Friday, February 8, 2008

struggles in the school system

Randomata: Unsatisfied student. A third-year student at my junior high is applying to go to a high school in the United States. He asked me to check over his application paragraph, as did his teachers ask me to read over the review they must write in English. His justification was frustration with the close-mindedness of the Japanese school system, where teacher’s “don’t want to hear [his] opinion.” Junior high school does seem to stress repetition and retrieval of sanctioned information, rather than critical thinking. I think everybody (across the country) is expected to acquire basically the same knowledge, and not necessarily to analyze or dissect it. However, I’m not sure if this characteristic changes as the students age and move into high school. In a line that stood out for me, his teacher’s review presents the converse sentiment that the student has a “lack of patience and over-optimistic thinking.” I think the difference between the two comes from a lack of challenge for the student, who is eager to engage with English, not just reiterate required segments (‘regurgitate lifeless snippets on cue’ I would say in more polemical tones). He wants to practice speaking English, perhaps about real ideas relevant to his life, which actually happens very little in English class. I’m certainly not going to make any overarching comment on education in Japan being homogenous, suppressive, or ineffective. Yet, I think it unfortunate that a teacher should ever think a student ‘over-optimistic,’ his eagerness a ‘lack of patience.’

Randomata 1: Respect for authority and government control. The teachers in Hokkaido have had consecutive drastic pay cuts over the last several years (including one of 10%). Understandably, teachers are somewhat frustrated by the situation, considering their commitment and involvement at work has not lessoned accordingly. Months ago, at a conference of JETS (like me) and Japanese Teachers of English, one teacher took the opportunity to stand up and comment that the pay cuts were unacceptable and teachers should no longer work a minute past their contracted hours. Coincidentally, one of the managers from the Sapporo Board of Education was in the same seminar room and he directed a sidelong response that teachers don’t work as hard as they make it seem. You could feel the antagonism in the air, which is pretty much unthinkable here.
The teachers do have a union, but it is characteristically Japanese in key ways. Central tenets of life here seem to be acceptance of the status quo, respect for hierarchies of authority, and avoidance of overt social (and political) discord. Unsurprisingly, legislation bans disruptive strikes. I heard the word whispered amongst the teachers at my Junior High School. At my friend’s High School, the teachers took the only strike measure they could, again, one very characteristic of these hard working and devoted teachers:
After regular class hours (when they’d normally still be working), the teachers took 29 minutes to stop all work, have some drinks and cakes, and in such a way send a message to the government. Anything 30 minutes or longer would constitute an illegal ‘disruptive strike’. Their protest, then, did nothing to interfere with the educational system, and did not actually cause the authorities that much difficulty. Hopefully, if teachers continue to protest within their means, the government will lose face due to their undervaluing of teaching, a profession generally respected and prestigious.
In this place where respect for authority is paramount, a quiet struggle continues, an experiment to test the responsiveness of government to a largely docile populous. So, barring the threat of strike, what power has a union?

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