Teaching: A World View
Overworked: Teaching in Japan
The burden of Japan’s high performance rests on its teachers.
Junior high school teacher Hiroko Yamashita is at her second school in nine years, a 70-student school in the Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The longest any teacher in Kumamoto can stay at a school is seven years. Then they are reassigned and must leave behind colleagues, community, events and local friends. “I feel the area is my second hometown,” she says, “so it always is hard to move to a new school.”
Mandatory moves ensure no school stockpiles all the good, veteran teachers; the policy guarantees quality teachers for students in less-desirable areas and schools. Japan divides itself into 47 prefectures and metro districts for which teachers work. In Yamashita’s prefecture, the largest school has 1,000 students, the smallest only one student. The mandatory reassignments can mean an hour commute for teachers who don’t want to relocate. “If our new school is on a small island, we need to move there,” Yamashita says. In the Gunma Prefecture northwest of Tokyo, one school is so remote it has a teacher dorm.
Few countries beat Japan in academic performance. In country-by-country comparisons, Japan’s youth always score at or near the top. The results are egalitarian, too. A given Japanese student’s performance has very little to do with economic background. But, as the mandatory reassignment policy shows, the success comes on the backs of Japan’s teachers.
The statutory-required work hours for Japan’s teachers are the highest in the developed world. According to an OECD survey, Japan’s teachers work longer hours — 54 hours weekly compared to an average of 38 — than their peers in other countries.
Interestingly, Japan’s teachers spend less time actually teaching — 17.7 hours a week vs. 19.3 — than their peers globally. The rest of their hours are a function of the Japanese teacher as human community hub. They are expected to be mentors, chaperones, coaches, guidance counselors and admissions advisers, largely on their own time. They even make house calls; teachers routinely schedule home visits to meet student families. And at the end of the school day, Yamashita and other teachers supervise as their students clean classrooms, stairwells, halls and toilets. Adding to all, teachers spend afternoons, evenings and weekends on student extracurriculars, from baseball and badminton to brass bands and flower arranging, a labor of love for many but unpaid labor nevertheless. Japan’s teachers put in quadruple the hours on such activities that other teachers do globally.
Anastasia Letcher, an expatriate Floridian who teaches in the Gunma Prefecture, says she has colleagues who put in 45-plus hours a month on student activities. Any session under three hours is considered voluntary and unpaid. “I have co-workers with young children who don’t really get to see them because they are asleep when they return home each night and their weekends are filled with extracurriculars,” she says. “There’s no doubt teachers would be judged by their co-workers for slacking and putting themselves before their students. The idea of persevering through an unpleasant situation is a virtue of sorts in Japan and something expected of any mature adult.”