Spring Cleaning the Teachers

March 28th, 2013By Category: Teaching in Japan

After a long, dark and cold winter the first signs of spring are in the air. As each day draws out longer and the snow slowly melts away outside of the combini near my house there is a definite feeling of change on the horizon.

I know it won’t be long before my friends and I are sitting in drenched t-shirts complaining about the crazy heat of the summer, but for now, as I put my kerosene heater into storage and pack away my winter coats – the change in seasons feels like a positive turn in events. However; for a whole community of employed workers in Japan, the change in season is felt with silent, inward trepidation and uncertainty.

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With the work and school calendar year beginning and ending each April, a lot more than the temperature and weather is in change behind the scenes. Before I worked in Japan, my knowledge of this event was zero and it is something which I view with conflicting opinions even though I am now much more familiar with the process. For people reading this who are unaware of the spring staffing changes common in this country, here is a brief explanation of what happens and how.

Back in the UK, to my understanding, teachers will apply for a position at a particular school and their working life within that particular building will be guaranteed for as long as they wish to hold onto their particular job and can renew their working contracts, providing they are pleasing the people with the power to determine otherwise and are good teachers.

Here in Japan however, qualified teachers are employed by a central Board of Education (BoE) which oversees the running of several different schools in the area. Each spring, as positions at one location or another alter (due to retirements, new teachers, transfers, etc.)  – The BoEs will contact specific chosen teachers and inform them that it is required they move on to work at a new school and make a fresh start at a new setting.

This process clearly leaves some staff members at the edge of their seats nervously biting their fingernails as they wait to hear of their fate – with any decision made, seemingly entirely out of their own control. I can sympathise with their anxiety. Imagine having been working in one place for two or three years, having gotten to know all the members of staff, learn all of the students names, adjust to the policies and procedures, build up a reputation and be comfortable in your workplace – to go from that to being told that you have two weeks before you will uproot and move to an entirely new place where you know nobody and, nobody knows you, is an intimidating idea to be faced with.

Factor into the equation that the first day on the job you will most likely be paraded in front of your entire new school assembled in the main hall and you add to the fear. A massed crowd of judgmental teenagers – maybe by the hundred – will be standing in lines, watching and analysing your every move as you walk in front of them to take your first bow and introduce yourself. It was intimidating doing it just the once at all of my schools when I first got here to teach – I would be petrified at the idea of having to do it again!

Then, add onto this the unusual atmosphere surrounding the actual day of notification. Last year, I remember coming into the staff room after lunch and the entire room was stood silent, with each teacher waiting by their respective desk. The vice principal walked slowly around the silent room up and down between the aisles of desks, and, if he were to place a piece of official looking paper down beside a teacher, with no words spoken they knew their fate to move onto a new location was sealed.

A friend of mine from the next town over told me that their school had the principal call out a list of names who were sent to one room, and a list of names who were sent to another and one group were destined to stay while one group were destined to go. To an outsider it must sound like a scene from a movie, and on the day of the announcement you can just about cut the tension in the office air with a chopstick.

I’m not entirely sure of the reasoning behind why the schools operate in this way. Most of the teachers I have discussed it with are not fans of the system and this has been especially down to the uncertainty of where they will end up. They may either be sent to a good school out in the countryside with lovely new students, or, get sent to a run-down inner-city school with students coming from troubled backgrounds and with disruptive tendencies.

The direction of their career becomes a complete lottery. (One guy in the office I worked at last year got moved from having been working for five years as the man who organised the school lunch system in the area to suddenly becoming a worker in the city tax office. I got the impression he was entirely unhappy but he had no real say in the matter and just had to get on with it!)

I have heard people discuss that it was originally designed this way to prevent the teachers from being in one place too long and forming a Union to defend their workers’ rights, but I don’t know exactly what truth that explanation holds.

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Photo by f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l via Flickr Creative Commons

Looking at this from a fresh point of view when I first came to Japan I was able to see a number of positive and negative sides. Many points were actually related and countered arguments to each other – for example “Students may lose out on having a great teacher” can easily be countered with “Students stuck with a bad teacher may be able to receive a really good one” – Or on a more personal level, “Teachers I really enjoy working with will be leaving soon” can be countered more optimistically with a mind-set of “Gee-whiz, I can look forward to working with a whole bunch of new teachers soon!”

One big plus side I have experienced is that it can be a good chance for an inexperienced new teacher at a location with challenging or unforgiving students to be moved to somewhere with a more kind and friendly class of kids to work with. This happened to a teacher I worked with last year who was in her first year of teaching after university. While at the old school, she was so depressed and stressed out all the time with a class full of students from hell who had no respect for her and paid no attention to anything she had to say.

However, once she was selected for the shuffle and moved to a more rural location with a smaller group of much kinder students her whole style of teaching changed and she became a much happier, relaxed and more confident teacher. To my understanding though, she will transfer again this year and who knows what the future holds for her?!

For my own part, as the native foreign English instructor, I know that my position within the system in the town is set, and I’m settled in a role which won’t be changing much (to my relief) aside from the new people I shall get to work with after spring vacation. However, as this year changes from winter to spring, I and my ALT counterparts up and down the country must get ready to adjust to the natural changes of the workplace around us too, as we prepare to take on the challenges of the new school year, and a new school staffroom.

The best of luck to you all, and I hope your changes may be for the better.

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Author of this article

Kenneth Grant

Hi, I'm an ALT from the UK living on the west cost of Akita prefecture. It can feel quite far away from society and even further away from home, but it has certainly become a wonderful place to live and I hope you are able to come and see the place while you are in Japan. I'm very interested in English Education and would one day like to become a University professor here in Japan. I'm new at writing, so hopefully you will enjoy what I have to say and I'll try and keep it a light hearted as possible!

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