Thursday, August 24, 2006

Chain of Command

During the Shizuoka Orientation in Kakegawa, us ALTs sat through 3 days of seminars on effective teaching methods. Our days were structured much like a typical day in high school--morning classes, lunch, afternoon seminars, dinner, life in Shiz seminars, biru time in the tatami rooms, bed. Okay, maybe that's nothing like high school. We were separated accourding to our school's academic level--beginning, intermediate, advanced, and specialty schools. Specialty schools include technical schools, commercial schools, and other random industry schools such as fishing school.
My school is a high academic level school where about 90% of graduates attend universities while the other 10% go into trade/specialty schools such as art, music, and beauty school. In junior high, the kids begin deciding what local school they wish to attend. There are many factors that accompany this important decision: academic reputation, club reputation, overall school reputation, along with practical matters such as location and convenience of attending the school. This decision is crucial in the life path these children will eventually travel because once you are set on a track it will eventually lead you to the career it promises, thus the social and financial stature that accompanies it.
So by junior high, it is expected for these children to already have a rough sketch of what they want their adult lives to be like. Of course, since this is such a big decision, many parents push their children toward the golden path--the "show me the money path"--that is the academic school-->university-->business/technology/doctor/lawyer path.
In Japan, high schools operate like universities--the children must apply, score well on academic tests, and have a sufficient skill as to improve the school's reputation in the club arena. The most popular and reputable clubs usually involve sports like baseball, soccer, kendo, kyudo, tennis, etc. At my school, the broadcasting club is well known as they have won many competitions.
Here, schools operate much like competitive corporations. The principal acts as a power CEO in that he is always encouraging the school to improve its reputation. He serves as both a leader and scout in recruiting capable and popular teachers since a strong army is best able to lead its people to victory, thus glorifying its leader. The principal position usually only lasts about 2-3 years at one school and their primary objective is to prove themselves as capable captains so that the Board of Education will then transfer them to an even more reputable school where they can continue on their path of glory.
Since the principal's position requires positive results, they place strict expectations upon the Vice-principal and the teachers he supervises and manages. The VP walks a fine line as both supervisor and liason with the teaching staff. He must set a standard of excellence among the teachers and monitor whether they are maintaining his expectations while also remaining friendly and realistic as to keep the teachers happy and motivated in their duties.
Teaching, in Japan, is highly respected and because of this, teachers become highly involved in the mechanics of the school-becoming club leaders, working long hours, and dedicating much of their personal time to the betterment of the school. It is common for teachers to transfer schools many times within their careers. Usually, this is a choice and is chosen for similar reasons as that of the principal--many times teachers would like to teach at a more reputable school, or perhaps they'd like to be closer to home, or perhaps they are attracted to the position of a club leader at another school. Occasionally, a choice is not given and a teacher my be transfered by the wishes of the principal for reasons of a more negative nature. Perhaps the teacher is not performing in a satisfactory manner, or there are other discrepancies between the co-workers.
Since students are selected by the school, and vice versa, they also become a powerful commodity within this chain of command. As far as advanced academic schools go, they must perform according to the expectations of their teachers in order to sucessfully pass into the next state--university. Conversely, the school must continually meet the expectations fo the students or they may choose to transfer to another school. In order to upkeep their reputation, the schools must deliver the quality education that their reputation radiates throughout the community. Because of this delicate system of checks and balances, students and teachers maintain a mutual respect of one another which greatly enhances the bond between sensei and gakusei.
Of course, my explanation is not always the status quo in all schools, since students are placed on a very apparent tracking system. Obviously, the theory and mechanics of this breakdown gets weaker at the lower spectrums of the tracking system, meaning lower level schools that have students with lower test scores tend to lessen the overall drive and motivation of the entire school. In America, tracking systems are often criticized because of the influence that are governed by factors beyond the students' control. Some of the factors are based on socio-economic differences that create hardships upon students in starting a successful academic career. I wonder if this is true in Japan since tracts are highly visible and an integral working of the educational system.
This explanation was given to me by my supervisor over lunch at a beef restaurant. She gave me much to ponder over, which natuarally led me to consider my role in this complicated and foreign system. I will admit that I was impressed with Japan's educational system and it provided me with a renewed motivation in delivering what I can to the system. I was extremely excited when I was introduced to the team-teaching room, which is located on the 4th floor away from the other homeroom classes. She remarked that one benefit of location is that the noise level goes unchecked and the students are encouraged to play games and be as genki as they'd like to be.
I was given the key to the room and told that I can arrange it and decorate it as I see fit. I was also told that it is the room that I'll be using for my Tues and Thurs Oral Communication class where I am in charge of the lesson plan, teaching and grading of the students. The downsides are that this class is an elective taken by 3rd years and viewed as the class where they can study and do their homework for other classes. This means that I am going to have to think of creative ways to make this class more interesting as to keep the attention.
It is quite foreign to me to have such an excited an positive view toward my job. Perhaps it is because everything here is so foreign to me right now, though I do realize that I perform better when the expectations of my performance is set at a high level, ad I am given a reasonable amount of freedom to determine how I am going to reach my goals. Cheesy cheese cheesey. mmmm, cheese.

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