Dec 31, 2010

What is working at a Japanese public school like?

What's it like to work with other Japanese teachers? Any cultural differences? What is a typical day like? These are some of the big question marks I had before I came on the JET programme as an ALT, too.

Here's a FAQ based on my personal experience from working 4 months at a public school and occasionally at a special needs school in Japan. Again, ESID :P (Every Situation is Different, so it only serves as a guide.)

Q: What is the work environment like at public schools in Japan?
A: Physically, the workspace is smaller. I used to have cubicles in my last workplaces in Singapore, so I am used to having cabinets and cupboards to store my stuff. But in Japan public schools (same goes for special needs schools), you have a desk with a side cabinet, and a mini shelf that you can hide under your desk to place more stuff. There will be a piece of glass panel on each desk, where you can slid your schedule or important notes underneath. There's no cubicle and partitions. It's an open concept work environment, easier for discussions and communications.

This is quite different from Singapore schools, as teachers have cubicles and low (or high, depending on which schools, I guess) partitions. And we have more storage space. And no additional glass panel on the tables for us to slid notes underneath, as we can pin our notes and schedules on the partitions.

I am always fascinated how the Japanese can keep their desks so neat and tidy despite the small amount of space they are allocated with. Maybe for more senior positions, they have additional cabinets elsewhere in the office.

Q: How about communication-wise? Any cultural differences?
A: Yup, definitely there will bound to be some, even though we are Asians.

Firstly what I found interesting is, they will always check with another colleague for almost every question I ask them. They seek for consensus answers, so as to be sure to provide me with the most accurate possible answer. Quite different from Singapore's style of working, right?

Next, they are pretty reserved around me still, so they tend to rephrase "I want you to ...." or "I think you should ...." to very polite requests like "I think maybe, it's better... what do you think?", etc. So I have to discern these statements carefully, to differentiate cases where I have the room to still consider the options, or I ought to just follow their suggestions.

But of course, if you think that a certain other way of doing is better, you can still state your point, but politely.

Q: What's a typical day like at school?
A: Every morning, all teachers will gather at the teachers' room, and the vice-principal will start the meeting. It is a short meeting where teachers will update important events for the day or week (depending). Teachers with agenda to share will usually write them on the black board (just the item title), and then elaborate during the meeting. Then the meeting will break up into 3 groups, Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, whereby teachers will have their own mini meetings and updates pertaining to only their group of students (Year 1 or 2 or 3).

Then there will be short homeroom lesson, where homeroom teachers will go to their respective homerooms. And after that, lessons start.

Between each lesson, there is a 10-minutes break for students to move to the next classroom, toilet breaks, etc.

Finally at the end of lessons, there will be a cleaning period. Students are rostered to clean up different areas of the schools (including toilets), and teachers supervise and help during this cleaning period.

For Singapore, teachers' meeting, otherwise commonly known as contact time, is usually weekly, and not held at the teachers room, since it will be hard to communicate with cubicles and all. Some schools have "protected time" as well, to allocate time for meeting within departments.

We do not have daily cleaning periods in Singapore schools, as cleaners are employed at schools. The students will do the basic like cleaning the board etc. There will be a huge spring cleaning exercise by the students after each semester.

Another difference I noticed is that for my Japanese school, teachers sit by the level of students they teach, but in the Singapore schools I taught before, we sit by the subject (department) we teach. But then, I was in primary schools then, I am not sure how it is done for secondary schools and junior colleges.