Teachers tested by unruliness - and Japan's ills
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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."