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AFTER-SCHOOL OVERLOAD

Overworked teachers call for change as extracurricular supervision takes toll

by

Staff Writer

As this year’s elementary school graduates enter junior high school in April, one of their biggest concerns will be which extracurricular club to join.

Known as bukatsu, the clubs are so central to the Japanese junior high and high school experience that they not only determine students’ friendships but also affect their later development.

But this long-held tradition is now coming under fire, and from an unexpected quarter: The teachers forced to supervise them say the expectations placed on them are inhumane and driving them to exhaustion.

We look at the emerging controversy over extracurricular clubs:

What is bukatsu?

First-year pupils are typically instructed immediately after enrollment to join a bukatsu outside their classroom hours, with their choices ranging from athletic activities, such as soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming, to nonathletic pursuits, including art, calligraphy, tea ceremony and brass band.

Students practice their chosen activities almost daily, mostly after school, over the weekend and sometimes even before school. In what resembles a military culture, strong vertical relationships permeate their activities, with younger students often expected to show unquestioning subordination to their senpai masters a year or two older.

Since each activity usually takes place within the premises of schools, teachers are tasked with supervising whatever club they are assigned to and coaching the members — although some teachers are no expert in what they are supposed to teach.

Bukatsu is technically regarded as a “volunteer” activity under the education ministry’s current guidelines. But many junior high schools and, to a lesser extent, high schools pressure students to join one.

What is the history of bukatsu?

Originally incorporated into the school curriculum around 1970, the precursor of bukatsu — kurabu katsudo (club activity) — remained an official subject until 1998.

But even before that, many schools had reduced bukatsu to the after-school activity that it is today in order to cut the amount of class time under the yutori (relaxed) education policy of the early 1980s through the mid-2000s that was designed to ease student stress, according to Hiroshi Nishijima, an associate professor of education studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

Its 1998 withdrawal from the school curriculum, however, didn’t put an end to the culture of bukatsu, because many teachers back then regarded it as an effective way to teach unruly students discipline, Nishijima said.

What are the pros and cons of bukatsu?

Bukatsu is often credited with improving students’ sociability, perseverance and the spirit of teamwork. It also gives them easy, low-cost access to whatever athletic or artistic activities they find interesting, at times even influencing their choice of a future career path.

At the same time, the clubs take a heavy toll on teachers.

Complaints are rife that teachers who supervise the clubs are overworked to such an extent that they barely have time for their private life, causing some to have mental breakdowns or marital problems.

In 2011, then-26-year-old Hirohito Maeda, an Osaka teacher, reportedly died of heart failure after toiling over his duties both as a class teacher and bukatsu coach for months on end.

Indeed, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey in 2013 found that junior high school teachers in Japan spend 7.7 hours a week supervising extracurricular activities, more than triple the OECD average of 2.1 hours.

An education ministry 2006 survey showed 76.2 percent of junior high school teachers nationwide were charged with overseeing bukatsu activities.

How tough do teachers have it?

Ryusuke, an English teacher in his 30s in central Japan, had until a few years ago been a devoted coach of a tennis team he was assigned to. His dedication, however, didn’t last after he realized his private life was falling apart.

Aside from spending a minimum of two hours supervising the team after school, Ryusuke found himself inundated with coaching duties every weekend — sometimes up to 12 hours a day — particularly when he accompanied his team on out-of-town tournaments.

On his busiest days, Ryusuke, who asked that his surname be withheld, said he did 100 hours of overtime a month or worked for 90 days straight. He barely had time to interact with his own children at home and prepare for his English class. And most of his extra work went unpaid.

In general, teachers don’t get paid for the overtime they do supervising clubs on weekdays.

Their weekend coaching duties are supposed to be paid. But the daily allowance typically amounts to a few thousand yen (a maximum of ¥4,000 in Ryusuke’s prefecture), far from enough to offset the expenses they incur, including purchasing training equipment and paying for transportation.

“It’s almost like you’re paying to overwork,” Ryusuke said. “The way I see it, bukatsu is a serious labor issue that borders on illegal.”

What steps are being taken to counter the situation?

Ryusuke and five other like-minded teachers recently launched an online petition demanding a revision to the education ministry’s current guidelines so teachers can decline to supervise club activities.

Today’s guidelines stipulate bukatsu is an option for students but says nothing about the obligation for teachers.

This ambiguity has customarily given school principals leeway to assign rank-and-file teachers to a club activity at the beginning of each school year. Ryusuke tried to defy the tradition last year by requesting he be spared bukatsu duties, to no avail.

On Thursday, the campaigners submitted 23,522 signatures to education minister Hiroshi Hase.

What needs to change?

The education ministry is aware of the problem surrounding overworked teachers.

In proposals last summer, an advisory panel to the education minister called for outsourcing bukatsu activities.

Nishijima of Tokyo Metropolitan University agrees.

Even today, mothers and fathers volunteer to coach students, but the biggest challenge ahead is “how to systematically support such individuals and evaluate their coaching skills,” he said.

  • Toolonggone

    Teachers should say NO to school principal or head teacher for duties that will force them to excessive overtime work. And, there ought to be a law that bans mandatory assignment of extra duties or any kind of bullying, intimidation, harassment by school leaders upon rank-and-file teachers for refusing to take extra duties.This kind of demoralization practice needs to put an end forever.

  • Blair

    Remember to thank the teachers who babysit our kids while they miss out on time with theirs

  • FunkyB

    Good, informative article. While bukatsu is a boon for students, it can be quite a burden for teachers, who have other after school activities as well (meetings, extra enrichment classes, detention duty, setsumeikais for prospective parents/students, etc.).
    Athletic clubs are the most demanding, as they typically add a good 3 hours of unpaid required work time to the regular weekday/Saturday schedule. The biggest problem is losing Sundays and holidays off, and not being able to take off other days because of that. Matches take out the whole day and can be very far away, meaning teachers have to get up earlier than on weekdays — and the next day is Monday and they’re back at school starting a new week with no day off. The same goes for vacation periods like Golden Week. And in August, expect to spend a full week at gasshuku (sports camp).
    It would be sad to see bukatsu fade away, as it is a valuable way to support student growth outside the classroom, but the real cost of the program is not being taken into account. Teachers are now faced with more challenges in adapting curricula to changing global standards while battling shrinking enrollments rates, and there isn’t the slack in the system in terms of manpower and time, that there must have been before. Outsourcing non-weekday bukatsu, or simply reducing the frequency is probably the only solution.

  • ilovetataki

    I applaud Japanese public school teachers across the board, and I support fully this petition. As a former JET Programme ALT, I saw the dedication Japanese teachers have to their students and work, and it is remarkable. Unfortunately, it teachers are too often pressured in to take on an unreasonable load of responsibility. The teachers themselves pay the price by damaging their physical and mental health, and in the long run they burn out and the students lose out too. ‘Bukatsu’ is a great thing. It really does keep kids engaged in positive activities that foster development, and I believe it is also one of the reasons for Japan’s low crime. ‘Bukatsu’ should be maintained, but ways should be sought to relieve the teachers from the overwhelming duty. Considering Japan’s large population of retirees, I believe there is an untapped potential to get qualified and fit retirees to run and manage school clubs instead of or along with teachers. It would be a win-win at no financial cost.

  • GBR48

    Education is one of those things that seems to mimic those laws of physics you learned about in school and have since forgotten, specifically, you get out what you put in.

    So if you hand teachers a couple of thousand Yen in exchange for their weekends and family life, don’t expect your education system to be world class.

    And if your younger club members are expected to be the vassals of their senpai, expect them to learn a lot about bullying and not much else. To be fair, that may be more use to them in later life than calligraphy, notwithstanding the beauty of that art.

    Whenever a politician or bureaucrat gets away with abusing the professional requirements of any aspect of the education system, they should be aware that they have thrown a spanner in the works, and all the rest of the investment that the state – ie. you, the taxpayers – have made in the education of the next generation has been sabotaged by their actions.

    These things work like a row of dominoes. If you break one bit, you break the whole thing.

    Exhausted teachers treated badly by the system and denied a home life are not going to have the time, the energy or the will to inspire and enthuse their charges. Would you, if you were treated like that?

  • Jonathan Fields

    Extracurricular supervision? Back when I was a lowly English teacher, I visited dozens of schools. There was maybe (MAYBE) one teacher at each school that actually watched the club they were assigned. The other teachers were in the teacher’s room talking, drinking coffee, and messing around on their computers. It’s the culture of “spread my work out so it takes me all day and I can stay until the boss is ready to leave.” There’s also that implicit pressure to stay that people feel when they leave before others. I’m not sure how to address that issue, but it’s a big thing.

  • Pink Floyd

    Bukatsu is nothing short of preparation for a life of drudgery, kids spend their time in school all day then juku and even on saturdays they go to school, what about spending quality time with the family? or playing out with friends? no its just regimentation and brainwashing into the senpai kohai system… good riddance to bukatsu.

  • Max Erimo

    I’ve been working in the same junior high school for 15 years and have seen any types of people who are assigned or volunteer to supervise bukatsu.
    Some became teachers so they could continue to do bukatsu. Some volunteer because they like the activity they supervise. While some have no interest at all but cannot refuse to supervise theclub, and do the bare minimum.
    Weekend activities are usually well supervised, but sometimes teachers spend time in the staff room finishing leftover work while students pratice unsupervised. I always wonder what happens if there is an accident during this time.
    Teachers aside, I find that bukatsu continues the strong military traditions of Japan by reinforcing that you must listen blindly to those above you. It is a breeding ground for bullying also. This is often left unchecked, because the teachers experienced this, and it is all down to ‘jogei kankei’.
    Each to their own but I do not believe the bukats good for either students or teachers in its current form.

  • Max Erimo

    I’ve been working in the same junior high school for 15 years and have seen any types of people who are assigned or volunteer to supervise bukatsu.
    Some became teachers so they could continue to do bukatsu. Some volunteer because they like the activity they supervise. While some have no interest at all but cannot refuse to supervise theclub, and do the bare minimum.
    Weekend activities are usually well supervised, but sometimes teachers spend time in the staff room finishing leftover work while students pratice unsupervised. I always wonder what happens if there is an accident during this time.
    Teachers aside, I find that bukatsu continues the strong military traditions of Japan by reinforcing that you must listen blindly to those above you. It is a breeding ground for bullying also. This is often left unchecked, because the teachers experienced this, and it is all down to ‘jogei kankei’.
    Each to their own but I do not believe the bukats good for either students or teachers in its current form.

  • Billy Valvo

    No link to the petition… ?