The requested demotion of 179 public school principals, vice principals and deputies in 2008 was one of the clearest signs yet of the crisis in Japanese public education. The number of administrators stepping down of their own free choice is the highest ever.

These teachers-turned-administrators should not be seen as giving up, but as expressing their frustration with the difficult demands of running public schools.

The reasons for asking to be relieved of duty are both revealing and concealing. Over 53 percent cited health issues, including psychological ones; 25 percent cited problems with job responsibilities; and 22 percent cited family affairs.

Underlying all of these reasons is surely the stress of running a school. These resignations are a clear call for change. If so many principals are disillusioned with the system, students will not be far behind. The job will never be an easy one, but public school administrators are overworked and rarely given the recognition they deserve. Trapped among the conflicting demands of teachers, students, parents and bureaucrats, they are responsible for multiple burdens. Yet, all of those involved basically want the same thing — better schools.

Finding the right people to become administrators, and keeping them, is crucial for Japanese education. Teachers in the classroom may have more direct impact on what and how students learn, but administrators have a broader effect on school policies, educational objectives, outside activities and the overall atmosphere — vital elements in students’ lives.

Teachers and administrators will do better if they are given regular time off to improve their own skills and knowledge, and to relax. On-the-job learning for administrators is not enough: Better training is needed as well. More democratic input into decision making and greater flexibility in applying general regulations to specific school conditions can help establish the right balance of autonomy and support, while maintaining answerability for individual decisions and policies.

People go into education because of a keen dedication to young people’s growth and development. Yet, all too often, the rigidity of the system and the burden of dealing with so many different demands quash those ideals. Administrators’ burdens must be reduced before another school year begins.

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