Monday, 12 November 2012

Teachers Don’t Spend a Lot of Time Teaching

Japanese teachers of the compulsory grades spend only a fraction of their working hours teaching their actual subjects. The title of this post is misleading because even when not teaching “formally” they are of course still teaching the kids, and often the lessons outside of the classroom are the most important. But before I get into that, here’s a breakdown of what I mean.
There's usually cleaning time and sixth period for the upper graders as well.
As you can see from this time table, elementary teachers spend 5 hours a day teaching classes (225 minutes on short schedule days). Five minutes of every class consists of formalities and sometimes more if the teacher includes kanso (student responses), which they usually do in elementary. In junior high this goes down to less than a minute since by then there is theoretically less need to teach manners. So let’s reduce our count for elementary teachers at least down to 4.5 hours of course content time per day. The number of breaks the kids get is astounding to an Australian point of view, especially the way they have a ten minute break… after their lunch break.
But there are many days when not even 4.5 hours are spent on lessons. Before the annual sports day in particular, regular classes are replaced with preparations for around a month (and at JHS there is the cultural festival as well, which means at least another month of disrupted classes). There are also interruptions to classes to prepare for the graduation ceremony in March. At JHSs the first graders go on a camping trip that takes up considerable preparation time and the second graders take a trip to Kyoto that requires even more. This is extremely entertaining to watch by the way; the entire grade takes the same shinkansen (bullet train), but the train only stops briefly at the station. The students and teachers prepare for this logistical challenge by marking door-sized lines on the floor of the gym, blowing a whistle and timing how long it takes to get everyone over their line.
Teachers also don’t spend as much time preparing class materials here as Australian teachers do. Every public school in Japan teaches the same curriculum from the same range of textbooks, and there is an entire subsidiary industry dedicating to producing lesson plans, worksheets, art kits and other materials based on these textbooks. Teachers don’t even have to mark most of the students’ homework, they just hand out answer sheets and the kids correct it themselves.
In many ways you would think that Japanese teachers have it easy… and yet they spend around twelve hours a day at work and even on public holidays or weekends there are always one or two teachers at school.

So what are they doing?
Well, I’ve written about some of their activities before: they act as surrogate parents, providing kids with emotional guidance and pastoral care, and they do things that I would put firmly into the category of parents’ responsibilities including looking for kids’ lost property and searching the streets for kids who are late home. There is also a definite element of staying at work for long hours because it looks good, not because they actually have anything to do (a great number of my co-workers spend hours a day sleeping at their desks, reading the newspaper or gossiping. There are even “rest rooms” with couches and space to nap. There is also an insane focus on everything being hand-made, which I will get back to in a minute. The big killer though is the dreaded club activities. All but one or two JHS students in any given school are members of a club. They practice after school until around 7pm and every weekend. Vacations just mean more time to spend on club activities. At my husband’s high school his tennis club students recently went straight from a morning of academic tests to an eight hour uninterrupted tennis training session. When the students compete in other cities or prefectures on weekends the teachers accompany them as chaperones as well as coaches, organising hotels and sometimes driving them in their own cars. Once club activities wrap up around 7pm the teachers still aren’t free. They take it in turns to patrol the neighbourhoods where the students live until around 10pm, checking game centres to make sure there are no students inside.

As I mentioned, there is an obsession with things being “hand-made” by teachers. In elementary schools the most gratuitous example of this is the monthly displays that decorate landings and corridors. These must be hand-made and new each year, even if the same design is used every Christmas or what have you. Huge magazines come out every season with patterns and ideas for teachers to copy, but they have to do all the cutting and gluing from scratch. Buying pre-made decorations or just, I don’t know, putting up a glossy poster, are seen as unacceptable alternatives.
In junior high this translates to worksheets. If a teacher wants to make an original worksheet rather than copying one from a resource book, nine times out of ten they will painstakingly draw it up by hand with a pen and a ruler, then photocopy clip art from a book, trim it to the right size and glue it to the worksheet. I had always assumed that this was a result of the pervasive inability to use computers (until two years ago teachers in public JHSs in my city shared one PC per school, and that PC ran Windows ‘95). A fellow ALT one day made a worksheet on his laptop, though, and the teacher asked him to remake it by hand because the computer version was “cold” (impersonal or unfriendly). So it may be that it is a preference and not just technological incompetence.
High tech cooling
This preference extends beyond schools. I once spent three hours working at the board of education making an index for a big folder of documents. I was given stickers, stamps and ink pad, a cutting board and a box cutter. I had to stamp numbers on either side of the sticker, cut it in half and then match the outer edges neatly while sandwiching the page margin between the inside edges to make an index tag. The kind you can buy in packs of fifty for a dollar that would also look much neater than my ink smudged, crookedly cut ones (but lacking the heartfelt warmth of all the swearing I did while making them).

In response to Japanese students’ test scores slipping further and further in relation to Chinese and Korean students’ scores, the Education Ministry is responding with knee-jerk “add more chapters to textbooks and more school hours” responses. In my prefecture all 5th and 6th graders were required to spend part of their summer holiday this year at school taking additional maths classes. In Osaka elementary schools are going to increase to six teaching days a week. In my opinion all this does is add a further burden to teachers and increase the stress children have to deal with. There is no consideration of promoting greater efficiency at schools (or in the bloated and ineffective bureaucracies that administer them). While I personally love the relationships that exist between schools, teachers and students as a result of the additional non-classroom stuff teachers do, I also can’t see how educational outcomes can be improved unless the role of teachers is revised to focus more on teaching and less on parenting.
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