I teach in an IB (International Baccalaureate) school in Japan. It isn’t an international school – it’s a Japanese secondary school with an IB program. All my students are Japanese, but many of them have lived in foreign countries for a year or two. While many of them have experience living abroad, their culture is definitely Japanese. One or two who lived in the US or the UK for a long time could be considered “third-culture kids,” but they are a rarity. Most of the kids are 100% Japanese, culture and nationality.
So what this means is I am an American woman teaching a classroom full of students from a culture that is different from mine. And I am immersed in their culture.
By the way, I am not an ALT (an ALT is an assistant language teacher – most foreigners who teach in Japan are ALTs, including my husband). I am completely in charge of my class. Being a foreign teacher in a Japanese school has its challenges, as you can imagine. One of them is discipline.
Don’t get me wrong. Discipline is not nearly as challenging here as it is in the states. 90% of my students are well-behaved, polite, and no problem whatsoever. But contrary to popular belief, Japanese teenagers are not that different from American students. They have the same bad habits. They do their homework at the last minute. They are sleepy in class. They love their phones, PCs, and video games. They daydream in class. Some of them are even bullies.
There are major differences too, but I don’t want to discuss those at the moment. What I want to discuss is the 10% of students I have that do require some discipline. I have had a variety of students who have done things in class that most American teachers would reprimand. When they do these things, it is my first instinct to discipline them in the same way I would back home. In fact, that’s what I did my first year. But now I have been here for two years (almost) and I am starting to realize that the Japanese teachers don’t discipline in the same way. And I don’t really feel comfortable coming in and just doing things the way I would back home. It probably wouldn’t be very effective, anyway. I would just seem even more foreign to them.
Here are some of the discipline-worthy behaviors my students have exhibited in class:
- Sleeping in class (this is very common in Japan and it seems to be more accepted here, although the administration adamantly says it is not to be accepted)
- Chatting while I am teaching (I know this is normal student behavior, but it isn’t something I usually tolerate for very long.)
- Speaking in Japanese about me because they know I can’t understand them
- Bullying classmates in Japanese because they think they can get away with it
- Making faces when I turn my back to the class (I have an infamous class of seventh graders at the moment – they do all sorts of things when the teachers turn to write on the board)
All of the above behaviors are pretty tame. I haven’t ever had to deal with real defiance at this school. Most of the students at my school come from stable, supportive households, so their parents would be very responsive if they found out their child had behavior problems. Plus, it’s a private school so the expectations are pretty high for behavior.
Expectations. That is one of the main differences I wanted to point out. In American schools, it is commonly accepted that the best way to start the school year is to introduce your rules and expectations. The teacher states these very clearly and starts off the year with strict rules, at least until the class routine is clearly in place and all the students know what the teacher expects from them.
In Japan, or at least in my school in Japan, rules are not stated explicitly by the subject teacher at the beginning of the school year. The teacher does not walk in on his or her first day of math or English class and outline a list of rules. Moreover, rules are not posted in the classroom for the students to see. In fact, when one of my colleagues (another foreign teacher, from the UK) suggested that we post rules in the seventh grade classroom, the Japanese teachers had a hard time understanding why we would do that.
But even though the subject teachers don’t state the rules, somehow the students do know they are expected to behave in a certain way. Unfortunately, my inability to speak Japanese limits how much I can understand about how the school communicates expectations to the students. But from what I can gather, and from what I have read about discipline in Japan, and of course from what my colleagues tell me, it seems that students figure out how they should behave based on these things:
- influence from the group they are in
- their homeroom teacher
- their soccer coach (students on the soccer team are expected to adhere to a strict code of behavior)
- the soccer coach (at our school, he seems to be in charge of speaking at the school assemblies about working hard, wearing the school uniform correctly, and not getting into trouble)
In this post, I will discuss the first point. I will get to the three following points in my next post.
How “discipline” comes in the form of influence from the group
The first point is the most important one. Everyone probably knows that Japanese society is a collectivist society. It is the stereotypical collectivist society. Social cohesion is the priority, and when an individual is treated unfairly, it isn’t usually their first instinct to stand up for themselves. Their first instinct is to fit into the group.
(Of course, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I have to add a disclaimer right now. I am an outsider looking in, and I don’t even speak the language. Please just take my words as my own perception of things and assume that they are probably all wrong.)
But it seems to me that it is really true – the group rules here. The reason I think this is because I have seen this with my own eyes. In the program I teach, the students are assigned to one class, and they stay with that class from seventh until twelfth grade. They do not mingle with other students, not really. They spend all of their school days with a group of about 20-30 other students. And when you teach one of those groups, you really see that as individuals, it can be really hard to get to know the students. They aren’t willing to reveal their distinct identity immediately. They don’t want to be seen as an individual. They want to hide within the class. But the class as a single entity has a very distinct personality.
Each of my classes is very different. But the weird thing is, the students within a class are very similar. They behave in similar ways. My twelfth graders are all laid-back, friendly, and really happy to spend classes discussing and debating big ideas. My eleventh graders are very introspective, and very intelligent. They are deep thinkers who (to my utter frustration) are less willing to share their ideas out-loud (although they are happy to share them with each other in small groups). My tenth graders are also extremely quiet and they are all a little nerdy. They are probably the most “Japanese” of the classes in that they are unwilling to do any activity until they see that others in the class are willing to do it. (There are a lot of awkward silences in that class). And my seventh graders – they are all insane. They are hyper, playful, and naughty. They are a class of 27 little monsters.
Ok, I am exaggerating of course. There are individual personalities in these classes. But it is amazing how much influence the group has on the individuals. Much more than in America.
So, what this all means is that much of their behavior is based on the expectations of the group. The Japanese way is to let the group influence the individual rather than one individual standing at the front of the room and exerting power over the entire group (although this definitely does happen – I’ll get to this when I discuss the soccer coach I mentioned earlier). This is especially seen with small children. Parents do not reprimand or punish their children for “misbehaving”. They let them be wild and out of control, knowing that in a couple of years their kids will enter kindergarten and be intensely socialized into behaving appropriately. It is almost as if that “childhood,” before they enter the system, is sacred and they must be left to be free, because that freedom is very temporary. Then the child enters school and feels the intense pressure to conform to the group.
Mostly this works, but there are those few students who act out or misbehave. In my seventh grade class, this misbehavior is socially acceptable because that’s how the whole group wants to behave. In my twelfth grade class, it is less acceptable, but the students would not directly speak out and tell a classmate who is being too chatty to pipe down. They just ignore the student or wait for the student to figure out the group wants him/her to change his/her behavior. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. It seems that about 90% of the students have it figured out and they fall into line. And the ones who don’t fall into line exactly aren’t really that far off. If there is anyone who really doesn’t fit in, then the eventual consequences can be pretty extreme. In fact, bullying is a serious problem here, and it’s no wonder why, with the priority being to fit into the group.
I will continue writing about this topic of discipline in my next post. There really is so much to say.