Stress is contagious. Stressed teachers make for stressed kids. Stressed kids are hard to manage and stress teachers further. Then there are the parents, of whom more in a moment.
Aera (Dec 10), surveying parents, teachers and students, finds that 90 percent of them think of schools as “not free.” Schools can’t, of course, be entirely free. Growing up means, in part, learning to follow rule, or at least defy them intelligently. But they’re not prisons either, though sometimes they may feel as though they are.
A 50-year-old mother the magazine speaks to noticed one day that her fourth-grade daughter’s breasts were swelling. Children mature early these days. She took the girl aside and initiated a mother-daughter talk about bras. The child was willing enough, but doubtful: “We’re not allowed to wear underwear under our gym uniforms.”
“What?” Her mother was astonished. She contacted the school and demanded an explanation. The one she got was that kids sweat in gym class, the sweat chills, and underwear compounds the problem. This may, to those who understand such things, make more sense than appears to those who don’t. Be that as it may, Aera raises it as an example of the rules-for-rules’-sake mentality that weighs down schools’ freedom – but also as a sign that things may be changing, for the school did see the mother’s point, and compromises were made.
Japanese teachers are said to be much overworked, compared to those in other countries. Administrative responsibilities foisted on them are part of the problem, but the main issue is bukatsu – extra-curricular club activities which actually sound like fun: basketball, tennis, gymnastics and the like.
They would be fun, but for the pressures brought to bear on them. Here is how one senior high school teacher in his 20s describes his workload. He supervises, it seems, three separate clubs – basketball, tennis, and a third whose activities include volunteering for three days and two nights at a time at a senior citizens’ home. Shortly before this he had taken the tennis kids to a mountain lake for five days and four nights, then repeated the excursion with the basketball kids. “Fourteen straight days without a break” – which is by no means unusual, he says.
Recreation is not the point. Training is. Bukatsu are not compulsory, but, Aera says, most schools encourage kids to take part, and require most teachers to do some bukatsu supervising. This is extra-curricular in the full sense of the word – after lessons for the kids, after work for the teachers, though the strictness of the typical regimen can make it feel like hard time for both students and teachers.
Who applies the pressure? The education ministry, which regards bukatsu as essential for character formation; schools, which incorporate club team victories and defeats into teachers’ evaluations; teachers because they themselves are so intensely pressured; and, perhaps most of all, says Aera, over-zealous parents who are the most fiercely competitive element in the mix.
They scorn limits. Anything goes in the name of victory. Aera tells of “a certain prefecture in Tohoku” that required public schools to cease all activities by 6 p.m. The parents were having none of it. They got together, formed a Bukatsu Association, raised money, and got the kids practicing in rented gym rooms or sports grounds.
The story ends on a hopeful note. Harbinger of possible change was a “bukatsu summit” held in September in Shizuoka. It brought together six sports teams from schools all over the country. Chairing the sessions was a 60-year-old Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture junior high school basketball coach named Hideo Tanaka, famous in school sports circles for enviable results despite – or because of? – moderate practice.
He reveals his secret: “The athletes themselves decide the practice routines. All I do is fine-tune them.”© Japan Today