I remember when Joe and I were finally notified of the names of our schools before we moved to Japan. I excitedly typed my school's name into Google and found its website. Of course the site was all in Japanese, so I hit the Google translation button to get an idea of what it said. The translation function does a supremely lousy job of translating things, but you can still get a sense of what is said. Well, the translated version of the page described my school as a "military preparatory school" (it's not). We got a good laugh out of that when Joe remarked, "You're going to be barking at those Japanese kids to drop and give you 20!" Turns out, there was a grain of truth to that. Though it's not me ordering the push-ups — it's one of the other teachers.
Discipline in Japanese schools is a lot different from the U.S. On the surface there appears to be a lot less discipline in the classroom, and teachers tolerate more misbehavior than in American schools. This really surprised me when I started teaching here.
The thing is, the Japanese are very non-confrontational people. Often, teachers' approach is to simply ignore what little misbehavior goes on. Lucky for me, most of my students are very well behaved. Being at a relatively high academic high school, these kids are serious about their studies and feel motivated to learn. There's a famous saying in Japan: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Social pressure keeps kids in line pretty well, and if they do get out of line their peers will bully them into submission. This makes for a class of kids trying very hard to conform rather than cause a disruption and call attention to themselves.
Most of the time students' indiscretions amount to ignoring the teacher and talking in class — they're no different from American teenagers in that way. Pretty minor stuff. I've had to deal with students typing English obscenities into their electronic translators and hitting the button to make the device say it out loud in class, and I've had to put up with obnoxious baseball players who want to bully the class into non-participation to cover up their deficiencies. Irritating, yes, but these situations are the exception, not the rule.
That's not the case in other lower academic schools, though. I have heard horror stories from other JETs about students pulling out cell phones and making calls in class, standing up and simply walking out the door in the middle of a lesson, and even one girl going so far as to plug in a curling iron to fix her hair during class (apparently right after P.E. period). Sometimes all the kids talk and simply ignore the teacher, who pretends it's not happening and just goes on with the futile lesson anyway.
In America, this sort of stuff would get you sent to the principal's office, or at least earn you a detention. But it seems that often times these behaviors are ignored in Japan. Kids are not kicked out of class. I have never heard of anyone being sent to the principal's office. High school is not compulsory, and until just recently, students actually had to pay tuition — around $100 a month — to attend public high school, so perhaps educators felt they couldn't really bounce a kid from class?
This is not to say there are no disciplinary measures. There are. There are a couple teachers who share the honor of being the official disciplinarians at my school. If a student acts up and ticks off his teacher, the teacher sends him to the disciplinarian during lunch or after school for a good dressing down. And this is where the disciplinary approach diverges wildly from America.
Instead of getting sent to the principal's office, naughty Japanese students at my school get sent to the baseball coach. Now I know I said before that the Japanese are very non-confrontational people. So when students are confronted, when they are actually yelled at, it sends a strong message — You really effed up, kid. It's embarrassing. And that's exactly what this teacher does.
He yells. I mean, he doesn't just lecture kind of angrily, he really lets him have it. The offender — usually a boy, I don't know if I can recall ever seeing a girl get into trouble — stands mute while the teacher works himself up into a screaming, red-faced fury. Either the boy wears an expression of defiant indifference, which only seems to prompt louder yelling, or he looks crestfallen as he tries to choke back tears. Sometimes, they do cry. While this teacher is going ballistic, all the other teachers in the office stare straight ahead, hunched over their keyboards as though nothing is happening. At times this teacher has thrown chairs. One time he even swept a heavy radio off the desk and it went crashing to the floor, though I'm not exactly sure if that was intentional considering that's kind of an expensive thing. It scared the bejesus out of me though because my desk was right in front of his at the time. And yes, there have even been times when I've seen him order kids to the floor to do push ups. I think those might have been his baseball players.
I was shocked the first time I saw this episode unfold. I had never seen any teacher act that way before, and I really didn't know what to think. He was throwing chairs and raving, and everyone else was just going about their normal business. I thought about telling him to calm down a bit, but I was scared to interfere. I always feel so bad for the students who endure this treatment. It makes me want to do something to defuse the situation and comfort them a bit, like covertly sneak a piece of chocolate into their palm as they leave the office or something. But I don't. One time I took pity and handed a box of tissues to a poor boy who was sobbing and wiping his eyes repeatedly on his shirt sleeve. I feel that's about all I can do.
After the dressing down is complete, the boys leave the office and I look at the teacher quizzically. The angry expression usually lifts from his face and he chuckles a bit. It's not that he gets a kick out of publicly humiliating students, but he seems a shade embarrassed about the crazy scene he just made. Because usually he's really not angry. He just pretends to be. And he is a very convincing actor.
Sometimes I ask what the kids did to earn this punishment. One kid got in trouble for repeatedly skipping school. Another kid cut class and hid in the bathroom to avoid taking a test. And one boy caught it for not telling the baseball coach he'd earned some failing grades, even though they'd been told they had to report any under-performance to the coach. Of course the coach knew about the bad grades, but the kid was being punished for being too scared to own up to his mistakes and face the consequences.
I have conflicting feelings about this "tough love" method of discipline. On one hand, I feel like heaping abuse on students and being physically threatening is really inappropriate. This is the very reason American schools no longer paddle rule-breakers, isn't it? Do we want them emulating that disciplinarian's behavior someday, perhaps on their own kids? Do we want to send the message that they somehow deserve less respect than us? On the other hand, well... It seems to work. The kids behave. I mean, I think my kids are just good kids in the first place, but still, American detention doesn't sound nearly as horrible as the public shaming these kids get. It seems like a good deterrent. I guess it's not so far off from the old debate of whether "time outs" are preferable to simply spanking a kid. The Japanese kids aren't being physically beaten, but they are being humiliated almost in the same manner as spanking. And the result is that I never see the kind of contempt and defiance I have witnessed American students throw at their teachers. There is a respect for authority that is sometimes absent in America. Makes you wonder if the Japanese could teach us a thing or two.