Paula Kaufman: Japanese teachers’ lament instructive to Americans

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Paula Kaufman: Japanese teachers’ lament instructive to Americans
By Paula Kaufman

American teachers often complain about overwork and a test-crazed culture. I agree that we are heading in the wrong direction, but while things could be better for our teachers, they could also be worse. Japan is case study of what could happen when a country slips too far in one direction.

In many regards, the Japanese education system works. Literacy rates are some of the world’s highest. Pupils receive lengthy spring and summer vacations. Teachers are competent and caring. From elementary school on, students learn real-life skills about nutrition and cooking and are able to handle stoves, recipes and knives with finesse.

Parents need not pay for private lessons in karate, baseball, art or Japanese archery, since schools offer a host of extra-curricular clubs. And pupils learn responsibility by cleaning their school each day. But what works for students does not always pan out for teachers.

When students enjoy vacations, teachers stay at school, finishing bureaucratic paperwork. Vacation days can sometimes be counted on a single hand. Each teacher is charged with supervising a club, and clubs in Japan are taken very seriously — meeting during weekends and holidays and for two hours every day. Some of my high school teachers tell me they return home at 10 o’clock each night.

Such a system works for robots, but not humans, and, obviously, Japanese people are very much human, with passions and interests, who wish to extend beyond work, yet cannot.

I recently spoke with the art teacher at my largest high school. He is an artist in his late 40s who has exhibited his work around Japan. I asked if he had time to create his own art after school. He said that he made his large oil paintings — wonderful abstract versions of tangled fish nets — only during his small vacations. During that time, he paints and smokes nonstop, sleeping, but rarely stopping to eat, he said.

Other teachers I speak to express similar frustration. All teachers want is to have time for something besides work at the end of the day. Nowadays, I do not even try to invite teachers to my house or out to dinner for a casual gathering on weekends. I printed up an invitation to a wine and cheese party, and then promptly threw it away, upon realizing, after talking to a few teachers, that such an event was not possible for their schedule.

What strikes me is the visible discomfort of my co-workers. I know the teachers are unhappy because they tell me so. While this honesty might seem normal in the United States, in Japan it is not. Japanese people generally gripe less than Americans. Suffering is seen as a part of life and something to be endured. In the Buddhist religion, everything in life changes. Life is transient; events happen; people are born; people die. Terrible events are viewed with more equanimity in Japan than in other places, because it is seen as “life.” And so when my fellow teachers express their open unhappiness, I pay attention. And, for the sake of what could happen within the United States, so should we.

Paula Kaufman of Charleston is teaching in Japan as an English teacher through the JET program