A Day in the Life – Part 1
So I thought I’d talk about the difference between an average school day in Canada and Japan. I guess the best way to explain the most glaring differences between the systems is to narrate a typical day stopping as I go to highlight the points of interest. I should also stress that this is from the point of view of someone working at a rural junior high school. While a lot of what I’ll explain is most likely common throughout the country it would be presumptions of me to declare it the Japanese Way.
I’ll use myself as the main character of this story: Andrew, 26 year old male, mostly trollish in appearance. Our plucky protagonist steps out the door of his old, but oh-so-cheap, apartment and jumps on his bike, ready to start his commute. Without finishing page 1 we’ve already hit upon a difference. While Andrew is afforded the great freedom of choosing which road to take, the option being a high traffic narrow road or a higher traffic narrower road, the students don’t have this luxury. Students that bike to school, which accounts for most of them, are required to follow a predetermined bike route, stay in a single file line, and walk their bikes over all train crossings. “All well and good but impossible to enforce” you say, firm in your beliefs. To make sure this happens, teachers and other community members stand along the bike paths and monitor the students as they make their way to school.
So we’ve made it to school and Andrew parks his bike at the back of the bike parking lot. The bike parking is also enforced. Students are given specific locations to park and it is separated by grade and gender. As Andrew makes his way to the front door he enjoys the sing song “good mornings” of the good students and ohayogozaimasus’ of the lazier lot. It all sounds so perfect, almost staged. That’s because it kind of is. Saying hello in the morning to teachers and other students is something that is judged and graded on each students report card under the heading of aisatsu; greetings. Choosing to believe the students are more interested in an honest hello than getting an A, Andrew makes his way into the school and immediately takes his shoes off. Outdoor shoes are a big no no in a lot of traditional Japanese interiors and the school is no exception. While this might not be a mind blowing revelation perhaps the shoe styles are. No one really cares what you are wearing as long as it’s not the pair you came in with. As such, most teachers just throw on whatever is comfortable, looks be dammed. This creates quite a visual clash where teachers walking around in their Sunday best are also sporting the latest in Hello Kitty slipper fashion.
Andrew is now into the school and enters the staff room. He gives his best ohayogozaimasu and the teachers respond in kind. I don’t think these ones are graded. I’ve never worked as a teacher in Canada so I can’t really speculate on differences within the staffroom but one thing that struck me, from the perspective of a former student, is the free flow of students into and out of the staffroom to talk with or hand things to the teachers. I’ve always remembered the staffroom as being this object of great mystery. The room where teachers plotted and schemed locked away from the prying eyes of students. Hell, it’s more commonly referred to as a teachers lounge. Sounds like a dingy place you’d find off some backstreet. Sign out front neon light with a flickering E. Low lighting, cheap décor, and contemporary Jazz humming low in the background. The aging math teacher, cigar in hand, drunk waltzes over to the young, attractive English teacher marking her stack of essays on a marbled counter top – “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
The first major event of the day is about to begin: the staff meeting. Being that he’s not Japanese and has no real responsibilities or extra curricular activities at the school Andrew spends his time during the staff meetings working on his Japanese listening skills and polishing off a cup of coffee. The morning meeting goes over the basics: the day’s schedule, events past or present, current issues at the school, and student problems around town. Here again is another major departure between Japanese teachers and their western counterparts. A Japanese students’ homeroom teacher is in many ways considered a second parent to the child. They are expected not only to educate the students, but keep up to date with their goings on at home, life, and around the town. In many cases, should a student get in trouble out on the town their homeroom teacher is the first to get a call. After the meeting ends there’s maybe another 20 minutes or so until the bell chimes (fun fact: many Japanese schools use the chime of Big Ben as the school bell) and it’s on to classes for the day.
The Japanese classroom. Let that idea marinate for a little bit in your head. What are your immediate assumptions? The teacher, sensei, standing proud in front of row after row of a subservient student body. Each part of the cog playing their part. The whole system working in harmonious order. Well I regret to inform you that students are students regardless where you are in the world. For every stereotypical quiet studious Japanese kid there’s either a student that never pays attention, one that never speaks, one you wish would stop speaking, and three sleeping in the back. There’s certainly an overall formality present in a Japanese classroom that isn’t seen at home. For example, I’ve never seen a student late for class and at the beginning and ending of every lesson the students stand in unison and bow. That being said it’s still full of all the tropes you’d expect from the life and times of a Junior High School classroom. Our hero steps into the lions den as the students slowly file back into the class. They’ve taken their seats. Big Ben again rings though the halls, signaling the beginning of the period. The congregation rises, bows, and takes a seat. Andrew takes a breath, dons a smile and starts with a tried and true.
“Good morning everyone!”