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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another Brick In The Wall

[Blog Note: When you see a coloured word in any of the entries, feel free to click on it. I have attached links to photos, videos and to sites that can provide more background information. As well, if you click on a photo, it will enlarge. And, if you glance at the bottom of any blog entry you'll see LABELS with a lot of words after it - clicking on one will call up all of the entries where that word is listed - for reference, of course. Okay. On with the show, this is it]:

The next few days were spent driving around the city to visit the seven Junior High Schools (Chu Gakko – chu meaning middle, gakko meaning school) I would be teaching at: Nozaki, Chikasono, Wakakusa, Ohtawara, Sakuyama (see photo), Kaneda Kita (Kaneda North) and Kaneda Minami (Kaneda South).
Anyhow, my first visit was to Ohtawra – the largest of the city junior high schools and the closest to my home – roughly 10 minutes away by bicycle.
I wondered why on Earth they were taking me to school in late July, but soon realized that the place was packed with teachers… and students.
Here’s the deal. In Japan, the school year begins in April and ends in March. Similar to a “March Break” in North America, there is a series of National holidays called Golden Week at the end of March thru beginning of April. There’s also a 5-week long Summer vacation in late July thru the end of August, along with a week off for an Autumn break and a two week break akin to our Christmas vacation called the Winter break.
So… what the heck were the students doing hanging around the school? Apparently they were there for club activities.
While students attend school Monday thru Saturday (Saturday is only a half-day), after school activities last between 4PM - 6PM. Okay, that’s kind of cool, but why were they at school during their summer vacation – and, more importantly, what the heck were the teachers doing here?
Back in North America, it truly is “no more teachers, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks”!
According to Garp, the students want to do their club activities, and their parents don’t want them hanging around the house unsupervised – juvenile delinquency, ne (eh). The teachers are there because the students are there, and look after the club activities pretty much between 8AM and 6PM.
Y’see in Japan, the teaching profession is, unlike its Western counterpart, a respected one. Should a student get in trouble after school for say shoplifting at the local department store, guess who gets called? That’s right – the teacher. Not the parents.
Teachers are not only responsible for the general education of the student, they are responsible for their upbringing.
More information: the junior school curriculum covers Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health, physical education and English. English is not learned until Grade 7 – and in many failed cases, not even then. Students are also exposed to industrial arts and homemaking – depending on the sex of the child.
So, what is a club activity? It could be kyudo (Japanese archery – nothing better than arming a teenager!); softball (for girls); baseball (boys); soccer; track & field; tennis (girls); kendo (Japanese fencing - again, nothing better than arming a teenager); swimming (if the school has a pool – only Sakuyama had one in my town); music, singing or judo. If there were any more, I never got invited to join them, and so I don’t know. Once you join, you are there until you graduate. I'm unsure if the pattern holds true through high school.
In Japan, no one fails a class. You join the school together and no matter how well or badly one does, you graduate together. Of course, there’s still the need to take a test to get into the proper high school. Depending on your test score, you might get into Ashley’s top-rated high schools, or perhaps one that caters to the technical studies – say electrical or auto mechanics. Then there’s farming followed by barber school. Of course, this does NOT mean that all barbers or farmers are stupid. For some it’s a family business choice, and for others it just might mean they aren’t good at taking tests. Heck, with my short-term memory problems (ie, inability to remember names), I’d be sweeping up after the barbers. More on the pressures of junior high school testing – and Juku (private extracurricular study schools) later.
Anyhow, students of 30-35 kids are part of a homeroom class, and wear badges denoting their school and homeroom – that way the police know which teacher to call!
So, between judo tosses and kendo blows I met the English teachers at each of my schools. While all were pleasant people, with a few exceptions their English-speaking skills were not the best. Grammatically they were technically sound, and knew more than I did – as evidenced by this blog. Heck, I never claimed to be an English teacher.
Japan may have realized the spoken language problem which is why in 1987 it began inviting native English speakers to serve as assistants to the Japanese teachers of English.
That first year saw a total of 848 AETs assistant English teachers). I joined up in 1990 when there was about 1,500 of us. By 2002 it peaked to 6,273 AETs. At least it shows that they are serious… and that I didn’t wreck the program. Budget cuts and the hiring of teachers privately through low-paying agencies has cut into the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme.
I was paid ¥3.6-million (yen) a year. Holy crap! I was a multi-millionaire once! How did I blow it? Essentially it was about Cdn $36,000. Not bad for a punk out of school and at the onset of a recession. That was another reason my father told me: "Get thee to a nipponery" – to badly paraphrase Shakespeare.
So… would you like to know what Japanese teachers make? One man – Mr. Inoue - a teacher at Ohtawara Chu Gakko had been teaching for 20 years and was making the equivalent of Cdn $30,000 - which he considered very respectable.
Twenty years experience? Responsible for 30+ kids at school, club activities and after school discipline? How is that fair? Apparently in Japan, the teachers are expected to eat the respect that they earn. It’s really quite fulfilling. $30,000 – that’s like school in summer. No class. Except that they have school in summer here. Now I’m confused. That was such a good joke. I stole it from Fat Albert.
I was embarrassed, but Mr. Inoue (Inoue-sensei) rationalized that they needed to pay us foreigners a lot to get us to come. Sure, but what makes the Japanese teachers stay? Mr. Inoue thought about that for a moment, scratched his head, took a drag of his cigarette and muttered in pretty good English, "I have no bloody idea."
Having seeded doubt, my job was complete for the day.
Although I was told by individuals at JET to never share my rate of pay with the Japanese (they recognized a blabbermouth when they heard one, I suppose), I only remembered it 19 years later. And it's too late. I already wrote it down five paragraphs ago.
Sorry for the lack of knee-slapping buffoonery, but education is why I was in Japan, and it’s also why I’m writing the blog – for you and for me.

Somewhere, school’s out for summer – but not here,
Alice Joseph
Today's title is by Pink Floyd.

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