One early morning in March 2020, I was on my way to our Sakata School to interview Chris about his five years at MY which, unfortunately, were coming to a close. It was bitterly cold outside, snowing so hard that I had to drive 20 km/h just so I could see 20 meters ahead. It was a Monday, an official day off, I was just getting over a small cold that I had for a good while, so with all the factors combined I think it’s needless to say, I did not want to be at the school. I would much rather lie down and degenerate under my fluffy blanket with a smartphone in my hands looking at owl pictures and memes.
I opened the door of the school with a fair few filthy words directed at the weather and saw Chris looking pensively at a massive cardboard box with a picture of a bookshelf on it. After greeting Chris, I inquired about the box in my customary expletive manner, and he simply shrugged and said: “I figured we needed some more space to store the new Extensive Reading books that we’ll purchase later this year”. The notion surprised me. Why, I wondered, was someone that was leaving their workplace for a new exciting adventure bother themselves with prospects for the future of their previous place of employment? Regardless, while I was setting up, Chris unpacked the box and the conversation began.
Chris has a rich experience of living and working in Japan. He used to be an ALT working for a dispatch company for five years before joining MY. “There was little opportunity for professional growth outside the classroom”, said Chris while glancing at the incomprehensibly Swedish manual, figuring out how to put the bloody thing together, “I did two years of off-site kindergarten lessons and received no training on how to do it at all”. After getting tired of not having any fun or opportunities to grow, Chris moved to MY in 2015. A former employee of MY, Pat Conaway, who later moved on to teach at a university, remembers Chris’ first days at MY. “Chris used a lot of songs with his Finding Out classes”, Pat said. “Up until then almost everyone ignored the music CD with Finding Out, but after he demoed using songs with Finding Out activities other teachers started using the songs too”.
Even as a new teacher, Chris was able to change his far more senior co-workers’ attitudes towards songs in the book, starting as he meant to go forward at MY. “When Chris first started, he was still a very fresh teacher despite having worked as an ALT for a couple years before joining MY”, says Melissa Ng, the former head of the Professional Development team and the current manager of the Kansai schools. “However, he made a solid effort to get advice from veteran teachers and attend professional development events, such as PanSIG and ETJ”.
Chris’ drive for professional development organically led him to joining the Professional Development team at MY in 2016. “I wanted to grow as a person”, said Chris. “The job was challenging and yet I enjoyed the nice, friendly atmosphere and the autonomy it gave me”, said he while putting two pieces of the shelf together. Melissa also recalled that with time, Chris started to take on other leadership responsibilities at MY by actively creating better connections with the local communities, teaching lessons at community centers which eventually led to the opening of our Tsuruoka school. Ryan Hagglund, the CEO of MY, mentions that he appreciated not only Chris’ leadership skills, but also his honesty. “One thing I always appreciated about Chris was that he wasn’t afraid to tell me his thoughts on things”, said he. “I remember one time when after a conversation we had, he felt a little discouraged by something I had said. He contacted me later in the day to talk and let me know how he had felt after our conversation. This honesty and willingness to tell me how he viewed things was invaluable”.
Chris’ ability to be honest about everything was in fact, one of the first things I noticed about him. I joined the PD team the year Chris took over the role after Melissa went to Kansai to manage our schools there. During one of the weekly meetings, he criticized a staff member’s work attitude, which I thought was fair at the time. However, a week later Chris apologized for saying those words “because it’s unfair to criticize someone when they are not there to defend themselves”, and I realized that he was absolutely right, that his words were wrong, but because he admitted to being wrong first I did not feel upset at him. Myself being still somewhat a child in the world of adults, felt shocked by his accountability and willingness to accept the blame even if no one was pointing their fingers at him.
Looking at the mostly assembled shelf, Chris moved onto sharing his future plans with me. “From April, I am planning to study computer science for two years and work as a part-time English teacher”, said he while putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece. He was excited to move on to his new adventure but he shared how grateful he was for the experiences he got while at MY. “I acquired leadership skills and an appreciation for time management and planning”, indeed, skills that are essential for the leader of the PD team.
Looking back, Chris was quite content with his work at MY, but “long drives to Nairiku royally sucked”, chuckled he. In the world of ass-kissers, Chris was a refreshing tool of brutal honesty mixed with a dazzle of the good old British sense of humour. “I also appreciate Chris’s sense of humor”, added Ryan. “His wife was apparently surprised by it, however. One time he and I were talking on the phone while he was driving with his wife. After the conversation, his wife apparently chastised him saying, ‘You talk to your boss like that? You might get fired!’” Chris is a serious educator, but I’m also glad for his sense of humor”, concluded Ryan.
Chris took a step back to admire his completed bookshelf and after a contented smile, I watched him stroll away to do yet another chore. I suddenly came to a realization that Chris’ behaviour made perfect sense. That is what he did. He cared about things, even if it was not “his job” per se. I have heard the “it’s not my responsibility” line so much that if I got paid a dollar for it I’d be the richest person in Japan. Apathetic, passive people plague everyone around them with their conscious decision not to act. Negativity spreads around way faster than positivity, and people that give in to apathy destroy companies, societies, countries, and the world in the end.
Chris though is different. His empathy, genuine care for people and ability to see situations from everyone else’s point of view and ability to admit his wrongdoings, made him extremely easy to get along with. For MY, Chris leaving was, dare I say it, a huge loss, but whichever path he chose afterwards, whichever employer he works for now, has gained a tremendous amount of professional attitude and enthusiasm. As the current leader of the Professional Development team, I understand that filling Chris’ shoes is a monumentally difficult task, but having had him as my example of how to lead with compassion and love, I hope that one day I will deserve the kind words that people still remember Chris with.