Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Classroom Heatstroke

Japanese elementary PE uniforms kids lying on dirt in the sun
These are PE uniforms, what they wear in class is much warmer

It was in the mid 30s the other day and 83% humidity. Inside the classrooms there was not a breath of wind. It was stifling, sticky, and the smell of sweaty teenagers was thick in the air. By second period most of the kids had given up on trying to concentrate and were sleeping at their desks or claiming headaches and going to the nurse for ice-packs. The first student fainted around lunch time.This is the coldest June since I've been here too, by the way.

Japanese public schools (elementary and junior high) generally do not have any air-conditioning or even fans. It’s particularly hard for the boys in JHS because their uniform required long dark trousers and collared shirts buttoned to the top. From June until we break for the summer holiday in mid-July, very little learning takes place. The kids become almost catatonic, and the teachers (myself included) become more and more irritable as we stand in front of an unresponsive class with sweat dripping down our backs wondering what the point is.
When I first began teaching here I was told that schools just can’t afford the electricity cost of running fans for air conditioners. It seemed like a plausible reason; Japanese schools are chronically underfunded. But then I taught at one elementary school where class 6-1 had fans and 6-2 had none. The classrooms were beside each other. I asked about it and was told that if, in a given year, the parents are willing to pay for the power costs their children can have what-ever cooling system the parents will cover. So the class 6-2 parents had said their kids should just suffer, while the class 6-1 parents had forked over the cash. Then while a school building was being rebuilt, we used temporary buildings made of metal. Because they get so hot, air conditioners were installed and were switched on when it hit 30 degrees, despite the classrooms in the old section of the school regularly pushing 40.
During a summer workshop I raised the question of air conditioners with a group of elementary teachers and they said that if the schools had air conditioning there would be no need for a summer vacation because it would no longer be too hot to study. So they were in favour of no air conditioning. When I suggested that we waste a good two months (June, half of July and half of September) because the kids can’t concentrate in the heat, they agreed. It never used to be this hot, they said. Just last week another group of teachers said the same thing: “It was never this hot when we were students. No one ever passed out from heatstroke in class when we were students.”
According to this article, the issue of air conditioning is extremely divisive in the wider community. The author describes a man coming to a board of education meeting apparently for the sole purpose of ranting against the idea that kids be kept cool (despite no one actually having suggested it). People like this man often refer to their own childhood, missing the point that the temperatures kids these days are enduring are nothing like the summers of the past. This is especially true of mega-cities like Tokyo, where high rise buildings densely crammed together have raised temperatures inside the city. Even in my rural corner of Japan, temperatures have gone up so much in the past fifty years that crops people used to farm can no longer survive, and tropical plants that used to be impossible to grow here are flourishing (according to my neighbours). The old fashioned idea that children should just learn to endure fails to take into account these dramatic changes, and the increasing incidences of heat-stroke in the classroom are the result.

Of course, in winter we freeze...
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  1. In the larger elementary schools in Yufu City, the faculty rooms are airconditioned. I find it interesting that the kids are suffering from the heat, but Kyoto and Kocho sensei are as cool as cucumbers. I think it depends on the Kocho sensei. Only on the hottest of days will the smaller schools turn on the a/c for the teacher's room. Some of the smaller schools have fans in the classroom. I don't know what the policy is for turning them on are. I'm grateful that I don't have to work in the big cities. The concrete jungle must be scorching and humid...no thank you.

    1. Yes, in my schools they turn off the staff-room air-conditioners and open the windows for about fifteen minutes before cleaning time every day so that the kids who clean the staff-room wont be unfairly cooled while the kids cleaning other places aren't... or something like that.
      Generally speaking I think trying not to waste electricity is great, but when it is so hot that no one can concentrate I draw the line!


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