decide I’m not worth it any more.

I have no choice but to act as if I’ll be unemployed at the end of next March. This has always been true, and has been a perennial source of stress, but it is marginally more likely due to recent circumstances. That is, after all, one of the reasons I started writing this blog way back in 2009.

  1. Since I’m currently making approximately -$100 on this blog (hosting costs) that’s going really well.  ↩

  2. You’d think that since I work out seriously enough that I have an opinion on form, wrote an iOS workflow to log my workouts, and am moderately careful with my diet I’d be an A, but I have gotten routinely dinged for three things that are outside the norm for Japan:

    BMI. When I have time to have a life, I normally do serious CrossFit-style workouts at least 4 days a week and have body fat levels in the low teens to single digits, if I’m watching my intake well enough. My “ideal” weight by Japanese standards is supposed to be 67.0kg (148 lbs). I haven’t weighed that little since I was a scrawny 14-year-old, about 2 inches shorter than I am now.

    Creatinine. This is a waste product linked to muscle metabolism; if you have more muscle, your levels will tend to be higher. Acceptable levels in Japan are up to 1.0. My results are usually 1.2 mg/dL. In the US an acceptable range is up to 1.5.

    Hematocrit. Athletes tend to have a higher baseline than the norm, and testosterone levels affect this also. My readings are higher than the top end acceptable in Japan, but within limits in the US.

    I also got a note on my file once about bradycardia when my resting heart rate was under 50 bpm. I’d love to get that note annually 😝. ↩

  3. I started a fitness club after my first couple of years here, partially out of a selfish desire to do something that I controlled if I was going to have to put in time after school, partially so I could carve out time to exercise so I didn’t get fat and out of shape again, and partially so I could get some experience coaching. Yeah, that side-line hasn’t gone anywhere either.  ↩

  4. Even though the students for most of the other clubs like baseball, judo, and American football were routinely in the weight room with no teacher in sight virtually every day I was there with my club kids.  ↩

  5. It’s slightly improved this year, but not much better. For example, the first draft of this post took about 2 weeks to bang out when I had time and motivation, and has been awaiting a final proofing pass before publishing for over 6 weeks 2 months.  ↩

  6. Sort of. I still had a new curriculum to plan, and 10 classes worth of student papers to correct. For added “fun”, 6 of the 10 tests were scheduled on the last day, giving me a very conservatively estimated 18 hours of work to get finished in 24 hours. While still teaching 2 classes at the middle school in that time period. Doable? Only if you don’t need to take care of human needs like sleep, rest, food, or bathroom breaks.

    One of the teachers took over writing the paper portion and correcting the test for our class for the second year integrated students. If she hadn’t, there’s no way I would have been able to complete correcting all of the tests in time.

    Yes, I had a nice couple of conversations with the people involved in scheduling, but I have no doubt I will be hammered with unreasonable expectations again despite that. ↩