Monday, September 3, 2012

The oddities of Japanese compulsory education

Day 13

Last week was my first working as an ALT/FLT (Alternate/ Foreign Language Teacher). I felt somewhat worthless, as I didn't do anything but introduce myself and help the English teachers pronouce words to their classes. I get to plan one lesson for this week, so it better be good. I'm working on a game to teach past participles (-d and -ed forms of verbs, as well as irregular past tense verbs). I'm sure the further I get into the school year the more of a role I'll get to play. I hope that's the case. I've honestly been somewhat bored at work as of late. One teacher even commented on the matter. Many times I find myself sitting at my desk for hours at a time. I could read, but I'm practicing the many writing forms Japan has, as well as key phrases- nihon-go wa hanasemasen (I don't speak Japanese). This week, I can do my homework from the free Japanese language classes I'm taking in Yawata (one town/train station away, still in the same city). These classes are offered by the Ichihara International Association, and I attend Sunday afternoons.

Japanese schools differ greatly from American ones. First of all, the school year starts in April. When I began on August 27, the students had just finished their forty-four day summer vacation. They were extremely surprised to see a new ALT there, especially one who differed so greatly from the one before. (Let's just say the previous ALT was much older, a little more stern, and male). Other than the month-and-a-half summer vacation during the hottest part of the year, Japanese schools have 3 other major breaks. Fall vacation lasts about 5 days; winter vacation lasts about 10 days; spring vacation lasts roughly 14. Compare that to America's fall (Thanksgiving) break of 2-3 days; its winter (Christmas/ New Year) week long vacation, and its 5 day spring break. America does have a long summer vacation comparatively, although teachers and students alike have complained the last 5-10 years that summer is not a full three months.

School in Japan is compulsory for elementary (1-6) and junior high (1-3), which means every student must attend (they have separate classes for handicapped students) and no student can repeat a grade.

In American junior high (middle) school, students attend from 7:30-2:40. They have 7 periods: 5 core classes (math, science, social studies, English, P.E.) and 2 electives (such as band, chorus, drama, foreign language, etc), each lasting 50 minutes. Teachers have their own classrooms, and students have a 3-5 minute break between classes to go to their lockers and get to their next class. They go to the cafeteria for lunch, and are served by adult cafeteria workers. Janitors/ custodians clean the school every day. There is an office staff for bookeeping and clerical duties.

Not so in Japan. Students remain in the same class all day, and the teachers go to each class with their own supplies. There are no computers in the classrooms. There is no smartboard, projector, or anything techy of the sort. There is only a blackboard and paper copies the teachers hand out. I'm so amazed that schools are so old fashioned in one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. There is a computer room I'm told by my boss who works for the Board of Ed. but no teacher has mentioned it or used it thus far. There is no a/c in the classrooms, only in the teacher's room and the library. It's been quite hard for me, as I'm under strict orders that no one can see my arm tattoo, so I've been wearing long sleeves or arm sleeves to school. I can't wait until it starts to cool off.

Students get to school around 8:00. I have no idea what they do from 8:00- 8:45.Teachers report every moring to the teachers' room. Most of us arrive about 7:45, as the day begins promptly at 8:00. We all stand. The principals great us (ohayo gozaimas(u)) and bow; we repeat and bow. Then we sit and there are daily announcements (none of which I can understand @ this point). Some teachers get called on to stand and make certain announcements. After about 10 minutes each grade level's (1, 2, 3; our 7,8,9) teachers group together and meet for another 5 minutes.

< By this time it's 8:25. Some kind of bell rings, and the teachers have 10 minutes free time to run around and make copies, or go to their homeroom classes (if the have one) and make annoucements. HR is over @ 8:35 with the sound of another bell. First period starts at 8:45 and lasts 45 minutes. There are 10 minutes between each class; I guess enough time for teachers to run back to the teacher's room for a drink, materials, or to go to the restroom. Students have 5 classes a day, not 7. Four periods happen before lunch, and one after lunch. I only teach 3 or 4 classes a day (not 6. Gosh, American middle school teachers are working too hard). There is one woman who works in the teacher's room serving morning tea and doing dishes/ general cleaning work and who gets lunch ready for all the teachers without a homeroom. The students serve lunch to each other and to their homeroom teacher. After lunch, there is a 20 minutes cleaning time, where students and teachers alike (including principals) clean the school. Well, I say clean, but remember, these are middle school students. They brush the floor lightly, wipe some things down, and take out the trash. (Trash separation and disposal in Japan must be a whole other blog entry). School ends a little before 3:00. I'm required to stay until 4:00. Right now, I'm helping students practice speeches in English for a regional competition on the 19th. I help them practice pronunciation, phonetics, and inflection.

Saturday, I had to go to work because our school was hosting a bazaar. Parents and teachers sold many goods they'd bought and made to the community to raise money for the poor school. I bought a potted plant (our apartment needs green, which we remedied more this afternoon when we planted basil, rosemary, cilantro, and parsley). It was quite amusing to see me biking home in work clothes caring a plant in one arm. :-) I'm sure it's equally as strange to see this gaijin biking and running around town, as well as doing yoga in the little park outside. Oh well, westerners are weird. We show affection in public, shake hands instead of bow, and use pulling instead of pushing motions. All the fun of learning another culture.

Until next time,


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great post. You definitely captured first appearances very well!'
    (I deleted my previous post because it listed me as unknown, instead of my google info. Still is, oh well.)