Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

Omake #5: Why I would hate to be an actual public school teacher in Japan

on May 11, 2012

Oh there is so much to say on this subject.

There are many reasons why I would hate to be an actual public school teacher in Japan.

One is because I am a sensitive introvert and being in a school setting is too overwhelming for me.

Another is because I don’t believe in standardized public education. More on this some other time.

But the main reason is this:

Japanese teachers give practically EVERY WAKING MOMENT to their job.

I’d say the Japanese in general tend to give their all for their jobs, no matter what they are doing.  They are a hard working bunch. Too hard working in my opinion. It’s not surprising for people to stay at work until 7 or 8pm every night, when their work officially ends sometime like 4:30pm. This is without getting paid overtime, mind you.

In fact, the Japanese work SO hard, they sometimes die from overwork. This is known as 過労死 (かろうし) which translates quite humbly as “too much-work-death.”

Now, being a teacher in Japan (and I’m talking an actual certified teacher here – not what us foreigners do as English teachers), comes with a LOT of responsibilities. Way more than an equivalent grade- or subject-level American teacher would have.

Home room teachers basically become surrogate parents for their students. I don’t mean this in terms of caring about their emotional needs (though actually, they’re expected to do some of that too). What I mean is, outside the school and outside school hours (evenings, weekends, holidays) the home room teacher (HRT) is THE person responsible for that kid – not the parent. If something were to happen to the kid outside of school, even in the home, a phone call would be made from the parent or other responsible adult TO the HRT to let them know what happened. A more striking example is, let’s say some student shoplifts somewhere on a Saturday, and gets caught. Who does the police call to say “come pick up this kid” ? The parents, of course? WRONG. The police would call the HRT. While that kid is a student at X school under Y home room teacher, that kid reflects upon the school, not the family. A shoplifting incident wouldn’t be seen as a bad apple from a toubled family – it would be seen as a failure of the school to impart proper morals.

Which leads me to my next topic. The schools are responsible for teaching morals. Each grade level is required to have so many hours of moral education, and there’s even textbooks for this. I’ve glanced at a few textbooks – they’re basically about the sanctity of human life and considering other peoples’ feelings. Generally good things to teach, in my opinion. This kind of education would never fly in the US though. But since Japanese schools feel it is their duty to prepare students for life as an adult, this means that not only the HRT but all the teachers in the school are responsble for monitoring students’ behavior and correcting them when need be.

Back to homeroom teachers: Students write a sort of daily diary of their happenings and submit it to the HRT, every day as far as I know. This is a massive invasion of privacy (in my opinion). I mean, what 13 year old kid wants to talk about the fact that they’re going to the doctor for digestive problems to their teacher? But students dutifuly report everything, so the teachers know what’s going on with their charges after hours.

In many schools in the US there’s a hired school counselor who councils the kids. At my middle school in Japan, there is a professional school counselor that comes once or twice a month for a few hours to talk to kids. However, generally the task of dealing with students’ problems is on the shoulders of the school’s regular teachers (especially HRT).

Teachers must come to school even when there is no school in session. Us ALTs, as public employees, are subjected to the same treatment and most of us foreigners think it’s ridiculous. At first (for us ALTs) we think – whee! Free day to surf the internet and get paid! But after a while it gets old sitting at a desk with nothing to do. Regular Japanese teachers, the poor souls, actually have work to do, and constantly chip away at it all day long.

Japanese school breaks are shorter than in the US. In fact, their break between school years (which happens at the end of March) is only about 2 1/2 weeks long. Nothing like the 2 1/2 months in the US. But again, the teachers are not off then (like they are in the US). They must report to school.

During holidays (the break during new years, Golden week the first week of May, and even the break between academic years) teachers are responsible for club activities. In Japan as far as I know, in every middle and high school you are REQUIRED to be a part of a club. Here in rural Japan there are only sports clubs, and they are gender segregated. Girls can be a part of the table tennis club, or the tennis club. Boys get to join either their own table tennis club, or the baseball team. To her awesome credit, there is one girl who was brave enough to join the baseball team, and I admire her courage for being the only girl in an all-boys club. But it’s rare.

In any case, clubs constantly meet for practices or sports meets, during holidays and even during weekends. This sort of baffles me. For example, in the US, holidays and breaks are generally times to be away from school, and spend some quality time with friends and family, right? Maybe even go take a family vacation. Maybe just laze around the house and do your own thing. But not so in Japan. For example, for the break between the academic school year, each club was scheduled to come to school to practice nearly every day (with only about 4 days off, total, in that 2 1/2 week period) for approximately 4 hours a day. What family can go on vacation if their kid must still report to school each day, for half a day? What kid can truly relax and destress from school life if they’re still expected to go in each day and interact with fellow students and their coaches? (Who, by the way, are just regular teachers, and not speciality coaches).

Teachers also have responsibilities beyond teaching their own subjects or heading sports clubs. They also fill in for other teachers from time to time, and strangely enough, the principal and vice principal even on occassion fill in for classes. There are no substitute teachers in Japan as far as I know. Instead, classes are swapped around and another teacher either steps in to teach, or that teacher’s lessons (say, science lessons) get swapped around to a different day when the teacher is around.

Which brings me to my next point – middle school schedules in Japan are crazy. In both my middle school in California and my high school in Illinois, you had a set schedule that was the same every day. You took 6 subjects. Say you had English 1st period. Well, you’d have English 5 days a week, always at 1st period.

In Japan, students take more than 6 subjects. In fact, they take 12. Let me list them:

  1. Japanese (ie: their “English” – reading, writing, etc)
  2. Social Studies
  3. Math
  4. Science
  5. Music
  6. Fine Art
  7. P.E
  8. Arts & Crafts
  9. Home Economics
  10. English (as a foreign language)
  11. Morals
  12. Class activities (not entirely sure what this covers, but I think it includes local history and learning about the community)

Also sometimes there’s special things going on within the school that don’t count as any of these subjects

There’s only 6 periods in a day, so each day looks different, and each week looks different too.

Take the 1st years at my middle school (equivalent to US 7th graders).

Today, Friday May 11th, they had

  • 1st period, Math
  • 2nd period, English
  • 3rd period, Japanese
  • 4th period, Social Studies
  • 5th & 6th periods, Special Event Thing (prepration for some upcoming sprorts meet)

How about Monday, May 14th?  They’ll have:

  • 1st period, Math
  • 2nd period, English
  • 3rd period, Japanese
  • 4th period, Science
  • 5th period, Social Studies
  • 6th period, Student Meeting

That doesn’t look too different.  But how about Tuesday, May 15th?

  • 1st period, Morals
  • 2nd period, English
  • 3rd & 4th periods, Arts & Crats
  • 5th & 6th periods, Pool cleaning (no, my school does not have a pool – they will be cleaning a community pool).

One more.  How about Wednesday May 16th?

  • 1st period, Math
  • 2nd period, Music
  • 3rd & 4th periods, Japanese
  • 5th period, Fine Arts
  • 6th period, P.E.

And don’t you start thinking that there’s ANY kind of consistency going on here.  It just so happens that they have English second period today(Friday), as well as next Monday, and Tuesday, but on Thursday they have it 1st period and on Friday they have it 3rd period.

Schedules are made a week in advance.  Because the schedules are so twisty and random-seeming, it means the teachers can never count on having a stable schedule.  Sometimes they teach 5 classes a day.  Sometimes just 1.  Sometimes they teach several periods in a row; sometimes it’s more spread out.  It sure keeps you on your toes.

And how about the student side of things?  I think it’s terribly confusing for them too, what homework they need to do (say you have fine arts homework, but it isn’t due till next week, when you’re not sure when it’ll be, and have a million other subjects work of homework in the mean time).  Students often forget to do homework assignments, or more often than that, forget to bring even basic things to class like their English notebook or sometimes even textbook!  The poor things are like chickens running around with their head cut off.  What class is next?  Where do I go?  Do I need to change into my PE clothes now?  What do I need to bring to class?  Am I forgetting anything?  Even if students don’t forget their essential notebooks or textbooks, they forget worksheets or handouts we used last class and didn’t finish, because their world is chaotic and having just one or two folders, or sticking things into their textbook and having it later fall out, just doesn’t cut it.

The poor children.

The poor teachers!

I often wonder how teachers can have families.  Especially if they have a high schooler, many moms actually make their kids lunches.  Nothing like a sandwich and a piece of fruit – they cook elaborate boxed lunches (bentos) to send off with their kids every day – rice and several side dishes – as there is no school provided lunch in high schools.  I know some mom teachers have to wake up at like 5am or earlier to get their household and kids in order before getting themselves to school.  And of course with all the classes going on, lesson plans often need to be done at home (though I know this is probably the case for US teachers too).  My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) quite often gets up at 4 or even 3 am just to lesson plan for a busy day.  She had to teach 5 classes today – 3 English classes and then be present for the sports meet prep for the last 2 periods of the day.  Whenever there’s some big event going on in the school, even if it’s led by, say the P.E. teacher, all the other teachers must be present too.  Which means at times like these they can’t just sit at their desk and do their own work – they have to be on hand for whatever school-wide event is going on.

Then at the end of a busy day, at least in my school and in the other middle school in my town, there’s something called “Run-Run-Time.”  The students have to change into their gym clothes and run around the school grounds a few times, and then do various stretches and things.  From here they might break off into their club sports teams and do more sport-specific activities.  This however does NOT count as club practice, which often follows this time, or occurs before school.  The run-run time last 15 minutes and all teachers are generally in attendence (either running with the kids or standing off to the side awkwardly and doing some half-hearted stretches).  I probably should be joining them too, but I prefer to sit at my desk.

Oh the poor, always on the go, Japanese teachers.

This is why I am glad I am not one of them, and never will be.

I suppose before I end this post, I should acknowledge their dedication, and the fact that the majority of the teachers I’ve interacted with genuinely care about their students and seem to take pride and a great deal of responsibility in everything they do.  I just don’t think they need to be doing as much as they are.  Students don’t need to be micromanaged as much as they are.  But then again this is Japan, and my views on education and people are not the same as the Japanese take on it all.  The Japanese people believe they are doing their best in terms of education, and it really seems like they trying and working very hard.  If only they could slow down and enjoy life a little more, and let students be a little freer and allow them to be more creative and independent… but that’s just my view of things.  I’m not here to change Japanese society.  I am here as an observer and as someone with a limited, perhaps miniscule impact, only here for a very short time.

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3 responses to “Omake #5: Why I would hate to be an actual public school teacher in Japan

  1. M says:

    Hey – just catching up! I agree with a lot of this, and think Japanese teachers really are overworked. The notion that they don’t get paid overtime, though, is an ALT myth. I asked some of my teachers about this pointblank and they were surprised I thought that. Of course, I can’t speak for all the schools in Japan, but at mine at least the teachers were paid overtime.

    I was really confused by the way classes changed all the time, too, and I think it does make lesson planning more difficult. At the same time, though, I can see why it might be good for the students. It keeps them from running on “autopilot” everyday, and teaches them responsibility and time management. My kids knew the schedule a week in advance (or at the very least the day before) so there really wasn’t any excuse for not having the homework done or not having the proper class materials.

    Also, I loved “Run-Run-Time!” Ours was mid-morning so it was a great chance to get outside and do a little moving on slow days at work.

    Anyway, hope things are still going well and you’re feeling excited about your big move coming up. Only a couple more months to go! And, if you get bored in the meantime, please enjoy playing “Karoshi: Suicide Salaryman”: http://armorgames.com/play/2407/karoshi-suicide-salaryman

    It’s a little morbid considering the theme, but I mentioned it in an article I did for the Wide Island View. ;)

    • Oh, you had run-run time too? Cool, I guess. Though their constant chanting (I have no idea what they’re saying) while they’re running annoys me. It’s so loud and surely it must take up energy when they’re supposed to be focusing on running….

      Really, your teachers get paid overtime? Well even if they don’t, I know Japanese teachers get paid really well, have bonuses, and get pay-increases as the years they work increases, which isn’t something you can say for US teachers.

      Still, it seems like both the teachers AND the students seem tired/stressed at times because of this hectic routine. Can’t wait to get away from it myself.

      10 weeks to go then I’m home free!

      • M says:

        Hmm, we never had to chant during our exercise time. We just ran to music so that when the music stopped we knew to stop running and line up for stretches.

        Are you sure teachers in the U.S. never get bonuses or pay increases? I can’t imagine that someone who’s been teaching for 20 years makes the same wage as when they first started out (or the same wage as the newly hired college grad).

        In any case, it’s exciting that your time in Japan is ending soon and you have a whole new adventure to look forward to! Best of luck wrapping everything up!

        P.S. I seem to have posted my first comment twice – sorry about that! Apparently I’m not so good at using the WordPress login…

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