Discipline in schools is not a bad thing

Dear minister of education Tatsuo Kawabata,

I have been working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in your public school system for five months now. Although it might be considered a bit premature to pen a word to you after such a short time, I would like to draw your attention to some fairly standard behavior across the six schools I work at. I think it is also time to let you in on a little secret: Disciplining students is not a bad thing. It just depends on how it is done.

Ten or so years ago, the government passed some legislation that states that every child has a right to be in the classroom. Yes, a lovely ideological right. I get it — education is for all. The flaw, though, is that when a student is being a pain in the oshiri and disrupting the class for others, there is little, if anything, the teacher can do. The child cannot be a) scolded (teachers fear retribution from parents these days), b) made to write lines (a very productive form of punishment used in many Western school systems), c) sent to the back corner of the room or out into the corridor, or d) marched on down to the principal’s office. Why? Because all of these forms of discipline would be against the blessed Constitution!

I have spoken with many teachers about this lack of discipline, particularly in junior high schools. Most of them have told me that when a student is behaving badly it is shoganai (loosely translated, “There’s nothing you can do”). I have also been told that when teachers have attempted to contact parents about their child’s bad behavior, many parents have shot back that the problem does not concern them and the school should deal with it. One teacher even told me that the reason teachers often do not explain to students that their behavior is out of line is because they expect, in time, that the students will realize for themselves that what they have been doing is not OK.

My problem with this supposed organic way of dealing with delinquent behavior is that if the student is never told their behavior is wrong, how can they know what they are doing is not OK? If there is nothing to deter them from behaving badly and no distinction is made between when they are well behaved and badly behaved, how can they feel any motivation to adjust their behavior?

I understand that the Japanese mentality favors mind-reading over any direct communication, but honestly, for children there are two incentives that motivate them: reward and punishment. I am not calling for a return to whips and beatings by teachers; I am asking for a system where a student understands that if they behave badly they will be disciplined and if they behave appropriately they will be rewarded. Children are not complex beings — they desire this form of order and they need it.

Teachers too need this system. In the current environment, where children have all the power, there is little teachers can and are allowed to do to maintain decorum in the classroom. I know personally of two teachers who have taken leave from work for stress because, with no power to control their students, they have physically and mentally burnt out.

When I was of junior high school age, teachers often tempted us with rewards such as no homework if we completed tasks quickly. I also remember the fear of going to the principal’s office to explain myself if I acted up in class. Indeed, I can also recall those students who really cut loose with their delinquency and were either suspended or, at the worst, expelled. In Japan neither suspension nor expulsion are used. However, I truly believe students in this country need this system, want this system and would thrive in this system.

I have watched 5th-grade elementary students hijack lessons by screaming and throwing things while the rest of the class, who want to learn, look on without any hope the teacher will do anything about their behavior. I have tolerated, begrudgingly, junior high school students balling up a work sheet I have thoughtfully prepared and tossing it in the bin the minute it is handed out. I have seen teachers look on as a student thumps another kid in the head for fun. I have watched students openly graffiti their desks in black marker with kanji while the teacher marvels at their penmanship. I have stood uncomfortably by as students berate the homeroom teacher over his appearance and laugh at his attempts to speak English. I have calmly rubbed off the obscenities written on the board while students laugh and shout “I hate English!”

It is disheartening, degrading and demotivating to teach in this kind of environment. The real losers, though, are not the ALTs, whose job description forbids them from disciplining wayward kids, but the other children in the class who honestly want to learn.

Granted, Japanese schools in general do not appear to have major problems with drugs, smoking or underage drinking on school grounds. Indeed, in comparison to some American schools, where students are required to pass through metal detectors on their way to class, Japanese schools could be considered a safe environment. However, from my experience they are not an ideal environment for learning the difference between right and wrong. The behavior I have witnessed in the classroom has never made me feel I am in danger, but it has certainly made me feel the future of Japan’s reputation as a mild mannered, socially considerate people is in danger.

So, Mr. Education Minister, perhaps it is time to do away with shoganai and adopt the country’s renowned car manufacturing system of kaizen to address the need for returning power to teachers in public schools. This, I strongly believe, will improve the education system in Japan.


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