Things That Surprised Me as an American-Gaijin: Japanese Public School Basics

Japanese School Culture vs. American School Culture

1.    Teachers are expected to come to school every day of the year, save for holidays; teachers continue to come to school throughout winter, spring, and summer vacation. If you want to take time off, you’re expected to take paid leave on previous scheduled and approved days (scheduled by you, approved by your vice principal).
2.    You must have a pair of indoor shoes to wear at school. You’re expected to take off your shoes at the entrance, store them away in a locker, and wear indoor shoes around the school.

3.    Students stay in one classroom for nearly all of their classes and teachers move from classroom to classroom. Teachers desks are in the staff room (giant rooms with rows and rows of office desks), where they do their lesson planning and grading. Students only change classrooms for classes that require a lot of equipment, like home economics and lab classes. Furthermore, a teachers typically teach for only as much as 4 periods out of a 6 or 7 period day—sometimes, teachers only have 1 class in a day and spend the rest of  the school day at their desk in the staff room.
4.    Students clean the school, not janitors. There is one person on site who serves as a groundskeeper, but other than that, students spend 15 minutes to 1 hour per day with a broom, mop, or dust cloth.
5.    Students supervise themselves during lunch and break periods. There’s no cafeteria; instead, students sit with each other in their classrooms or find an empty classroom to have their lunch. Teachers have their lunch in the staff room. Since there are no janitors at the school, it shouldn’t have surprised me that there also aren’t any security guards at the schools, but back home, security personnel and usually one police officer patrolling the hallways was a familiar sight.
6.     Students generally just do what they’re supposed to do—students are not sent to the vice principal, dean of students, or counselor for bad behavior. I’ve heard of stories of students in some schools being more difficult to be told to stay in their seats and to participate in class, but it’s up to the teacher to be the first and final disciplinarian.
7.    Vending machines sell hot and cold coffee, milk products, pudding, and energy bars for about $1. Of course, this is a characteristic of Japan as a whole.
8.    School-wide assemblies are frequent but somber. This is very different from my old schools, where assemblies were loud and rambunctious. Here, there are ceremonies for everything imaginable – for the new school year, to welcome new teachers, to welcome the incoming freshman class, graduation, to send off leaving teachers… Students and teachers are expected to sit quietly, with proper posture, and attentively for an hour to two hours at a time. Every now and then, we bow. At the end of the assembly, we sing the school song, which is slow and somber.
9.    It is a big no-no to say “maybe” to a student when answering their question or to show any form of hesitation. If you don’t know the answer to their question, you should say, “I’ll answer that question tomorrow” so as to maintain your students’ trust in you as their teacher.
10.  By high school, students are separated into specialized schools such as ‘factory’ schools, ‘agriculture’ schools, ‘commercial’ schools, ‘low-level’ schools, and academic schools. High school is not mandatory in Japan; in their last year of junior high school, students apply to their choice schools, similar to how we would apply to a university in our senior year of high school. At factory schools, students study to be engineers; some go on to university, but most go into the work force after high school graduation. Students who attend academic high schools are expected to continue to university after high school. Students of lower academic ability (as determined by a test taken in their last year of junior high school) may enter a low-level high school or get a job.
11.  Students wear school uniforms and pins to specify which school they attend. This is especially helpful for me when a student on the train waves hello—since I teach at four different schools, I usually don’t know my students individually, but it helps to know what school they’re from.

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