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Culture and Education

Junior High School Education at the Mercy of an Increasingly Busy Work Environment
Regaining Interactive Relationships

Eiji Kikuchi
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Unheard Opinions as the Realities of Schools

This was something that happened fifteen years ago. Having worked at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, there was something about the educational policy decision process that never made any sense to me. It was perplexing how opinions from the classroom are seldom taken into consideration when crafting educational policy. It was absurd and irrational that decisions pertaining to the classroom are made by people who are so disconnected from it. It coincides with the time that an irrational academic ability dispute was brought to the conclusion of "Tashika na Gakuryoku (Solid Academic Ability)" and an outdated system of "management by objectives" was deployed for managing teaching professionals. The meaning of the impossible and the value of weakness are increasingly disregarded. As I sensed a crisis in public education, I asked for the cooperation of other researchers to plan and carry out an autonomous survey on principals and teachers employed at public junior high schools nationwide. As expected, there were much criticisms and doubts concerning educational reform that is not based on the reality of the classroom being pushed hastily into effect. These are not only opinions of teachers, but also of school principals as well. Fifteen years have passed since the first survey in 2002. Using the same methods we used back then, we have once again planned and carried out a nationwide survey. We sought the opinions of both school principals and teachers and asked them to convey, as accurately as possible, the reality of today’s junior high school education while we analyzed the data. It became clear that the state of junior high school education is worse than we expected.

The Increasingly Hectic Teaching Profession

The first thing that came to light is how drastically busy the teaching profession has become. Along with other duties besides teaching that teachers have to carry out, they must also engage in "emotional labor" (a kind of stressful personal interaction requiring them to manage their emotions to align with a client’s expectations). The difficulties that arise from an increasingly busy profession go beyond long work hours. These difficulties also affect the way teachers interact with pupils and students. Fifteen years ago, the average working hours per day (on weekdays) of an teacher were 10 hours and 44 minutes. It has now increased to 11 hours and 27 minutes, an increment of 43 minutes. The average is even longer for homeroom teachers, who work 11 hours and 46 minutes a day. Because of information management and other duties, time spent on "take-home work" has decreased by 15 minutes. Even after taking this decrease into consideration, daily work hours have increased by 30 minutes. As a result, educators are getting less than six hours of sleep a day, and time spent on household labor has decreased by 10 minutes. High school teachers are also seeing an increase in workload, but as Figure 1 illustrates, junior high school teachers are in a state of overwork crisis, with around half of all teachers experiencing work days of 12 hours or more. If we include time spent on leading extracurricular activities during holidays, we see an average of about 95 hours of overtime work per month. More and more teachers are feeling burdened by extracurricular activities and have a desire to quit the profession. Although an increase in age may be a factor, those who answered that they are "not confident about their health" increased from 27.6% to 38.6%.

The Impact of Long Working Hours

The mental health of teachers is not the only thing being compromised by the excessive increase in work hours. It goes without saying that this increase is detrimental to the environment in which students learn and is beneficial to no one. It makes it especially difficult for the voice of students to be heard. For example, when work hours grow longer, it becomes more difficult for teachers to respond to students’ concerns and feedbacks via questionnaires, or to discuss how to deal with truancy with the entire staff community, or to have regular talks with teachers at local elementary schools. Without extra attention, it may also become more difficult for teachers to lend an ear to colleagues who are struggling. Interactions and relationships with different kinds of people may be lost gradually. Reforms that are excessively conscious of the concepts of "utility" and "effectiveness" are obstructing the very functions of public education they are meant to improve.

The Increase in Office Work and Machismo in Education Culture

What caused the increase in work hours for educators? Analyzing the statistics brings us to two major factors. These factors are 1) an increase in general office work that is not directly related to school operation and 2) an increase in hours spent leading extracurricular activities. While general office work in junior high schools is still managed by one employee, the workload is increasing each year. It is necessary to allow more discretion for teachers to judge whether certain tasks are necessary while breaking away from excessive red-tapism. With regards to extracurricular activities, entrusting coaching to outside instructors and preventing excessive zeal are possible remedies. It is also important to note that a trend of passionate instructors who take it upon themselves to take leadership of extracurricular activities is propping up the problem of excessive zeal. An additional, significant trend that shows teachers who approve of dealing with and excluding teachers and students based on their abilities spend more time leading extracurricular activities is also worth noting. It should be emphasized that with many male instructors leading athletic clubs, "macho teachers culture" is becoming more widespread (Figure 2).

Reform that Grasps the True Nature of How Educators Work

With junior high school education at the mercy of an increasingly busy work environment, a movement to change the way teachers work is waiting to start. It goes without saying that any kind of violation of labor standards, not limited to those in education, must be dealt with first and foremost. In addition, it is important to recognize that the harsh reality of public education was caused by political reforms that have taken place since the late 1990’s (caused by a combination of neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism and the bureaucracy). In order to tackle the current disenchantment in education, it is important that we distance ourselves from centralized, top-down reform and bring back real autonomy and interactive relationships to teaching as an open profession. It is necessary to eliminate the feeling of resignation common in relatively young teachers and change attitudes in order to transform junior high school education into something more yielding. Interactive relationships must be brought back, and the system itself that is responsible for this predicament must be changed. I hope this problem is dealt with in a way that ascertains the true nature of this phenomenon.

Eiji Kikuchi
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Eiji Kikuchi was born in Ehime Prefecture. After doctoral course at the University of Tokyo, he became a research fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Research and a general research officer for the National Institute for Educational Policy Research. In 2005, he became an assistant professor at the Waseda University Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, where he became a professor in 2009. He has critically analysed education reform in Japan and has collaborated with several challenging schools and local governments in an attempt to create alternative educational program. He has also worked as a association director for the Japan Society of Educational Sociology. His major publications include Kibou wo Tsumugu Koukou: Seito no Genjitsu to Mukiau Gakkou Kaikaku (High School that Weaves Hope: School Reform Face-to-face with Students’ Reality) (Iwanami Shoten), Gakkou no Poritikusu (School Politics) (co-author, Iwanami Shoten), Jizoku Kanou na Kyouiku Shakai wo Tsukuru (Creating a Sustainable Educational Society) (co-author/co-editor, Seseragi Shuppan), Shinka suru Koukou, Shinka suru Manabi (Evolving High School, Deeper Learning) (author and editor, Gakuji Shuppan), Koukou Kyouiku Kaikaku no Sougouteki Kenkyuu (General Research on High School Education Reform) (author and editor, Taga Shuppan), digital edition imidas [Kyouiku (Education)], [Seishounen to Shakai (Youth and Society)], and etc.