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When it comes to discipline in class, leave it to the locals

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

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.”

Learning Curve is a forum for the teaching community. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to: community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Nevin Thompson

    I taught at a middle school in Fukui prefecture as an ALT and loved it. I had a teaching credential (BEd) and teaching experience, as well as good Japanese speaking and reading ability, which made it easier.

    Building a rapport with students is pretty critical, as is lesson structure. Start the class out with something easy like a worksheet, and work your way up to the hard stuff (actually using English) by the end of the lesson.

    I had a real blast team-teaching in middle school. But I was always careful to remember that student “misbehaviour” (unless they were doing something illegal or anti-social) could always be attributed to an outside factor, such as time of day or how I planned and structured the lesson.

    Great fun.

  • M. Smitty

    Teaching in Japanese public schools can be difficult and extremely frustrating. However, a good ALT who understands the way Japanese schools work, and the way Japanese kids think, can overcome these things. I dont believe it necessary to rely on ones tattoos or facial hair to get the students to listen. Teachers should operate above such trivial things- leave the facial hair competition to the kids! And I certainly dont think that all ALTs should be performing monkeys either. If thats what the teachers and students expect then it should be immediately counteracted by the ALT. Renforcing steriotypes by pandering to silly preconceptions is exactly the opposite of what an ALT should be doing. Being proffessional, engaging and interesting is better for the students and will gain a lot more genuine respect than bragging about your tattoos.

    • Tuna Ghost

      sounds like you’ve never taught in Sakai

  • japancritical

    I think most ALTs (outside the JET program) will realise where they stand in the scheme of things when they get their paycheck and/or are let go for no justifiable reason whatsoever. And way to go on the JT encouraging debate among “teaching professionals”: Humiliate your students in front of their classmates!
    If you are coming to Japan to be an ALT (in fact any brand of English teacher) you’re crazy.

  • japancritical

    Good post, though in fairness a lot of Japanese women, their options in Japan are basically:
    (if you’re lucky) workaholic lonely professional who will never be promoted and will be responsibe for fixing the ineptitude of useless male workers.
    Part-time contract worker (working fulltime hours) for poverty level wages.
    Worker in some branch of the sex industry.
    So you can’t really blame them for plumping for a career as a useless parasitic housewife.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    The statement is about ownership of your own life. A self-directed person does things they do not enjoy because they view it in the broader context of the benefit to their life. That is much much different than conditioning someone to believe that life is primarily made of that kind of stuff.

    In the first point of view, the unliked stuff is the exception and is psychologically unimportant. In the second, it is joy that is the exception and the “task” that is viewed to be the bulk of existence so it needs to be gotten used to and accepted as the “to be expected.”

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I taught one year of grade 1-3 English (not mandatory, but my school was ahead of the curve) and partly because of student behaviour, I didn’t re-sign.
    I don’t know about all schools, but the schools that I have attended (when I was in HS) and taught at have all had wildly uncontrollable students. I remeber one kid with ADHD would spend the entire 40 minutes running up and down the rows, and in and out of rooms screaming. Its HARD to compete with that! I asked the teacher to grab him , to which she replied, “we can’t touch the kids.” “Then you teach, I’m outta here.”

  • dd

    I have taught at a few schools and have seen a wide range of student behavior. The worst school was a public Junior High in Nerima-ku. There was a gang that effectively ran the school. The first day I started was the first day of classes in the fall semester in the beginning of September. It was a hot day but, as I learned later, the gang had made a rule that only gang members could wear their shirt tails out. Everyone else had to tuck theirs in. One non-gang member first year student had his shirt out, and when the gang leader saw that he confronted him and ended up breaking the kids’ arm. I remember the ambulance being called and all the commotion very well. My most memorable first day of work ever! The school suspended the gang leader for two weeks but he came back to the school from the next day with no further (attempt at) punishment.

    Things like this went on the whole semester I was there, and though there were some bright spots in my experience, overall it was laughable that this was considered a schooling experience. I even asked and met with the principal about this and explained that I found the situation in this school as “unimaginable”. I also stressed how I felt this situation kept the good kids from really excelling because they, and everybody else, were most worried with not incurring the wrath of the gang. And pleasing the teachers by openly studying hard and seeming interested in the lessons often drew the attention of the gang members.

    I also explained that in my country the school would most certainly address the gang situation, plan/try something and probably expel the bad kids if their behavior did not improve. The principal largely agreed with my assessment but with the last point he asked me “But if we expel any students where will they go? They will become somebody else’s problem, and is it fair for us to just pass them along to someone else? At least if they are in the school here we can watch them”.

    I found out later that the school principals for public schools (in Nerima?) are rotated every three years. After that they are reviewed and sent to the next school. As long as there were no problems at their last place they continue on in their careers. So the motivation to do something bold and sweeping certainly didn’t exist with the principal. He was just getting along to go along.

    The teachers on the other hand were there to stay, thus in a much different boat and I had mixed feelings for them. They were the ones who tried to do the best to handle the gang, and received a lot of physical and psychological abuse in the process, but they also did a lot of ignoring this gigantic elephant in the room. There was one particular incident when a homeroom teacher took the cigarettes from the desk of the gang leader and the gang leader – when he found out – stormed into the teacher’s room and demanded his cigarettes back. After some pushing and yelling the teachers ultimately relented and gave them back. Keep in mind this was one third year Jr. High boy vs. 4 adult teachers. Once the boy was gone, the teachers all said “お疲れ様” to each other and got on with their day. I was stunned and said to the teacher next to me, “That was crazy. After all that and he got his cigarettes back?!?” She said to me “Well, at least it’s not as bad as it was last year”.

    So to relate all that back to the story this is a comment on, I think Japanese schools, both public and private, are largely good or decent, but when one goes bad, it can get really bad and it takes a lot of determination and effort to turn the tide. Sadly few schools do anything. As an ALT in such a situation, it will test you in ways you never imagined. I think many posters have taken issue with Mr Joseph’s final advice of “Try to be intimidating” but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as it can be interpreted broadly. I am tall myself and without trying to be intimidating many students seemed fearful of me in my ALT days, especially the first few times I went to the school. It seemed that the students were more attentive, listened better and participated more than in their other classes, and some of my team teachers even joked that they wished I could join them in their other classes.

    If the teacher seeming to be 強い makes for a better learning environment, then I can’t really fault that kind of acting on the teacher’s part, but without any authority, the “power” aura will surely fade and can end up back firing if taken too far. In any event, as time passes, ALTs will need to develop other skills/techniques to be an effective teacher.

    All that said, and to finally conclude (congrats for making it this far), I think strongly that until you have been in such situations like these, its difficult to understand the paradigm and just how different it can be from schooling experiences outside Japan.

  • Max Erimo

    I have been working in the English (Education) system for 17 years and in the one town for well over ten.
    I have known most of the children since kindergarten.
    Another way of thinking is that I,the ALT, often discipline the class because the Japanese teacher simply can’t. They are afraid of the students and afraid of the parents who will come and complain if their little ‘darlings’ are chastised. I guess the other thing on my side is I know virtually all the parents also. Japanese teachers move around alot so they only interact with the children for between 1 and 6 years on average.

  • japancritical

    Good for you. It sounds like you’ve got your head screwed on straight. Enjoy your time in Japan!