Teachers tested by unruliness - and Japan's ills

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It used to be that an elementary schoolteacher in Japan had only to utter the word shuchu - attention! - to bring a sense of calm and concentration to the classroom.

Now some teachers struggle just to contain the chaos. Their preteen students won't listen. They won't answer. They won't work. Some won't even sit down.

A country where obedience and order often seem like factory-installed equipment, Japan is discovering that some of its youngest citizens are increasingly rebellious, uncooperative, and uninterested in playing by the rules that bound earlier generations.

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Junko Shinozaki, an energetic former elementary teacher in this Tokyo suburb dominated by electronics factories, says her profession ought to be renamed "life guidance." She says she and some of her colleagues "have given up thinking that the job description of teachers is to teach lessons."

The result is something the media and many educators call "classroom collapse" - a phrase that is generating the sort of anxiety that America experienced in the early 1980s over the "Nation at Risk" assessment of its schools.

In response, teachers here are realizing that the respect of their students is far from guaranteed and that they must do much, much more than proceed methodically through their textbooks.

Attempting order

To maintain some sense of discipline in their classrooms, Ms. Shinozaki and other teachers say that they have had to spend increasing amounts of time counseling, cajoling, and simply communicating with their young charges. The alternative is academic paralysis for students and humiliation for the teacher.

A study in Nishinomiya, a city in western Japan, found that 14 percent of elementary schools and 24 percent of junior high schools had experienced "classroom collapse," although the newly coined term means different things to different people.

In the worst cases, say three teachers here in Sagamihara, some colleagues have quit the profession or taken leaves of absence after harrowing terms in which they were unable to maintain order.

Japan's Education Ministry refused a request for an interview on the subject, saying it had just begun its own inquiry. In January, "classroom collapse" dominated media reports about an annual nationwide teachers conference, the first time the issue was on its formal agenda.

The focus on "classroom collapse" has brought a grim satisfaction to the Japan Teachers Union, which has long pushed for education reform. "We sense an exhaustion in our system," a spokesman says, arguing that the Education Ministry should increase its efforts to reduce class size, build better facilities, and shift the academic emphasis away from assigning piles of work so students can pass exams in favor of a less work-intensive approach that would stress problem-solving.

The new realities in Japan's elementary school classrooms are a part of the halting and confusing rebirth of the society as a whole. Japanese thinkers have long bemoaned a crisis of national identity, noting that the sense of mission and self-sacrifice of the decades following World War II began to dissipate years ago.

Having built an economy that produces more than half of Asia's output, the Japanese have been wondering what they should do next. But despite years of introspection, no one has come up with galvanizing new principles or goals that might instill a continued sense of cohesion.

Japan's government-controlled education system has seemed particularly slow to evolve. Designed to produce team-oriented workers for Japan's big companies and their subsidiaries, the system now struggles to find ways to educate young people so they can succeed in international settings and exhibit a more individual brand of creativity.

Signs of the times

Amid the search for reform, rising divorce rates and other domestic problems have added to the strain on teachers. Social critics also worry about generations of Japanese raised in such material affluence that they no longer see any need to work hard.

Kazuo Suzuki, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and an easygoing manner that matches his corduroy shirt, says he has seen two major changes during his 25 years as an elementary school teacher in Tokyo. One is that students have access to ever-increasing amounts of information and entertainment.

The other is that their "mental states" have become more difficult to deal with - a problem he and other teachers attribute to instability in the society and at home.

He says his students spend so much time in "virtual environments" - television, video games, comic books, and the Internet - that "they don't really have the values to deal with others."

So the teacher says he spends half his time counseling his kids about their inability to express themselves, their problems at home, and their "inner conflicts." Suzuki, who works at a well-maintained public school in Tokyo, says he hasn't lost control of a classroom, but the Sagamihara teachers seem to have come a little closer to preteen anarchy.

Katsumi Togashi, an intense, square-faced man who appears able to hold his own in front of 11-year-olds, recalls the first day of school in 1992.

Normally, he says, just opening the door is enough to quiet the class, but that year none of the fifth-graders noticed him walking in.

His shuchu calmed them for about a second, he says, before they resumed talking. Then they refused to answer a roll call or his demands that they sit down. "It's endless," he adds. "I can't even list all the things they did."

Realizing that getting angry was ineffective, he bypassed the most disruptive students and started making direct appeals to those around them, asking that they please try not to disturb class or react to the troublemakers.

Near loss of control

He spent months, he says, trying to get the children to understand that could help each other and teach each other, a strategy of empowerment that calmed the room enough for him to teach. But that same year, a student in a third-floor classroom threw a tape dispenser through a window while Mr. Togashi was standing in the schoolyard below.

He rushed up to the classroom - and found a colleague who had all but lost control. Unable to talk over her rebellious fifth-graders, she was reduced to writing instructions on the blackboard for those who cared to follow along with the lesson. Togashi says the students had sent the teacher a cassette tape of insults they had recorded and that her car had been scratched while parked in the school lot.

Teacher humiliation

Togashi says the class was organized around a boy who acted as the boss, dispensing food and favors to other students. The children often told the teacher that she was kusai, a common slur that translates as "stinky."

The teacher did want to abandon the class, but she had also been unable to consult colleagues about her problems out of a sense of shame. "In Japan teachers have been held in such high regard in society that it's hard for them to deal with the humiliation of having children talking back to them and behaving badly," says Tsuneichi Takeuchi, a professor of education at Kokagakuin University in Tokyo.

Togashi says he worked with his fellow teacher to regain some order. He insisted, against her wishes, that she apologize to her students for earlier angry outbursts in order to begin building trust.

The teachers again appealed to second-tier troublemakers to resist the "boss" and convened a meeting of parents that Togashi says was the turning point.

After initially complaining about the teacher's failures, some parents started criticizing the parents of the most disruptive and bullying students in the class. The teachers appealed to the parents to take more responsibility. "Please don't raise your kids to ignore problems," Togashi requested.

In working with the children, the teachers planned activities suggested by the students, such as a karaoke contest.

The first time they held the event, it lasted only 20 minutes before the class got too disruptive, but Togashi says he praised the students for accomplishing that much.

Positive feedback

He and other teachers repeatedly mention the virtue of praise, until now a rare commodity in Japanese student-teacher relations. While parents and some commentators have blamed teachers for "classroom collapse," teachers find fault with parents and with society at large. Japan today, they say, is raising children who feel unloved, who have little capacity to relate to others, and who have no firm sense of their role.

Shinozaki, who is now teaching junior high school in Sagamihara after years of working with younger children, says teachers must find ways to communicate individually with students to counter these beliefs.

She says she gradually won the cooperation of some troublesome girls by passing journals back and forth with each student and by designing lessons around issues in the students lives: smoking, bullying, and the purpose of education.

During a four-hour interview, Shinozaki, Togashi, and a third teacher take turns relating their experiences with unruly, unresponsive students. The third teacher, Shinozaki's husband Osamu, says it took him more than three years before he felt able to discuss how a clique of girls in one of his classes had treated him.

But his wife says a sense of perspective has made it easier for her to talk about classroom collapse. "When I realized that it was not only my fault, that it was also the fault of the education system, my burden lightened."

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