I shall have to watch what I say in this one. Loose lips, and all that.
Well, term has started, and all of my ALT friends are back in the classroom. Not me though. I am still in city hall, struggling to fill my days. Why? Well, things have been, and continue to be, very hectic here in the board of education. In March there were six junior high schools, three big (>200 students) and three small (<100). As of this month, there are only three, with each small one being assimilated into its nearest mother-school. Last week we had an official ceremony to dedicate the shiny new school buses that will shuttle the displaced youngsters to their new place of learning. For some reason, the buses are deepest flamingo pink.
The reason for this restructuring would appear to be depopulation. As you may know, the population of Japan has peaked, dropping by 0.6% in 2008. The cities are still growing, masking a much sharper depopulation in rural areas like mine. Yamagata's population is falling at a shocking annual rate of 8.5%, the sixth fastest of the 47 prefectures. Spare a thought for our neighbour Akita, number one at 11.4%.
So, the schools were operating way under capacity. I can't really argue with the economic rationale behind the move - my smallest school before the merge had just 38 students (and the biggest class just graduated), which doesn't really justify the all the teachers, admin, janitors and other support staff required to keep it running. Being a resource that can only be in one place at a time myself, I can be used more efficiently by three schools than I can by six.
However, I am very sad to see the small schools go. They had a really nice atmosphere, and on average, their students were better at English. Small classes mean more individual attention, which in turn results in happier, higher-performing kids. And small classes are more enjoyable to teach, as you can do activities with 15 students that would never work with 30. One of my big schools would sometimes split classes into two for English lessons, so I'm hoping that more of that will happen this year.
So, as you can imagine, the logistical challenge of pulling off these three simultaneous mergers has kept Nanyo's civil servants on their toes. Understandably, sorting out a schedule for the ALT was not high on the list of priorities for the transition. Consequently, I have no schedule until the beginning of May. That's right, I will do zero teaching for the whole month of April. However, I am still expected to show up at work every day. This is a little frustrating.
One of the toughest things about this job is how little work one has at times. I'm not joking; having nothing to do really does drive you crazy after a while. It's tough to keep your morale up when every day represents a waste of both your time and Japanese taxpayers' money. To any other ALT reading this who finds themself in a similar position, I would advise you to think of yourself as a USB port. Ports are useful to have even if you don't have things plugged into them at all times. Your contracting organisation is paying to have the option of using you. To keep myself sane, I've managed to settle into a routine of writing lots of emails and text messages (when these communications are in Japanese they become valuable time-killers indeed), blogging, studying kanji, and reading whatever takes my fancy for the day on the internet.
It's really not so bad though. This time last year I was working my gonads off for no money; the inverse arrangement is infinitely preferable.