Graduation ceremony for my students is tomorrow, and it reminds me of how fleeting time is. It feels like only yesterday that I stepped foot in this school for the first time and yet so much has happened. I realized I haven`t written too much about the school year, so I`m gonna do a recap of some of the stuff that happened throughout the year. But before that..here are some thoughts about what being a teacher in Japan is like, after being here for 6 months.
On Spending All The Time at School:
Working at a Japanese school, one thing I have really come to notice is how strong the sense of community is. School life is really like a self contained social circle. I guess you could say that about school back home as well, but in Japan it`s really much more evident. At least in Junior High, students basically live their lives at school. They have classes Monday to Friday until 4:30, and they have club activities before classes from 7-8 and 4:30-5:30. They often go to school on weekends as well for more club activities. So they are pretty much always at school!
Growing up, I always tried to get out of school as fast possible, and felt bad for the Japanese students who are “forced” to attend the pretty much mandatory club activities. But after being here for awhile, it`s been interesting to discover that students don`t really mind spending all their time at school because they form really close friendships with their peers. I also think its great that they spend that time on wholesome activities instead of playing videogames all day or loitering around malls. At the Junior High level at least. In highschool it seems that students have much more freedom after school.
What has shocked me as well is how often teachers work (unpaid) overtime. Although I generally clock out at 4:30, almost all of my coworkers stay at the teacher`s office until at least 6 or 7pm. teachers are also expected to be at the school during weekends to supervise club activities in the morning or afternoon. And although teachers get 20 days of paid vacation and 20 sick days, most of them will use up their vacation days if they are sick.
I feel bad for my overworked teachers, but from what I have heard, this is the norm in corporate Japan. At least however, one get`s to spend their working lives engaged in the noble work of imparting knowledge upon the next generation. And I won`t lie, while I do not currently have asipirations of becoming a true school teacher, working with children everyday has turned out to be one of the most fun (normal) jobs I could imagine having.
It`s also been quite fascinating to see how discipline is handled in schools. I realized recently that it seems pretty normal to me now because I`ve been here for awhile, but for people who don`t live in Japan it`s completely different, so I suppose I should describe what it`s like here.
Most people I talk to seem to think that Japanese students are all perfectly well behaved little angels who dilligently do their work, go with the crowd, and hate being singled out. Before I came to Japan, this was my general expectation, however I also mentally prepared myself for the exact opposite – crazy classes full of complete chaos.
As it turns out, reality spans the whole spectrum from one extreme to the other and everything in between. I have had some classes with sweet little angels who are always keen to participate, some classes where students are terrified of being called out on, and some classes where it`s nothing but total chaos.
I`ve also noticed that as the year goes on, classes can change dramatically. Some of my classes with the most troublesome unmanageable students have become my favourites. Students that I used to think were total punks have turned out to be some of my favourites (yeah I play favourites, who doesnt..otherwise I would just be equally ambivalent to everyone). While I think that some of it has to do with me developing rapport with the students and slowly improving my teaching style,more than that, I think that as the kids spend time with each other throughout the year and do things together, an equilibrium is eventually reached. Some classes get more confident and participative, while classes with lots of chaos eventually settle down a little bit due to a combination of peer pressure and social pressure to conform to academic standards.
The amazing thing about this change is the general lack of heavy handed discipline within Japanese schools. Detention, suspension and expulsion are pretty much foreign concepts. A student might get a chewing out by their home room teacher, but that seems to be the extent of the punishment. Although..when I try to think about it from a Japanese mindset, I imagine that the stern disapproval of an authority figure is quite a heavy punishment indeed (in fact I have discovered that my inherent authority as a teacher means that students value my approval really highly. If I express disapproval through my expression, or just hover near a disruptive student with my arms crossed without saying anything, that`s often enough to rectify the situation).
I also suspect that a lot of discipline happens “behind the scenes”, as public humiliation seems like it would be akin to nuking a Japanese person`s ego (oops! that was probably not the best example to use..). I have heard that after a particularly bad class, my JTE will speak with the homeroom teacher who will do yell be the one who does the yelling at the class.
In some cases though, some students become “immune” to the verbal beration that is the highest level of consequence at the JH level. It`s even difficult for teachers to get the parents involved, because in Japanese society, the onus is on the TEACHERS to raise the students “correctly” (!). Sometimes the “I do not give an eff” attitude becomes prevalent in an entire class – and sometimes takes over an entire school. And that is a sad situation because in those cases, it really does feel like there is not much one can do but watch the kids jeopardize their futures by being punks. It`s quite sad really.
Overall though..I would say that the worst schools in Japan are NOWHERE near the worst schools back in Canada and the US. There may be some punks who like to cause trouble for the rest of the class, but it`s nothing like some highschools back home which have metal detectors installed to detect (or deter?) the presence of concealed weapons. So I guess the conclusion I have reached is that disciplinary system could be better, but at least the students are more well behaved overall. It`s just for those “special” students that I sometimes wish there was a better disciplinary system in place.