Posted in Jobs in Japan

Let’s Talk About Bad Teachers

I’m going to make a shocking confession: I never wanted to be a teacher.

Arguably, I’m still technically not a qualified teacher. All the same I have taught students in Japan for over five years, of varying levels and ages. My current employment requires me to facilitate testing, grading, check attendance, and deal out discipline. In all the ways that matter, I am a teacher.

For most of my life, though, I didn’t want to teach. I don’t have that “so-and-so teacher really inspired me to become and educator!” type of story. I could probably count about 10 teachers in the entirety of my K-12 existence that meant something to me. Most of all though, the bad teachers really soured my idea on the career.

I didn’t want to end up these bitter bullies, the ones who had nothing better to do than break down their students daily. I’m still terrified that I might one day turn around and realize I’m doing something just like them, and it makes me sick to think that is at all possible. I try, though, to remember being a student and how those teachers affected me even to this day.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on three specific bad teachers I had personally. Names will be changed, identities held secret, for their sake and mine. Hopefully, dear God please, these people have gone on to become better instead of worse over time.

The first one gets a special medal of bad that I’ll get into in a moment. Let’s call her Mrs. Misery, because that’s how she made me feel more often than not. As a fourth grade math teacher, she took her job as seriously as a Southern Baptist pastor takes to Sunday worship, which is to say a whole bunch of yelling that didn’t really explain anything concrete and was confusing as all hell.

Now, she and I perhaps would’ve gotten along better if it weren’t for a whole bunch of factors playing into my life at that time. My parents were getting into year two of a long and horribly drawn out divorce, which included moving out of our old home and moving into a new one. Then, I had her class after lunch. This is slightly more important, as I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and if lunch didn’t agree with me, I’d have to rush to the bathroom so as not to crap in my pants.

She took my medical diagnosis as my “easy excuse” to leave her classroom, and boy howdy did she take that shit personally. Even though I had a doctor’s note explaining it in my file, she didn’t want to believe it was a real thing. She would bully me during and after class any time the bathroom got involved, and would even talk to other teachers about it right in front of me and other students.

Thanks for putting my business out to the world, ya bitch.

To put the cherry on top of this sundae, I wasn’t naturally good at math. I don’t know why, but literally everything else is easy for me. English? Please, I was at college reading level before third grade. Science took some studying, but eh, no problem. Same for Social Studies, and all the electives ever. Math just doesn’t compute, I don’t know why, but it’s way more difficult for me than anything else.

She made it abundantly clear that she considered my stupid, more often than once, right to my face. Oddly enough, I didn’t get too upset over that, because I knew she was wrong. Also, she called the smartest person in our grade level stupid once, and after that she lost all credibility to everyone in that classroom over who was or wasn’t stupid. We generally all made a pact to ignore anything she said in that area, but I’ve got it ingrained into my brain that I am math stupid. It’s a thing that persists, a part of my psyche, and it sucks.

Alright, so Mrs. Misery gets a special medal for being the worst teacher I ever had because she made me feel like shit for having a medical disorder, and thus making me ashamed of something I had zero control over (the start of many years of hating my body that lasted all through middle school). Then she basically gave me a Math Complex, where I firmly believed (and remain believing) that I’m stupid when it comes to this particular subject. And finally, she did all of this IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, like some horrid shame eating monster that could only be satisfied with the despair from children.

I suppose I should thank her, in a weird way. Because of her, I’m the teacher that lectures students after class once everyone else is gone. I try to keep notes on who has what kind of illness. When students raise their hand to go to the bathroom, I just let them go. If they’re gone for more than ten minutes, I write a note saying they get less class points. I don’t want to make anyone feel that bodily functions are shameful. I never call students stupid, I discourage other students from calling others or even themselves stupid.

The next one we’ll call Ms. O’Hara, and I actually managed to get revenge on this lady in an epic fashion. Ms. O’Hara was known for being what you might call a literary snob and a grammar Nazi, so it was fun times for us kiddies who grew up in Kentucky all with Southern sensibilities and kids to boot. She liked to pick on the kids who didn’t have much money and were a bit slow, usually farmers kids. She’d tear them down for mispronunciation, misspelling, and missing the mark on the “grand points” of some book or another we’d be forced to read.

Now, I managed to skate through her class mostly unscathed, since as mentioned previously, English class was my jam. I loved the written word, I read books daily (not kidding, I can chow down a paperback in 24 hours or less), so for me the class was a breeze. Yet,  she decided not to give me my grades, as in call them incomplete, until I did my AR points.

For those of you who weren’t a part of this inane literacy program, consider yourselves lucky. My school district opted to use the Accelerated Reading program in order to “track the literacy level of the schools.” They would put books by a certain grade level. How the system chose the grading levels, I don’t know, but odds are length and vocabulary had a lot to do with it. The higher the grade level, the more points you get. It was annoying and pointless since most kids just read Cliffnotes and passed the stupid tests regardless.

Well, Ms. O’Hara wanted my class in particular to get the points at our specific literacy level. I was at college reading level, which meant I got two choices in the library: “Crime and Punishment” or “Gone with the Wind.” For a twelve year old, those were both daunting choices. I chose the latter, and sped read through it, hating every single bit of it. Scarlett was an abusive, manipulative she beast, and no amount of literary analysis will ever make me look at this novel with wonder and awe.

I read it, I did the stupid test, and passed with flying colors. Whoo-hoo.

Ms. O’Hara was furious, because while other students were reading at least ten or so books a semester under her regime, I read only one for her. What she must’ve not realized is that college reading level books had the highest scoring points, as in enough points to cover me for an entire semester and half way through the next. She was forced to give me my grades, and I felt unimaginably happy to have thwarted her attempts to bully me with extra work.

Once again, I should feel a bit appreciative towards her, because I’ve learned that managing expectations in the classroom is very important. The class should be challenging, but not impossible. Homework and projects shouldn’t be piled up high, but set at a reasonable timeline with class time given to help struggling students. Notice I said help! I don’t tear my kids down over English mistakes, I take the time to explain and help them remember the rules, and I practice with them to make it better even outside of class. I want them to make mistakes, because making mistakes and correcting them is how everybody learns.

Finally, let’s talk about Mr. Sports. Mr. Sports was yet another abysmal math teacher, a high school dude who wanted to talk about basketball more than geometry or algebra. Often, the jocks in class would get him started on some tournament, they’d talk about that for the next hour. We wasted countless hours of class time, learning nothing, and it was pretty obvious the dude was only coming in to get his paycheck and be done with it all. He was useless, not really a bully, just a complete waste of time.

I remember being frustrated that he wouldn’t cover any of the material in class, but would still demand we learn everything by the midterms. I don’t recall how I passed those classes, but I suspect the main reason is because the internet was finally booming into something amazing, and I started looking up “How to Math” on AskJeeves. I learned enough to survive, and continued taking his unfortunate classes because my schedule for everything else AP and/or Advanced wouldn’t allow for a different teacher.

From him, I’ve made an absolute promise to myself to never, ever put material on a test I haven’t gone over in class. If we haven’t practiced it, wrote it into notebooks, or whatever then it’s not going to be on the tests. I won’t make my students suffer that kind of agony that’s not fair and beyond asinine to inflict on them. I don’t care that’s not the speed the school wants, too bad! Fire me and replace me with a useless person instead, I’m going to spend my hours teaching and therefore helping students LEARN.

I suppose in the end, I learned a lot about what not to do from these bad teachers. They’ve stayed with me, remnants of the past that have healed and scared over, so I take those experiences to turn them into fuel to become the best teacher I can possibly be. I will try my damndest every single day not to be the teacher that ruins an entire subject subject for a student, that will educate instead of shaming, and will use every minute available to give the students a fighting chance at using what they’ve learned long after they’ve graduated.

So thank you Mrs. Misery, Ms. O’Hara, and Mr. Sports! I guess in the end I did learn something from you.



Posted in cultural differences

Child Abuse and Student Welfare in Japan

It’s an unfortunate fact that child abuse is an issue that every country has to manage. In the United States and Japan teachers are often counseled, trained, and given reading literature about the warning signs of abuseDoes a student smell funny every day at school? Do they steal from other students? Do you see a mysterious bruise? Self-deprecation, communication problems, problems eating, uniforms ill taken care of…The list goes on and on.

It’s well known that child abuse affects how students behave in the classroom. Abused children will be living with far more stress than their sheltered classmates. Friends of mine in the American school system who are teachers keep snacks and fruit inside their desk for students who come in starving because their students can only get the government provided lunches in the cafeteria. Without them providing breakfast (usually out of pocket), these students would behave badly and not pay attention in class. The abuse and neglect of parents causes strain on students.

Where I lived in Kentucky, Child Protective Services (CPS) could be called by school counselors and/or nurses if they suspected child abuse. A friend of mine in elementary school got the CPS called on her uncle because he regularly refused to give her breakfast before school (I believe he was a baby sitter, not a full time guardian, so the case got dropped). My mother actually feared that she’d get called in because my brother regularly played kickball and soccer, so his shins were bruised a lot in his elementary school days. CPS held an air of authority, even if most people sneered at the idea of putting kids in the foster care system, the fact remains that most states have a semi-functioning system in place that keeps track of kids and their parents.

In Japan, children are rarely taken out of their homes. It’s common knowledge that unless the abuse is considered “life threatening,” children are expected to stay with their families until they reach maturity (if they make it). Up until the 1980’s, most parents in Japan were under the impression that child abuse “just didn’t happen.” People like Atsuko Shiina brought the issue to national attention with her research books. Most Japanese people believed that families as a structural unit shouldn’t be meddled with by the government, as family ties are considered strong in this collectivist culture. Unless it’s a marriage or death certificate, the government should mind it’s own business.

But then in 1994, “Japan’s signed in at the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child to help the public understand, Shiina explains, that ‘children are not their parents’ private property.’  Even so, passage of a Child Abuse Prevention Law took until 2000.” And now, Japan’s government made a point in the past few years to start getting better about keeping track of child welfare and taking more kids into protective custody.

Japan Times reported in September of 2015 that child abuse reports were at a “record high,” but that record is shaky at best:

The police referred a record 17,224 suspected child abuse victims under the age of 18 to child consultation centers across the country in the first six months of this year.

That is the highest number since specific statistics started to be compiled in 2011 and a rise of 32 percent from the year before. Clearly, the police are doing a better job of investigating cases of abuse and of taking more action…


…The most disturbing part of these statistics is that child abuse may not be actually increasing; it has just been hidden. In another survey from the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry for fiscal year 2012, the total number of reports about child abuse made to child social welfare services reached 46,468.

As a teacher in the Japanese school system, I must follow the Child Abuse Prevention Law. Teachers, medical practitioners and child welfare officers are obligated to keep an eye out to detect and report abuse. Yet, as someone who doesn’t understand Japanese fluently yet, being able to uncover abuse is a big challenge for me. I have to trust that the Japanese homeroom teachers and the guidance counselors are doing their utmost for the students.

It’s not easy. Students will keep secrets from the teachers about their living situation, often out of shame. They will lie, dodge questions, and even try to get out of coming to school because they don’t want anyone to know. For elementary and junior high, education is mandatory, so that’s where the abuse gets discovered the most often. High school isn’t necessary, high school students drop out all the time, and they can get lost in the system.

Ishikawa Yuki discussed in her recent article “Japan’s Crisis of Missing and Abused Children”  that part of the problem comes from municipalities deleting residency information,  “Japan’s legal code allows local governments to expunge resident certificates from files if it is determined that a person no longer lives within the municipality. As a result, if a child’s resident information is no longer extant, he or she is left out of official figures.” Essentially, the local governments have a legal way to sweep the problem of child abuse under the rug so they don’t have to deal with it. Although I want to believe that most police would do something if they could, the traditionally lax methods with child abuse and thoughts on child welfare make me nervous.

In addition to that, unlike CPS in the United States, the Japan’s child guidance offices have some systematic failings according to Ishikawa:

Japan’s child guidance offices rely on a shockingly antiquated child abuse information system to share knowledge concerning missing and abused children. Even now information on top-priority cases, such as instances of extreme child abuse and children suffering in abject living conditions, is sent by fax machine. Moreover, there is no information database, nor is the filing system for managing received faxes adequate.

In addition, child guidance offices gravely lack the personnel and mechanisms needed to investigate cases in ways comparable to police departments. Enlisting the help of law enforcement agencies, then, would seem to be essential. However, many staff members told me requesting police to investigate a missing child can be problematic. This is in part because it requires careful attention to protecting personal information and the need to determine whether or not a crime has been committed. In light of these demands, the police in many situations will turn down requests.

Needless to say, if a child is getting abused or neglected at home, their education suffers. Child abuse often results in physical and psychological developmental delays. When the education suffers, unfortunately, the rest of a child’s life in Japan can get derailed. Passing tests, getting into the best high schools/ universities, all that matters when they finally want to have full time careers.

Unlike in the United States, homeroom teachers bear the full responsibility of reporting possible abuse, because they’re the ones in charge of the student’s academic progress. Teachers in Japan have students regularly see the guidance counselors at school, usually to discuss the possibility of bullying but they also cover home life issues. Technically, guidance counselors should report abuse, but most schools tend to make the homeroom teacher file all those reports. Regular teachers should also keep an eye out and report to the homeroom teacher if they suspect something is wrong. I’ve done my fair share of discussing problems with homeroom teachers, but so far none yet covering abuse. I both hope and dread that I never have to, because statistically speaking at some point I’ve taught an abused child and never knew it.

Right now, I worry that odds are someone in my class is getting abused, someone is falling through the cracks, and I’m not noticing it. I want my students to have a bright future. Besides educational issues, there are of course personal ones as well.  If unaddressed, abused children can suffer from alcoholism/substance abuse, depression, domestic abuse/violence, suicidal thoughts, and even attempts of suicide when they grow up.

A home should be a place where children feel safe, loved, and nurtured. If not someone should be doing something to change their environment so they can have a better life, or at the very least get a fighting chance at a better future. Even though the Japanese government has put forth more effort lately, I don’t believe it’s quite done enough. More funding should go towards the child welfare sector, as well as changing the law to prevent children from getting their residency records deleted from the system. I want my students and all other children in Japan to live without pain or fear.

If you have a topic about Japan that you’d like me to write about please tell me in the comment section below!