Daily Life: The Japanese School System

As it’s been nearly a month since I’ve written anything, a small update is in order. Since Australia (the last trip I blogged about), I’ve been to Sapporo and Hakodate in Hokkaido. It was basically Canada. There was snow everywhere and so much open sky. I also have a few trips lined up in the future. I’m heading to Seoul, Korea early next month and Hong Kong/Taiwan at the end of next month.

You may be wondering how I have so much time off and that is because this whole month is Spring break for Japanese schools. I ended classes the last week of February and the new school year begin April 8th. Yes, you read that correctly. In Japan, April marks the start of the new school year as opposed to September in North America. That means that I had to say goodbye to my first year students last month as they moved up in the school (and the world) into second year. Of course they will still be around the school, but I won’t be teaching them again. Next month brings a new batch of first year students for me to teach and other changes to my daily work.

School Transfers

This week is a big week for Japanese teachers because it is the time that they learn what they will be doing next year. Just yesterday, my teachers learned whether they will be staying at our school or transferring elsewhere within the prefecture. They also learned (if they are staying) what classes they will be teaching, what club they will be in charge of, and who will be the homeroom teachers and head teacher of each year. Considering that the new school year starts in just over 2 weeks, that gives the leaving teachers a fairly short time to say their goodbyes to their colleagues and students, pack up their desks, and move to a new job. Sometimes these transfers can be somewhat surprising to the teachers as it appears to be up to the principal and sometimes the teachers are not consulted. I recently had a fairly candid conversation with one of my English teachers and she said that a lot of the time, if teachers do not want to be transferred, they can fight the decision. That being said, more often than not, it appears that the transfer happens. The period that a teacher can stay at one particular school appears to depend on the seniority of the teacher. It appears that many brand new teachers will stay at their first school for 2-3 years then get transferred to a different one for the next 5-6 years. After that, teachers are often allowed to stay for longer.

hyogo-map

The prefecture I call home.

Surprise school transfers may seem cruel and unusual compared to the school system back in Canada where some teachers could stay at a school for upwards of 20 years, but I assure you that there is some (at least mediocre) reasoning behind this system. I have heard a few reasons but the most common one I have heard from my teachers is that it is meant to be a fairness measure. The logic is that since schools in Japan are separated into many different types (academic, industrial, sport school, special needs, etc.) unlike in North America, there are definitely some schools that are more preferred working environments than others. As such, it is simply fair to allow the teachers at the less desirable schools the chance to transfer out into a better working environment and vice versa. For example, one of my closest English teachers told me that the second school he taught at was a farming school where the children were all likely to become farmers and had zero use for or interest in English. His students almost always slept in class and some of them did not have any respect for teachers. He considered that to be one of the worst placements he could have gotten but he was rewarded with a position at my school next. He has worked here for almost 5 years now and he loves it. All of our students are bright and almost all will go on to university. Many have a strong interest in English and he has better job satisfaction here.

In addition to transferring schools, teachers also switch grades. At my school, it seems most teachers are on the same rotation as the students. Many of this year’s first year teachers will teach second year next year and many of this year’s third year teachers will be teaching first year with me next year. This is kind of exciting for me because I am a bit special and I do not rotate. I will still be teaching first year students but now I have new teachers to work with. The prospect of working with new people is exciting.

School Types

As mentioned above, there are many different schools in my area. My school is the highest level academic school in the area but there are also schools that focus on almost anything. I personally know of industrial schools, a baseball school, a science school, an international school, a special needs school, a farming school, and a remedial school. I kind of think this is great. Students are very different in their skills and goals and it doesn’t make sense to simply have one type of school that works for everyone (as seen in Canada). Separating students by academic level helps both the higher and lower ability students. The higher students are able to learn more without the teaching pace being slowed down and the lower students are able to learn at a slower pace without feeling as though they are wasting time because it’s likely other students need the same clarification. Of course someone is likely to say, “But Jordan, in Canada we have separate level classes for high and low ability students so surely that’s the same”. I entirely disagree that it is the same. If you were a low level student, would you like to be in the “stupid class” when your friends aren’t? With Japan’s system, you wouldn’t be. You’d simply be in a normal class. And everyone at the school would be in that same normal class. I am not saying that Japan has a perfect system (see the surprise transfers above), but I am a huge supporter of multiple school types.

Teacher Parties

In Japan, it is common for companies (not only schools) to host parties for the staff. Not everyone will show up but a vast majority do for the major ones. These are called enkai. We appear to have two major enkai each year; one in December and one in April. These parties often have many different dishes of food and all-you-can-drink alcohol (which is very common in Japan) and allow you to talk with your teachers in a setting outside of work. Enkai are a great cultural point of Japan and I often find that many of my best conversations with some of the teachers I am not so close with happen at an enkai over food and drink.

Student Responsibilities

In Japanese high schools, students are responsible for the cleanliness of the school. Students keep their own classrooms clean and in the last 30 minutes of the school day, students clean the common areas, including bathrooms. The sports clubs are also responsible for taking care of the outdoor tennis courts and sports pitch. Not only does this encourage development of good life skills, it also ensures students respect the school and it cuts down on spending. Even when my school has ceremonies in the gym, the students are responsible for setting up all the chairs in a measuring-tape-perfect manner. My school only employs two part-time custodians to do things like gardening and plumbing. Things like these contribute to my massive respect for my students. Sometimes I can’t help but think that North American high schoolers are lazy after seeing things here.

In Closing…

This post may seem overly biased and it may sound as though the Japanese school system is perfect. It’s not. There are other things that I definitely have problems with but I feel as though I cannot appropriately address them in this post for various reasons. Regardless, I hope you find this post informative and an interesting peek into the differences between the Japanese school system and your own.

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