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Friday, May 18, 2001

MATTER OF COURSE

QUICK, GET THE HOUSE CLEANED UP

Teachers' home visits an annual spring ritual


One of the rituals of spring in Japan is the annual home visit by schoolteachers. Called katei homon, home visits are an integral part of public education in Japan.

Early in the first semester of the school year, public elementary school teachers pay a visit to the home of every student in the class. (Private elementary schools, and junior high and senior high schools, rarely require home visits because so many students live far from the school.) Usually, there is a three-day period during which school is dismissed early so teachers have the afternoon free for home visits.

Although class size is falling along with the declining birth rate, many schools in Japan still have 40 or more students in a class, which means that teachers may have to visit as many as a dozen homes in a single afternoon.

Because Japan is so densely populated, most students live very close to the school. Working with a map of the school district, teachers plot out who lives close to whom and schedule their visits accordingly. But as anyone who lives in Japan knows, it can be difficult to find a specific address in the maze of Japan's narrow back streets. Some teachers find it easier to let students lead the way to the next home. One sensei told me that she usually has eight or nine children following her by the end of an afternoon.

Like the parent-teacher conferences conducted at school in other countries, the main purpose of the katei homon is to discuss how the child is doing at school. The justification for doing this at home, rather than at school, is that parents supposedly feel more comfortable on their own turf. Seeing the home also provides teachers with valuable insight on the child's family situation, which in theory improves teacher- student communication.

So what goes on in a home visit? Some teachers prefer not to enter the home at all, conducting a brief conference while standing in the genkan (entranceway). But most teachers will come inside and sit down. Visits are supposed to be brief, just 10 to 15 minutes long. Although parents are discouraged from doing so, most set out tea and at least a light snack. With small talk, visits can easily stretch to 30 minutes or even an hour.

The teacher may ask to see the child's study space, checking to make sure there is adequate light and work space. Teachers confess that it's hard to keep the details straight when you visit so many homes in one day. Was it Taro-kun who plays the piano? Was it the Yamada family who lives in total chaos? Teachers learn not to take notes because that makes parents nervous. Most teachers write up reports at the end of the afternoon, before they forget too much.

One retired schoolteacher told me how useful home visits are for teachers.

"Even a brief visit provides valuable insight into the child's home life," she said. "One look around the home and you can understand the family's economic situation. You can pick up on the parents' attitude toward education. You can tell whether or not the child is getting emotional support at home. And sometimes you can detect a serious problem, such as alcoholism or child abuse."

But the truth is that schoolteachers had much more authority in Japanese society when this teacher started teaching, nearly 50 years ago. At that time, receiving a home visit from the teacher was accepted as part of a parent's duty to the school. No one questioned the teacher's right to come into the home.

But today, Japanese parents are more likely to view katei homon as an invasion of privacy. Or unnecessary, because there are no longer great differences in how Japanese people live.

The school my children attend is unusual because it offers parents a choice of a home visit or a conference at school. This is partly in response to privacy concerns, but it is also a matter of logistics. Because the board of education in our district allows some school choice, a growing percentage of our students come from outside the official school boundaries. No one seems to expect teachers to visit homes that are outside the school district.

Given the choice, nearly all parents opt for a conference at school. In my first-grader's class, only one mother out of 28 chose a home visit. When I asked her why, she explained that she has a younger child she'd have to bring to the conference. The sibling is less likely to be disruptive at home, the mother told me. Also, because her family runs a Shinto shrine and lives on the premises, her husband is around during the day and could meet the teacher during a home visit.

Why did the other parents choose a conference at school? All of the mothers I asked said they didn't want to have to clean up in preparation for a visit. Some said they are embarrassed because their homes are too small or too old (or both).

A few said they feel it is intrusive to have the teacher visit their home, and believe school matters are best discussed at school.

Given growing parent discomfort with home visits, it seems likely that more schools will begin to offer parents the choice of a conference at school. And while katei homon has long been an accepted part of Japanese public education, my bet is that it will eventually be phased out completely.



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