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Japan’s overworked and underpaid teachers

by Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell

The Teaching and Learning International Survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 — to examine the working hours of public middle school teachers in 34 countries and regions — came as a shock. The international average was 38.3 hours per week, but by far the highest was Japan’s with 53.9 hours, far higher than any others on the survey. The second highest was Alberta, Canada, with 48.2 hours, and the third was Singapore, with 47.6 hours.

What was even more alarming, however, was a survey carried out by the education ministry in 2016, showing that elementary school teachers in Japan worked an average of 57 hours and 25 minutes, and junior high school teachers 63 hours and 18 minutes per week.

According to the survey, 33.5 percent of elementary school teachers and 57.7 percent of junior high teachers are estimated to have clocked more than 80 hours of overtime a month. If the hours that teachers routinely spend at home to take care of their workload, which come to four or five hours a week, are included, 57.8 percent of elementary school teachers and 74.1 percent of junior high teachers did more than 80 percent of monthly overtime — a level of overwork deemed to threaten workers’ health.

Of course, there are other jobs that require long working hours, such as those in the food and beverage, construction and information-technology sectors. But the ratio of people in those sectors working more than 60 hours a week — roughly translating to over 80 hours of overtime a month — is 28.4 percent, 13.1 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively.

The ministry survey also pointed to the fact that only 10.3 percent of elementary school and 13.3 percent of junior high school teachers record their work hours on time cards or other devices. Most others do not keep records of their hours, and any acknowledgment of their extra work by the management is often informal and casual, such as in early morning roll call meetings.

A media report in January showed that local governments across Japan, to help resolve this problem of teachers’ long overtime, hired roughly 10,000 more teaching staff than under the national government program on their own budget in fiscal 2017. That is certainly good news. But, since there are 20,000 public elementary schools and 10,000 junior high schools in Japan, 10,000 more teachers means an addition of one teacher per every three public schools — not nearly enough to address the problem in any significant way.

Among ideas to resolving many teachers’ overwork, the education ministry has suggested that teachers should be compensated for coaching the students’ after-school sports and cultural activities with days off. Currently, teachers coach these activities not just on weekdays after school, but often on weekends and during holiday seasons without remuneration. A more long-term plan proposes hiring extra manpower for coaching of after-school activities instead of getting teachers to do the task. But where would the funding for that come from?

The ministry also suggests that additional manpower provided by local governments, boards of education, parents and other community volunteers could help with things like watching over students on their way to and from school as well as cleaning classrooms and other facilities so that teachers can be relieved of these tasks. Another responsibility that befalls teachers concerns underage students who may be out at night. Teachers sometimes have to deal with the police on such matters.

Teachers have so many of these extra tasks and responsibilities. A school normally has a budget to hire only one office clerk, and as a result, a majority of clerical jobs are taken care of by teachers. School counselors and social workers visit the school only once every other week. When they are not available, teachers take on those jobs as well. Other tasks include managing lunch time, answering inquiries from parents, collecting petty cash, visiting each student’s home, and so on.

What’s most surprising is that none of the teachers receive overtime pay — and that this is legal. Teachers are excluded from the coverage of the Labor Standards Law provision about payment for overtime work, with the hourly wages at additional rates for the overtime hours and work on days off.

In 1971, the government decided to pay 4 percent of the base salary to teachers to cover any extra work which, at that time, averaged about 2 hours a week. Nearly 50 years later and a teacher’s workload has become so much more, and yet 4 percent of the base salary is still all they get no matter how many extra hours they work.

This issue is certainly not a welcome topic for discussion at the government level. If overtime pay for teachers is adjusted in ways comparable to other industries, ¥1 trillion could be needed to cover the expenses.

If we look at countries and regions where teachers’ working hours are longer than average, we can notice some disturbing commonalities — that teachers tend to work long hours often without additional financial reward.

In Alberta, Canada, teachers’ work hours are set at 44 hours a week but, if the school agrees, teachers can work up to 12 hours a day of overtime. They are supposed to receive 1.5 times the hourly wage for the extra hours but, in most cases, they receive nothing. In Singapore, the regulation is 44 hours work a week with overtime of up to 72 hours a month with a suggested pay of 1.5 times the hourly wage. But yet again, most teachers do not get paid for their overtime.

We all know that children are our future and that education has the power to shape the future — and that teachers play a very important role in this process. According to the OECD survey, 42 percent of teachers polled in Japan said that if they could choose another career, they would not choose to be teachers again. Still, 85 percent of the teachers said they are satisfied with the content of their jobs.

Why would they want to choose other jobs even though they like their current work? This is a question that we need to think about deeply. We need to think why teachers do not get paid overtime as do most workers in other industries. Don’t we need equitable labor regulations for all?

Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell is the founder and chair of Tokyo International School. She serves as the International Baccalaureate Japan ambassador and as adviser on revitalization of education commissioned by the education ministry.