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Part XXI Unhappy Thoughts

March 4, 1999

I realize that by switching into reverse this fast I can strip my gears, but I have no choice. This is not a funny message. Think grim and you are getting there.

 Minami Junior High School in Kiryu has had disciplinary problems since I first started teaching there seven months ago. There is a group of 5-10 third grade (U.S. ninth grade) boys whose behavior has gradually become more distracting, more forceful, and finally, more dangerous for both the rest of the student body and the teaching staff.

 These students started by ceasing to participate in class. This escalated into talking, walking around the classroom, and otherwise actively disrupting the class. It became virtually impossible to institute and semblance of order, let alone conduct a meaningful class. Early this semester, at some point in January or February, these students stopped attending class regularly. I have seen them sitting in front of the school during class time smoking, riding skateboards, playing guitar, or all of the above.

 However, the third grade classrooms are on the first floor, which is easily accessible from the outside either through the side door or, more frequently, through the windows. Thus, these students are able, and allowed, to freely enter or exit the classroom at any time, being unfailingly loud and disruptive. This is an impossible environment in which to teach.

 For those of you screaming to yourselves that you would never put up with this, I'll tell you why this has happened. In Japan, it is law that every student has the right to attend class. It is illegal to bar a student from the classroom, whether through in school suspension, actual suspension, or expulsion. In addition, there is absolutely no way to hold a student back from passing a grade, and every student always graduates with his or her class. In other words, no matter what the student does during the three years in junior high school, even if they don't attend class for two of those years (this is a real life example), they are required by law to graduate with their class. So, right now, there is nothing that the teachers can do to discipline students who behave like this because their hands are legally tied.

 I have witnessed the students in question get into shouting matches with the teachers and the principal, and I have also seen their total disregard and even contempt for any authority. However, what I was witness to today makes all of the above pale in comparison. That is a strong statement, but it is true.

 Just after school lunch, at approximately 1:15pm, about five or six of these students came into the teachers' room and sat down on four padded chairs, which are often used for meetings (all students have free access to the teachers' room, by the way, so this in itself was not unusual). They proceeded to make their presence known by talking loudly to each other and to the teachers. Some of the male teachers, maybe four of them, gathered around and started talking to them. I could not understand what was said, but I understood the gist of the conversation to be that the teachers wanted the students to leave the room, and the students refused.

 After 5-10 minutes of this, one the students stood up and started shouting, and one the teachers responded in kind. The student in question is about six feet tall, 250 pounds. This is a big kid, far bigger than any of the teachers (except me). So, when the student stepped up to the teacher with whom he was arguing and bumped him with his chest, the teacher stumbled backwards. The teacher, growing increasingly angry, pushed back, and the two started grabbing each others' wrists and pushing harder. About two minutes into this, all of the students (5 or 6) and about 6 or 7 male teachers were standing around the two of them, some trying to get in between, and most shouting loudly. I was sitting at my desk about 12 feet away.

 Suddenly, the big student reared back and hit the teacher with whom he was grappling on the side of his head and face with an open hand, knocking the teacher's glasses off and sparking a fight. Two other teachers immediately tried to grab the big kid, but the other students were right there, and went after the other teachers. It became very confused after this, with everyone trying to restrain, or simply hold onto, everyone else. There are three moments, however, which stand out in my mind. First, one of the other students grabbed the first teacher around the neck and put him in a one-armed headlock. Second, another student picked up one of the padded chairs and threw it at the group of fighters, hitting the first teacher in the head but doing no apparent damage. And third, a few minutes later I saw the first teacher, while being restrained by another teacher, reach out and slap the big student on the face.

 Of course, by this time all of the male teachers, as well as the principal and vice principal, were involved. However, this school is fairly small, and there were only about 7 or 8 male teachers. They could not restrain the students, and there was still a lot of pushing, pulling, and shouting.

 At this point, about 15 minutes after the students first entered the room, I packed my bag, got my coat and left. It was the most difficult decision I have ever had to make, because by this time my own adrenalin was flowing, and I wanted to help the teachers. However, I felt that it was not my place to interfere. In effect, it was not my problem. I do not know how it ended, but I had seen enough.

 I immediately went to the offices of the board of education, where I go during non school days, and informed by supervisor. I then sat down with the head of the board of education for an hour and went over the even with a fine-toothed comb. I informed them that I will not return to Minami Junior High School until next school year, if ever (the school year ends at the end of March, by the way). I teach at three other schools, so this does not affect my schedule as much as it might. However, I feel very strongly about this -- I WILL NOT go back until the student are under control. I will not put myself into a position where I have to make a similar decision if I can prevent it. If I do return, it will only be on the condition that if i feel such a situation could happen again I will terminate my visits.

 It is not my job to enforce discipline -- the JET program is very explicit about that. If it was part of my job, I would not have left the school that day. However, I am a kind of guest at these schools, and discipline problems on this scale are the beyond the scope of my responsibilities.

 This incident happened on Monday, and on Wednesday I wrote a statement, had it translated, and gave it the board of education detailing my position. Sorry this email is so long, but it is pretty short and I have included it below.

 1 Safety
I do not want to work in an environment in which my safety or the safety of others is threatened.

 2 Attention
By my not visiting a particular school, maybe more people will take notice and become aware of how bad the situation really is. The more people know, the more likely it is that a solution will be found. If the problems are hidden, then a solution is less likely.

 3 Responsibility
I think that the school and the board of education are responsible for the enforcement of discipline in the schools. Of course, I can help with small problems that occur during class, but the incident that I witnessed is far more serious than that.

 4 Long Term Effects
This problem will not go away when these students graduate later this month. Already, some of the second grade (eighth grade) students have begun to behave similarly. If this is simply ignored, or if a solution is not found, the problems will continue. They will not just go away by themselves.

 5 I want to help
I will do everything I can to help, but I will not pretend that nothing happened. If I am told that part of my job is to enforce discipline, then I will attempt to do so, but I will use American methods because that is what I know. That would start with barring disruptive students from the classroom. I realize that this is not allowed in Japan, but I won't be able to teach properly if these students are allowed to interrupt the class freely and without punishment.

 If I can think of possible solutions, I will certainly suggest them. Clearly, this is not an easy problem to solve. I think it will involve institutional change, some of which might be difficult and painful.

 I really do want to help. I want to be a part of the solution. However, if i return to the classroom and pretend that nothing is wrong, I will become a part of the problem. We all need to recognize and admit that there is a problem. That is the first step towards solving it.

So far, the response from the board of education has been exactly nil. They have not yet given me their "official decision" as to whether they will send me back to Minami Junior High School, a fact which I consider a little funny considering that that is my decision to make, not theirs. In fact, they haven't told me anything, not even their opinions of the fight. They have basically given me the cold shoulder, claiming that they are too busy for THREE CONSECUTIVE DAYS to meet with me for TWENTY MINUTES. That, of course, is a load of bullshit, but there is nothing I can do about it. Today (Thursday) and tomorrow and I teaching at a different school, so at least I am not in the office right in front of them as a constant reminder of the situation. Hopefully, when I return to the office on Monday we will have a meaningful discussion, but I am not counting on it.

The issue, in fact, will probably not be discussed again until the end of the month when we have to schedule the school visits for next year. I have a hunch that they are assuming I will have softened my stance by then. I assure you, they are wrong. I very seriously doubt whether my job is at stake over this, but to me it doesn't matter. I have been here long enough to know that I can easily find another teaching job if I want to stay in Japan for another year. I think that that is an extremely remote possibility, but I just wanted you to understand my situation.

 I will certainly keep you informed of any new developments, and I am certain I left something out, so don't hesitate to ask questions.

 Sorry for the business-like tone, but I wanted to get through everything. Thoughts/advice/support are always greatly appreciated.

 I hope you had a less exciting week than I did.