• Chunichi Shimbun

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Beginning in April 2022, fifth and sixth grade students in Japan’s public elementary schools will have different teachers for different subjects — a change from the current system where a homeroom teacher essentially teaches everything from math and science to physical education.

The dramatic revision is aimed at easing the burden on teachers — who currently must prepare for all subjects — and allow them to refine their teaching skills and improve their students’ learning experience.

At present, Japan’s elementary school homeroom teachers basically teach every class, but once those students reach junior high and high school, they are taught by different teachers depending on the subject. This new revision is expected to make the transition for primary school to junior high smoother.

The education ministry is prioritizing four subjects for the program: English, science, mathematics and physical education.

The ministry’s expert panel decided to implement the new system from April 2022 with the following goals:

  • To improve teachers’ teaching skills and children’s academic performance.
  • To encourage a variety of perspectives in dealing with students, as multiple teachers will be involved in a class.
  • To offer students a smoother transition from elementary school to junior high school.
  • To create better working conditions for teachers.

Kibukawa Elementary School

Some schools like Kibukawa Elementary School in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, have already introduced the changes as an experimental school — offering a glimpse of what it might look like in classrooms from April as well as the challenges they will face.

In early October, fifth graders at Kibukawa Elementary School were learning about clouds and changing weather patterns during a science lesson.

When science teacher Hidetaka Nagayasu, 62, asked the students what they found out about clouds, many students raised their hands, talking about how they saw more clouds over the mountains and how they moved as the wind blew.

In another class, Yasuji Iba, 61, an art teacher who used to teach art at a junior high school, was teaching fifth graders how to make a pencil stand with clay, making use of sand paper and other tools.

When Iba, who started working at the school in April, taught sixth graders how to make pottery, his students achieved more than what is required in the curriculum.

“Teachers are so busy that it’s difficult for them to communicate with all children,” said Yoshihiro Kataoka, 60, the school’s principal. “We needed to change the way teachers work.”

Kataoka negotiated with the city to introduce the new program in hopes of improving the quality of education and improving students’ academic performances. In a rare move, the school introduced the subject teacher system in all nine subjects for fifth and sixth graders in order to get the best results.

With the revision, five full-time and part-time teachers have been hired, while two other teaching staff will also be teaching classes. Homeroom teachers will be responsible for teaching ethics and comprehensive studies in addition to their fixed subject.

Fifth graders at Ohara Chubu Elementary School in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, learn how rice grows. Due to the small size of the class, students are spread out across the classroom. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN
Fifth graders at Ohara Chubu Elementary School in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, learn how rice grows. Due to the small size of the class, students are spread out across the classroom. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

For Masako Katsuya, 42, the new scheme reduced her workload. As a math teacher, her teaching hours were reduced from 25 to 19 hours per week.

“I can spend more time preparing for classes now that I have a fixed subject to teach,” she said. “I can also take a closer look at students’ homework.”

Since multiple teachers teach a class, homeroom teachers could now seek advice from other teachers when they are concerned about students.

“I don’t have to take care of the children all by myself, and I can work more closely with other teachers.”

So far, students at Kibukawa Elementary School have responded favorably, with nearly 90% of fifth and sixth graders saying they were engaged during the lessons, according to the school’s survey. In addition, 67.8% said that they felt like there were more teachers they could turn to outside of class.

On the other hand, some children wrote that they were “confused” by the involvement of multiple teachers in one class.

“We are seeing promising results, but we will continue to revise areas that need improvement,” Kataoka said, adding that the school will continue on with the system for the next academic year starting in April.

Schools in Hyogo and Ibaraki

The scheme, however, is not entirely new. In fact, Hyogo Prefecture introduced its own system for fifth and sixth graders during April 2012 in 454 public elementary and other compulsory education schools.

Under the system, additional teachers were dispatched to help out in Japanese, math and science classes to allow for a smaller number of students per class.

“By having more than one teacher teaching a class, teachers can pay closer attention to what is going on and the finer details of the students,” said an official with the prefectural board of education. “They say the transition to junior high school is smoother.”

Ibaraki Prefecture introduced a similar system for fifth and sixth grade students in around 470 public elementary schools and compulsory education schools, assigning subject teachers for science, English and math classes.

The prefecture hired about 260 additional teachers for the program, including rehiring retired teachers, dispatching more than one teacher for each school.

Manpower shortages

However, the revision poses a challenge for smaller schools struggling to hire additional teachers, especially those with 11 classrooms or fewer per school.

One of them is Ohara Chubu Elementary School in the mountainous area of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, where there are only 46 students in the entire school.

In mid-October, eight fifth-graders were studying how to grow rice based on photos of rice paddies during a comprehensive studies class. The number of students in other grades is about six or seven per grade. Of the 11 teachers, nine teach classes.

“Teachers can’t afford to take up new duties,” said school principal Shinichi Yamauchi, 57. “We can’t expect the government to dispatch any additional staff for small schools so I don’t know how we are going to make it work.”

Since April, a second grade teacher teaches music to students in all grades, which means other teachers would pitch in to teach second graders in exchange.

Considering the staff shortage, Yamauchi is worried that even if the education ministry’s guideline calls on schools to have subject teachers for English, science, math and physical education, his school will not be able to do so.

“It may be difficult to implement the program depending on which teachers are available at the time,” Yamauchi said.

To make it work, the school has introduced cross-curricular classes. For instance, fifth graders can learn about rice cultivation during social studies, comprehensive studies or English classes.

Yamauchi is worried that if the subject teacher program is introduced, the flexible cross-curricular classes would be difficult to work out.

“I understand why the government is introducing the subject teacher system as it will definitely make their transition to junior high school easier, but it will increase the burden on schools that don’t have the manpower.”

The education ministry plans to gradually add around 8,800 teachers to the new program over the next four years. For the fiscal 2022 budget, the ministry requested enough funds to hire an additional 2,000 personnel. But even if the budget is approved, the ministry will only be able to dispatch teachers to half of the approximate 19,000 public elementary schools across Japan.

Moreover, neither central nor local governments have a clear idea on how they will secure such number of teachers nationwide.

In order to introduce the subject teachers scheme, many municipalities are dispatching more teachers to schools — the most common measure. Some schools have asked teachers within the school to teach different classes, while others have asked teachers from nearby elementary and junior high schools to teach classes at their schools.

The education ministry has indicated that it will be flexible in how schools address the new system.

“The subject teacher system is meant to reform the way teachers work, but I don’t think it can be realized unless each school has its own subject teacher,” said Tomohiro Kina, 60, an advisor to the National Federation of Elementary School Principals and principal of Meiji Elementary School in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

Some municipalities have already brought on new teachers, but not all hires are meant for the subject teacher system. In fact, some schools hired the new teachers in order to have smaller class sizes.

“Some schools may need to drastically change their operations,” said Kina.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original articles were published Nov. 18 and 25.

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