Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

Omake #2: Teachers in Japan are constantly shuffled around

on April 5, 2012

Disclaimer:  I am not any sort of researcher, and don’t have access to any actual numbers or statistics.  The facts I am about to share are simply what I’ve heard and experienced during my 2 years being involved with the Japanese Public Education System.  Take them with a grain of salt.

Public teachers in Japan work in a very different way than ones in the US do.  By this I mean to say, how they are used and how their jobs are decided is very different, and largely out of their control. 

I’m not going to talk about teaching methods or what goes on in the classroom, but rather the administrative side of things.

As far as I know, Japanese teachers still have to be certified to work in public schools.  I recently heard from a teacher on my boyfriend’s island that they have to renew their license every 10 years by taking some number of set-hours week long course.  My boyfriend’s mother, a public school teacher in Portland, Oregon, said that for her, they have to renew their licenses every 3 years.  How they do it, I don’t remember catching the details of.

In the US, prospective teachers must complete a semester long student teaching practicum, where they are often left to “sink or swim” as the main teacher.  In other cases they may teach some of the time, and be supervised and helped by the certified teacher they’re paired with.  I don’t know much about this – I’m sure there are a lot of other potential ways student teachers are used (or not used).

In Japan, as far as I can tell, there’s a student teaching period that happens while you’re still in college, at about the junior year, as opposed to at the very end of your studies.  It’s only for so many weeks, not an entire semester.  How many weeks exactly I’m not sure.  Instead of this being the ticket to getting your teaching license, a (nation-wide?) exam determines whether or not you’re in.  Japan certainly loves their tests.

Okay, so assuming you’ve been certified to teach.  You’re placed at a school, which is generally in a certain area you live in or want to work in.  Here on my islands, the area consists of the local islands, plus a large city on mainland Shikoku that is an important port area and connection with the local islands.

You’re at a school.  You’re assigned to a class.  I’m not clear how much of it is teachers preferences and how much of it is pure administration telling you what to do in terms of what grade level you teach.  This is assuming an elementary school environment.

Now, unlike how in the US where you can stay at a school as long as you like, provided you’re not fired or choose to leave of your own will for whatever reason, in Japan your days at your school are numbered. 

Generally teachers are at a school for 3 years and then they are transferred somewhere else.  There are exceptions to this rule.  Some people, if they have the right connections, or circumstances dictate it for whatever reason, can stay longer than 3 years.  Some teachers are “temporary” teachers and only work on 1-year contracts.

Side note, there are no substitute teachers in Japan.  NONE.  Well, okay, if a woman goes on maternity leave, they will sometimes hire a temporary teacher in her place to take over.  However, generally, if teachers are sick, or have a conference to go to, or whatever, other teachers cover for them.  Sometimes even the Vice Principal steps in! 

Actually, it’s not uncommon to have the Vice Principal teach from time to time without having to substitute for someone else.

The reason teachers are moved around every 3 years is under the assumption of educational equality, in that, Japan wants to make sure no school hordes the good teachers, but that all the talent (or lack of talent) gets spread around.

Now, what my boyfriend find preposterous about this system is the way that teachers are treated, in a sense, like cattle.  That is to say, teachers are told whether or not they will be transferred to another school ONE-TWO weeks before they must move.  This means uprooting their whole life to move somewhere else.  Sometimes teachers are lucky and can stay where they are and commute; sometimes they move into the special teacher’s apartments at their new location.  If they have a spouse or family, depending on the circumstances, they might either uproot their family, or leave their family behind for several years and just visit them on weekends.

So, a teacher being told, “you’re going to this other school now” must get all their affairs together in a week.  This includes going to goodbye parties, paying their respects at the Board of Education office, as well as changing their address, utilities, and of course, packing up all their things.

THEN, they have ONE WEEK to settle into their new school before the school semester starts.

Not only that, but they are told what grade level (elementary school) or what subject (middle school) they will be teaching, also at this time, just one week before the semester begins.  This is the case for the teachers remaining in the schools as well.  No one knows what class or subjects exactly they’ll be teaching until a week prior.  Then they have that one week to rush around and gather materials and get their desks and files and plans in order.

Right now is exactly that time period.  Japan’s school year runs from April to March.  Teachers were told during the last week of school (2nd to last week in March) whether they were staying or going.  Now, during the first week of April, teachers have just been told what they will be teaching.  School starts next week, April 9th.

Now, a note on what teachers teach.  I find this particularly strange.

First off, while sometimes there seem to be teachers that specialize in the younger grades in elementary school (1st and 2nd), and generally if they taught 1st grade last year, they’ll teach 1st grade this year, often teachers are also moved up with their class.  For example, if a teacher teaches a 4th grade class, next year he might teach that exact same class as the 5th grade teacher.  Then the next year, be moved up with his class once more and become a 6th grade teacher.  Then as his students graduate and leave, he too leaves, to a new school.

Staff that are transferred are not limited to teachers, but also the Vice Principal, Principal, Nurse, Secretary, Nutritionist, as well as teacher’s aids and special education assistants.

In the elementary schools there sometimes often be a teacher or two that specializes in a subject.  At one of my old schools there was a designated music teacher.  At my current elementary school, there was a dedicated PE teacher.

But when the next year rolled around, suddenly that music teacher because the new 3rd grade teacher, and the PE teacher suddenly became the 5th grade teacher.  In the music teacher case, a new, transferred in teacher took her spot.  In the case of the PE teacher, his position went away, and a teacher that used to teach 4th grade, now is a curriculum coordinator (a position that didn’t exist last year…).

At the middle school level teachers generally do specialize in a subject – Japanese, or Social Studies, or Science, or English.  At the middle school level there’s also a head-teacher of each class.  Middle schools in Japan have 3 grade levels – what is equivalent to grades 7, 8, and 9 in the US.  I guess you can think of them as a homeroom teacher (something I personally never had in the US), but not only do you start and end the day with them, sometimes you have other periods with them.  AND that teacher is also responsible for some other subject as well, where they’ll teach all the students in the school.

As roles were just announced, I found out that at the middle school I work at, the English teacher I team-teach with is more than just the English teacher this year; she’s also the homeroom teacher for the new 1st years (7th graders).  I was shocked at first; the poor gal is rushing around very busy right now.  As far as I know, she’s never been a homeroom teacher before.  So why now?  Why her?  The other two homeroom teachers are a teacher who was a homeroom teacher before (but a different grade level), and the new guy we got transferred in from another school.  How do they make these decisions?

I remember once reading somewhere, or maybe hearing somewhere, that Japanese society tends to treat the Japanese people as a set of interchangeable cogs.  That is to say, that anyone could be anything.  Let me explain.

In Japan, in general (though not always the case), what your major is in college does NOT matter in terms of what job you’ll work once you graduate.  I have an American friend who studied abroad in Nagoya, Japan, and met a local girl there who he started to date.  She majored in English at University.  After graduating, she got a programming type job.  She apparently hated it, but for personal reasons stayed.  She wasn’t exactly good at programming through, and had never programmed before – her company taught her after she was hired.  This is in sharp contrast to the US where to be a computer programmer, you’ve got to major in Engineering (or be a brilliant self-taught programmer), and start out with a basic set of skills which you then build on.  In Japan, you’re more of a blank-slate, and the company shapes you from there.

The same seems to be somewhat true as teachers.  You aren’t necessarily a middle school Social Studies teacher, or an elementary school music teacher.  You’re a flexible teacher, poised to be used however your school decides to use you.  As far as I know though, the administrative/nursing positions don’t overlap as much.  BUT, the Vice Principal often takes a regular hand in teaching classes himself, whether it’s PE that he specializes in, or Social Studies.  I’m not sure if it’s decided by what he wants to teach, or spaces are open to teach.  Also sometimes I see team-teaching at my middle school – 2 teachers teaching a social studies class together, or 2 teachers teaching a math class together.  I personally don’t see the point to this.  I team-teach with my English teacher, but that’s because the JET program was created to pair Japanese English teachers with native English speakers to insure that students would be exposed to natural English pronunciation (as well as become familiar with foreigners in general).  But what’s the point of two teachers sharing a subject if neither has any particular expertise or reason for doing so?

This post is getting long and perhaps rambling, so I’ll stop here. 

Not only frustrating for me is the way teachers are used and assigned in public schools, but the way classes and class schedules are set up here.  I’ll write about that another time though.

While I enjoy Japan, the language, the culture, and living here in general, I am generally disatisfied with the job aspect of my being here for a number of reasons.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner (I guess it took an event like today – learning my co-English teacher will become ten times busier this year – to set my blood boiling).  Look forward to similar posts like this in the future!

 

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