Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movin' to the country, gonna hear a lot of speeches

My ankle is healing remarkably well. But, I've said enough about my alpine buffoonery. Today I'm going to talk about school in Japan. Now, when I started this blog, I identified that it would be inappropriate to use it to criticise the Japanese education system. So the following are merely observations. If you think they sound like criticisms, you're wrong. Ok?

So last wednesday was the speech contest for which I'd been helping students prepare. On the day, I was to be the sole native speaker on the distinguished panel of three judges. As happens at virtually every event like this, there was a communication breakdown caused by the combination of my inability to read memos sent to me in Japanese, and no-one really being sure whose jurisdiction I'm under. I've been here long enough to know that formal attire should be worn for pretty much any occasion down to and including the opening of an envelope, so at least I didn't slip up in the apparel department. No, my problem was punctuality. The contest started at 12:30, so I figured if I rocked up just after noon I'd have plenty of time to get set up. But I got a call at 11:45 (when I was still at my far-flung school) demanding to know my whereabouts, because the judges' meeting was starting now. Further compounding the debacle, an expensive bento had been provided for my lunch, which I had neither the time nor the hunger to eat, because my school had kindly given me a couple of sandwiches to keep me going.

Anyway, the contest got underway after the usual opening ceremony rigmarole. It was quite hard work being a judge. I had to listen to 27 five-minute speeches, with only about 30 seconds between each one (there was an interval in the middle). I had to give comments and marks for damage, control, style and aggression English and delivery, and write a little personal message to each competitor. I made these comments exclusively positive – I'm more of a Cheryl Cole than a Simon Cowell. For the judging proper, I adopted the Edinburgh University standardised marking scheme, which is to never under any circumstances use any number outside the range 35-85%.

I spend most of my life worrying about the objectivity of my judgements, so I found it particularly stressful trying to ensure that my assessments were fair and consistent. Complicating this task was the fact that I had coached about two-thirds of the entrants to varying degrees, so I had tuned into their accents and knew what it was they were trying to say. Social psychologists, who make a living out of stating the bleedin' obvious, know that familiarity biases value judgements favourably. But knowing that, was there a danger I would overcompensate and unfairly penalise the students I had worked with. And that's not even getting into ordering effects. It was a minefield.

My judgements were drastically out of whack with the rest of the panel in a couple of instances. Though there was a chief judge and I was not it, I couldn't help but feel that my judgements were more valid since English is my mother tongue. The biggest bone of contention was a girl who had a very animated style of delivery which won over the other two, but I found just over-the-top, unnatural, and detrimental to actually understanding what she was saying. Kind of like William Shatner.

But the judgements were made, the prizes were awarded, and happily there was a reasonably even distribution between schools, though a couple of the small schools punched quite a bit above their weight. I was called up to the stage to give some brief comments, and while my speech may have sounded like a hackneyed amalgam of every judge's cliché in the book (“You should all be really proud of yourselves”, etc.), I really meant every word of my platitudinous praise. These were first and second year kids, so in the case of the former they have been formally studying English for less than a year, but were able to give five minute speeches from memory in front of a room full of people and a panel of judges. That's impressive in my book.

Following the prizegiving, we had a kind of private debriefing. Now, you would think that in a meeting in which you can't understand a word of what is being said, you would do well to keep quiet. But for reasons I can't really explain, I decided to stick my oar in. When asked if I had any comments, I pointed out how terrible an idea it was to have the same person coaching and judging, because of all the conflicts of interests that entails. I suggested some kind of ALT exchange for next time. A little later, I offered the unsolicited opinion that in the section of the competition where the students gave speeches they had written themselves (in Japanese), it was a bad idea to give 40% of the marks for content, since that reflects in large part the teacher's skill as a translator (and the ALT as an editor, more often than not).

After the contest I was invited out for drinks by a few teachers. It was a fairly last-minute thing, so only a handful of people came along. None of them were particularly senior, giving the evening a relaxed, off-the-record kind of feel. One teacher - let's call her Motoko - told me that my outspoken comments had raised a few eyebrows. Evidently the Japanese aren't used to being told that their way they do things is wrong, much less by upstart gaijin. But she reckoned that my points were valid and was glad I had made them, commenting that perhaps it took an outsider's perspective to challenge the received wisdom on how things should be conducted. So hopefully I didn't disgrace myself too much.

While I typically swan off home at around half past four if there is nothing for me to do, I was dimly aware that the average Japanese teacher's (and, for that matter, student's) day went on substantially longer. I sensed that this would be a good opportunity to ask the teachers what their work was really like. I was disturbed by what they had to say. An average sort of time to call it a day seemed to be around 8pm. That's a 12-hour day, five days a week. At a certain school which has a similar attitude to work as I have to snowboarding, working until midnight was not uncommon. I remind you that these were not headmasters, nor even heads of English. Furthermore, if there is some school related event at the weekend, which there often is, teachers are expected to attend.

Japanese teachers are only contracted to work until 4:50pm (my day officially ends at 4:15pm); the rest is all unpaid overtime. Motoko hasn't always been a teacher, instead working for a private firm in a big city until fairly recently. How do these hours compare to the private sector, I asked. She said that 12-hour days were de rigeur there too, but at least she had the weekend to herself.

What do they spend all this time doing? Well, the things that I imagine teachers do after school, i.e. marking and preparing lessons, seemed to represent a pretty small percentage of it. For a start, there are club activities. It seems that almost every teacher is expected to lead some sort of after school club, typically sports-based. The fact that said teacher may have no interest or ability in the sport does not excuse them from this duty. Then there are all the events schools put on here: chorus festivals, cultural festivals, sports days, graduation ceremonies, speech contests, school trips, etc., etc. These all take organisation. And there seems to be a lot of newsletter writing that goes on. I'm always having mysterious sheets of paper put on my desk that appear to be roundups of what's been going on in each year, which must take up a lot of someone's time.

But for me, the hardest part of a teacher's job to get my head around is the bizarre quasi-paternal responsibility that teachers have over their students. One example of this came during the evening, when Motoko-sensei excused herself, explaining that she had to phone the parents of one of her speech contestants to apologise for his disappointing performance. This was one of the moments when Japanese society was just so at odds with my cultural expectations that I had to laugh out loud. But this is the way things are done. Say a kid gets caught shoplifting: his or her homeroom teacher will go to the police station to deal with it. If a parent has some problem with their offspring's education, the teacher is expected to drop everything and discuss the matter with them. Teacher friends of mine have canceled nights out in the past for this very reason.

The teachers present admitted that they frequently didn't get enough sleep because of their workload. Indeed, this evening out was a rare opportunity to socialise. They seemed to realise that this wasn't really healthy; everyone seemed to know someone who had got sick from stress, and there are government initiatives to attempt to reduce the instances of karoushi ("death from overwork" - yup, the Japanese have a word for it). But they all had a resigned, well-what-can-you-do sort of attitude to it.

They did seem a little peeved when I told them how comparatively easy teachers in the UK have it. They were particularly outraged by their famously long holidays, and the revelation that they are indeed on holiday for the duration of them - apparently students and teachers still have to do some form of work over the summer holiday here.

They asked how the UK manages to have such a well-respected education system given all this slackness. This is a good question - for all people might moan about falling standards, the fact is that according to the Times Higher Education rankings (sure, you can argue about the validity of any given ranking, but whatever) Britain has four of the world's top ten universities (the rest are American). My own alma mater comes in 20th equal, just above Japan's best effort. My personal, biased, uninformed take on this is that British schools cut out all the nonsense and just teach. It's all killer, no filler. Actual lessons in a Japanese junior high school only take up five or six hours, i.e. pretty much the same as in a British school. Unlike a British school, the regular schedule is frequently interrupted for the various special events I mentioned previously. Getting an afternoon off to practice for the Christmas carol service or whatever was a rare treat at my school, but hardly a week goes by without something like that happening here.

Obviously I don't see much of classes other than English, but I am vaguely aware of 'morality class'. To be fair, I guess we had pointless stuff like religious education and PSE as well, but it seems to me that quite a lot of time is spent trying to build children's characters and make them into proper members of society. I know a lot of people in the UK think that we should have more of this, but I personally think it's a very good thing that we don't. This is partly because I am pathologically individualistic even by Western standards - I view attempts to socially engineer schoolkids as at best futile and at worst downright sinister. But from a more practical standpoint, students and teachers can only concentrate for so many hours in a day, and the more time you devote to nebulous extra-curricular development, the less actual, proper, useful knowledge is going to get learned.

Woah, it seems I had a lot of opinions - I mean, observations - bottled up. Thanks for listening.


  1. Hey Finlay

    Karoushi! I LIKE itand will now use it as my official pseudonym when making abusive calls to "Sportsound" - what is their word for "enjoying life whilst under-performing".

    For most British teachers remember, our famously long holidays are spent moping around waiting for the joy of the new term.

  2. Good to hear from you, Karoushi-sensei. (For the purposes of saying it on the radio, note that the middle syllable has a long `o` vowel, as is `row (a boat)`).

    I suspect the Japanese have no term for the situation you describe, so I`d like to offer "to finree".

  3. Let me offer a counter-observation - I don't think teachers in the UK (or anywhere else) do have it easy.
    Although the holidays are in theory long there is lots of marking and preparation, and like in Japan many other things to do outside just teaching.

    Who is 'Karoushi Conners'? Are they a teacher?

  4. do they call you "finree"? or mista finree?

    I have been practising my pronunciation - listen - Ka-row-shee - what do you think? Does it sound OK? Or maybe a bit too much "eee"?

    I will attempt to keep up to day with your progress and offer helpful advice where inappropriate.

  5. The Japanese rendering of my name is 'finree suchuwaato', but in class I try to get them to pronounce my name correctly. Kids will occasionally call me 'Mr Finlay', but I tell them that unlike '-san', 'Mr' can't be used with first names. Co-workers call me 'Finlay-sensei' because I'm a teacher, and friends call me either 'Finlay-san', 'Finlay-kun' or 'Finlay-chan', depending on just how familiar they want to be. I have thus far resisted the temptation to tell anyone to call me 'Dr Stewart'.

    Your pronunciation is looking pretty good - that last vowel is a full-on 'i' as in 'sheep', but its duration is short, so be careful not to overcook it.

  6. I think it must be quite common for Mr to be used with a first name in most parts of the world from the Middle East to Japan.

    When I was in Kuwait I would often be called Mr Doggie ...............