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Part XVII   Follow up and rants

January 22, 1999

Exactly a week to the day after I informed you all about the classroom behavioral problems at one of my schools, a page 2 headline in The Japan Times described the exact same problem.  So, it's not just me, folks.  Here are the highlights of the article, in case you are interested.  If this stuff bores you, just go to the rants.  That section starts with the line "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!" and should thus be easy to spot.

Japan Times, Friday, January 22, 1999
From "Talks Target Classroom Chaos"

 ". . . The phenomenon of disrupted classroom activities due to students' refusal to follow instructions, walking about the classroom or chatting with one another has recently been termed 'collapsed classes.'"

Well, I'm glad they finally have a name for it.  As they say, the first step towards fixing a problem is admitting you have it.  Apparently, this happened sometime last summer after a string of about 12 stabbings in junior high schools around the country, some of them fatal.

". . . [The head of the Japan Teachers' Union] called for smaller classes with fewer than 30 students each and said schools need to prepare for team teaching and teaching in small groups."

Basically, one teacher cannot handle the classroom anymore.  One of the other JETs in Kiryu teaches a class so bad that there are always two other teachers (besides the one who is actually teaching) in the classroom to act as police.  Even so, she says, sometimes teaching is nearly impossible.

" . . . 'The experience, confidence, pride and physical health of teachers who find themselves losing control are falling apart.  Many teachers are beset by insecurity and a sense of powerlessness,' [the union guy] said."

I have witnessed this personally.  The teacher with whom I teach my two worst behaved classes merely smiles and says that they are "resisting." In effect, she has given up any chance of controlling them or teaching the class properly.  It is kind of depressing to see.

"Forty-four percent of elementary and junior high school teachers polled said they have witnessed a total collapse of discipline in classes [according to this survey] . . . Among the teachers who said they had not personally experienced such situations, almost half fear discipline may collapse in their own classes sometime in the future."

This is not a small problem, clearly, and it is affecting the confidence of all teachers, not just those with the "collapsed classes."  The National Assembly for Educational Research is currently in a week-long meeting discussing this problem.  They are finally taking it seriously, and they are even getting student input.  Don't underestimate the potential effectiveness of such meetings -- it was probably a similar meeting that started the JET program, which in five years brought a native English speaker full or part-time to almost every school in Japan, an absolutely staggering feat of logistics and funding.

Also, I think the above should be taken with a grain of salt.  Yes, there is a problem, but by no means does it affect every classroom.  I would say that out of the 46 classrooms in which I teach, only 2 or 3 exhibit the signs of a "collapsed classroom," at least when I am there.  I don't know how the students behave when I am gone, but I can't imagine that it's too different.  The vast majority of the students that I teach are  quiet, at times almost painfully so.  I actually had an opportunity in class yesterday to say "Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?  Bueller?" (for those of you not of the žBreakfast ClubÓ generation, go rent the movie)  I would describe the average Japanese middle school student as quiet and good-natured, but I have also found the old cliche to be true -- a few rotten apples spoil the barrel.  In the two classrooms that I would say qualify as "collapsed," it is at most four or five out of 35 students who are being disruptive.  They are just being really, really disruptive and there ain't nuttin' I can do about it, especially if the teacher has given up.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! (This is the aforementioned rant section)

So, I got paid today, and I happily went to the post office to mail a big fat money order back to the States to pay off some of those horrendous college loans.  I looked at the sign yesterday, and it said it was open until 5:30.  Also, I have done this twice before, so I was reasonably confident when I walked through the door.  In Japanese, I told the teller that I wanted to send an International Money Order.  In Japanese she told me that she couldn't, because it was after four o'clock.   I was a bit surprised, and I told her (again in Japanese) that I had to work until 4:15 everyday (I'm actually starting to learn some of this gibberish they call a language).  Oh, she said, well, they would be open next week, too.  I asked until what time they could do the money orders, and she said four o'clock.  Again I explained that I worked until 4:15 EVERYDAY, but that only got a nod of understanding and a smile.  I have yet to see anyone in Japan look sympathetic.  I don't believe that facial expression exists here.

So, after ascertaining that they were indeed closed on Saturdays and Sundays, I tried to ask whether I could just fill out the form and give her the money, and she could send it on Monday.  Unfortunately, there I ran into the limit of my Japanese.  So, I threw her a disgusted look and left.  I just don't get it.  The post office is open, the employees are there, the computers are up and running, and I want to give them money to perform a service.  Apparently, international money orders are the ONLY service that stops at four.  Which makes, sense, really, because at that time it's midnight on New York, and they must be afraid of werewolves or something.  Not only that, but this is a new policy, because as I said I have done this twice before.  What on earth would make them institute such a ridiculously random policy?

And speaking of random policies and ludicrous rules enforced to the point of lunacy, at one of my schools all of the students wear a sweatshirt-type pullover with an eight-inch zipper from the neck to just below the sternum.  The rule is, you are not allowed to zip it all the way up, and you are not allowed to unzip it all the way.  Either would be rude.  You have to have your zipper somewhere close to middle, or a teacher will tell you to make it so.  I am thinking, how about just making the school uniform zipperless!  Not only would it solve the problem, but it would free up time during teachers' meetings to talk about something else.  Like, for instance, discipline in the classrooms.  And don't think that is a random thought, meant solely to neatly tie together this email into one coherent whole, which it does fantastically -- a teacher told me that they spent an entire meeting one day discussing the issue of proper zipper height and voted to institute this policy some six months ago.  What the hell?!?  How could zipping something all the way POSSIBLY be rude.  OK, unzipped it looks a little sloppy, but STILL!!  I wonder if fly zipper height is the subject of the next meeting, and whether a similar decision will be made.  I would pay to see teachers enforcing adherence to that policy.

On a brighter note, I got hit by a car yesterday.  I was rounding a curve, hugging the curb as tightly as possible, when a minivan tried to hug it tighter.  The front end made it past me all right, but as it swung around the curve, the back end hit my shoulder.  Fortunately, this was on a downhill and I was going almost as fast as the van, so it didn't hurt at all -- it was just a bit shocking.  I responded with my primal instinct, which was to elbow the van very hard, and it made a very satisfying booming sound.  Not only that, but vans in Japan are small and light, my adrenal gland was working overtime, and the thing actually moved a little.  THAT surprised the driver, I imagine.  We both had to stop about 5 seconds later at a red light -- him because it was red and me because he was so close the curb that I literally couldn't get by (no sidewalk here).  He looked around, probably to see whether or not he got me, and I gave him a dirty look and threw up my arms in what I consider to be the universal signal for "what the hell do think you are doing, dumbass?"   He then clasped his hands in front of him and bowed to me, in his seat, by way of apology.  Then he drove off.  Maybe in Japan that žuniversal signalÓ means "I'm just fine, sir, and please hit me with your minivan whenever you feel I am in your way or in any other way imposing on your right to drive like an insane NASCAR driver."  I didn't get a chance to see whether I put a dent in the van.   Pity.  I certainly would have put one in if I had been able to get close enough again.

It's kind of amazing how bad the drivers are.  And what makes it even funnier is that most Americans taking the drivers' test will fail the first (and probably second) time simply due to being American.  I'm not kidding.  The test can be taken again only after 90 days, and there is no guarantee of passing the third time, either.  Each test costs over $300, too.  For some reason, Americans have a reputation as bad drivers, or maybe they are worried because we drive on the other side of the street.  In any event, what makes it so foolish is that drivers here are worse than anything I've ever seen in the States.  With the (possible) exception of bumper cars.