The number of first-year teachers who leave their job for health reasons has increased 20-fold over the past 10 years, according to a survey by the education ministry. By “health” most of the teachers mean “mental health.”
More than 100 teachers left after their first year in 2010, complaining of depression and stress. Only five quit in 2000. If so many teachers feel that much stress, one can imagine how the students in their classes feel.
Of the 8,600 teachers who took a leave of absence for health reasons in 2009, two-thirds cited psychological problems. Others complained of difficulties in human relationships, particularly with so-called monster parents.
The education ministry was reported as saying those teachers “suffered from a gap between reality and what they imagined before they started working.” However, it is the ministry and its education system that seem to be suffering from a reality gap.
What the education ministry needs to realize is that first-year teachers need guidance, practice and preparation, not trial by fire. Without recognizing the particular demands and strains of the classroom, and without sufficient support, even those who do stay are likely to develop superficial coping mechanisms in self-defense rather than developing the genuine skills, craft and insight that high-quality teaching requires.
The Tokyo metropolitan government has started monitoring the emotional state of teachers in their regular health checkups, but many further steps must be taken to improve their working conditions and preparatory education. If teachers do not figure out the complexities of human relationships and learn to handle stress at the beginning of their careers, they may never get on track.
University students who plan on becoming teachers need more and better instruction in pedagogy and psychology. Motivational techniques, classroom organization, lesson structure and leadership values need to be learned at early stages in their studies. Walking into a classroom without a broad sense of where students are coming from and where they need to go is unproductive, confusing, and very stressful.
Certification of teachers is primarily a standardized paper-based exam. What teachers need more than another multiple-choice exam is a solid program of education courses intertwined with extensive practice. These programs are developing in Japan, but at too slow a pace.
Without a broad foundation and practical application in the psychology, pedagogy and curriculum necessary for effective teaching, most teachers are left without sufficient resources when they meet real live human beings.
Aspiring teachers also need more supervised practice before entering the classroom on their own. Japan has a long tradition of master-pupil training in a wide variety of areas, everything from pottery to sushi to business. Beginner teachers are all too often left to their own devices without any apprenticeship.
Most teacher training programs offer only a few weeks of in-class practice at their former junior high or senior high school. That experience is good as far as it goes, but such practice should be continued longer than a couple of weeks.
Instead of being given the chance to gradually accommodate themselves to the rigors of teaching, new teachers are dropped into an overwhelming flurry of meetings, advising club activities and year-round duties.
A lighter workload in the first two years of teaching would allow them to better learn how to handle hundreds of students and multiple tasks. Teachers, and not just new ones, could also greatly benefit from reduced class sizes.
Young teachers also need a degree of autonomy. Instead of imposing the massive number of education ministry regulations, the ministry should allow young teachers a chance to develop their own style of teaching as the best way of increasing their motivation and engagement.
If teachers are not independent, students are never going to be. No one becomes a teacher to follow bureaucratic rules; they become teachers to help students learn.
Schools should also set up better ways of handling so-called monster parents. Establishing a positive atmosphere to handle grievances and discuss children’s problems is essential. At most schools, instead of being handled through regular administrative procedures, dealing with such problems becomes an added burden at the end of the day. Because most schools do not have enough administrators and staff, teachers end up doing administrative work on top of everything else.
Teachers need ongoing education themselves. Unfortunately, without grants, scholarships or time off, most teachers spend their little bit of nonwork time recovering, rather than developing the kind of positive learning they want to inspire in their pupils. The education ministry should set up more chances for continuing education, such as they have done recently by sending some English teachers abroad to study.
If teachers do not have staying power, they are not likely to inspire that in students. Few professions have as broad and powerful an impact as teachers. Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher — it is a very demanding profession — but those who want to be teachers deserve all the help they can get.