Aaron Joseph remembers the email Interac sent him regarding his school placement in Sakai, Osaka, in August 2012.
“There was a line that said, ‘It’s kind of a rough school, but we are sure you can handle it.’ ”
It didn’t take long for the Nashville-born Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) to see the company wasn’t kidding about Otori Junior High School.
“My first day teaching — my very first class — one kid asked me, ‘Are you a miserable f-ck?’ I did a double take — it was perfect pronunciation.” He says the next six months at Otori were filled with disinterested classes, instances of students smoking inside and fights — some nearly breaking out between students and teachers.
Although his situation was extreme, Joseph faced a challenge shared by many ALTs in Japan: how to deal with misbehaving students. Not every ALT has to stare down scrappers and smokers everyday, but most have dealt with loud, inattentive or disruptive classes and students, sometimes frequently. How does a non-Japanese teacher approach discipline in these scenarios?
For Joseph, it was clear: don’t engage. “Interac made it pretty clear at orientation that discipline was not our business,” he says. “Don’t get in a battle of wills with a teenager — if you get mad at them, you can’t do anything.”
Private dispatch companies tend to be direct about discipline; in their teaching manuals, businesses such as Interac or Aichi Prefecture-based Altia Central strongly advise ALTs to leave matters of discipline to fully licensed teachers.
For teachers working through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, or those tasked with leading classes by themselves, disciplinary procedures aren’t so straightforward. The JET handbook for ALTs never explicitly states that a foreign teacher should avoid discipline, offering up only strategies to stop students from becoming disruptive. [The Japan Times contacted the education ministry about official procedures, but did not get a response in time for publication.]
Daniel Nicholls, a JET ALT based in Mie Prefecture, says he has never been told by JET, his board of education or his school not to discipline students.
“My students are very rowdy,” he says. “Lots of chatter, never 100 percent silent. Most of the time they act like any work is a major hassle for them and they’ll lay about on their desks or just go to sleep,” he says.
Jake Arnold is the coordinator of the Junior Senior High School Special Interest Group for the non-profit English teaching group JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching). He has been teaching English in Japan for 17 years and experienced the same kind of disciplinary issues when working at a private high school.
“Since most ALTs are team teaching, it’s important to talk with your Japanese partner about issues,” he says. “Japanese teachers think that they are responsible for class discipline and from a legal standpoint, they are.” Arnold says going to your prefectural board of education is an option, though ALTs “might cause a lot of damage to their relationship with their colleagues” if they do.
Despite having legal grounds to act, Arnold says many Japanese teachers simply don’t deal with certain inappropriate behavior. “Some think students talking when a teacher is, not listening or sleeping during class aren’t discipline problems. It might be necessary to accept this difference in educational culture values and develop ways of dealing with the situation you have.”
Cultural differences do play a big part in the discipline process, and there could be consequences to an ALT entering into a conflict blindly. Having a Japanese teenager yell at you in a language you don’t understand could make you look dumb or weak in front of other students. Or a pack mentality could develop and you could find none of the students cooperating in the next lesson. Most ALTs on JET visit a classroom once a month, but those students are with each other almost every day. Whose side would you choose?
Arnold’s approaches to curbing any issues that might arise vary from getting to know students outside of class (“interact with them between periods”) to praising good work, and even (“in the nicest possible way”) publicly shaming them. “Shouting ‘zero points’ while standing next to someone helps encourage them to work.
“Keep it nice, make the student look silly in front of their classmates. That sometimes works.”
Still, Arnold says, “The biggest thing to consider is the Japanese teacher. If they have told you they are responsible for discipline, stand back and allow them to restore order.”
Japanese teachers are well informed about how to discipline students; every new school term, the education ministry publishes research papers about punishment. These reports help guide educators on how to handle discipline and lay out specifics dos and don’ts, including how long a teacher can make a student stand before it becomes illegal.
There is one constant, though. “Corporal punishment is illegal in Japanese schools,” says Aaron Miller, an assistant professor at Kyoto University. Miller, whose book “Discourses Of Discipline: An Anthropology of Corporal Punishment in Japan’s Schools and Sports” came out earlier this year, says this has been the case since the School Education Law was passed in 1947. Teachers are not allowed to strike — or threaten to strike — the students. Several high-profile incidents of abuse, however, have emerged over the past few years. The most recent case came last month, when video footage taken on a cell phone of a volleyball coach slapping a student went viral. The coach was a teacher at Hamamatsu Nittai Senior High School in Shizuoka Prefecture.
“Some people in Japan perceive corporal punishment as furthering values of order, hierarchy and respect for authority,” Miller says. If an ALT were to witness an abusive act, he says reporting it to authorities could lead a to a single educator changing their behavoir, but it might be tough.
“As a foreigner in Japan, trying to convince Japanese teachers to change their ways is going to be pretty difficult given that the education ministry is already trying to change their ways with laws, and failing,” Miller says.
The consensus is that ALTs should leave disciplinary issues to Japanese instructors. “If they have told you they are responsible for discipline and the class is not listening to you, stand back and allow the Japanese teacher to restore order,” Arnold says.
Joseph says he found other ways to get his students to lay off a bit. “I lived in the same town as my students, so they would see me and I’d walk to school with them. They’d see me smoking, they knew I had tattoos and they would see me with my girlfriend. We got along well. It helped that I was tall, American and had a beard.
“Try to be intimidating, but also don’t try to be an authoritarian — because you don’t have any authority.”
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