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Thursday, March 28, 2002
'Classroom collapse' gripping schools nationwide
Teachers, parents, society all come under fire as experts remain unable to pinpoint cause
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Last of three parts Staff writer Atsushi Shimizu, a 42-year-old elementary school 1teacher, saw the first signs of a breakdown in classroom discipline during a meeting of student representatives several years ago.
At the meeting, the students from each class were supposed to present their ideas for a slogan for an upcoming athletic meet. But students from a sixth-grade class, not Shimizu's own, came up with a "bizarre" idea, he said.
While students from other classes presented slogans like "Red team, white team, do your best," the idea from the sixth-graders contained an English word for female genitalia. Few of the students or even the teachers understood the meaning of the word, he said.
"Maybe the teacher of the class didn't understand what the word meant, because, otherwise, she wouldn't have allowed the idea to be presented," Shimizu said.
Then two months later, in September, the situation got out of hand. The students united and began boycotting the sixth-grade teacher's classes. The class fell into chaos, with some students bursting out of the room, while others freely chatted with their friends. Students also became destructive, throwing lunch containers onto the floor and damaging doors and lockers.
"When (the other teachers) learned what was happening, things had already gotten really bad," Shimizu said.
The teacher of the class, a veteran educator Shimizu described as diligent and methodical, tried hard to rectify the "classroom collapse," and her boss even intervened to try to improve the situation. However, the chaos continued through March, when the students graduated.
Shimizu, now teaching second-graders at a school in Shinjuku, Tokyo, has not experienced a collapse in his own class, but he fears it could happen any day.
"It might have been that the chemistry between the students and the teacher was bad," he said. "But I don't know. I myself might have a class like that at any time."
Shimizu's outlook epitomizes the increasing anxiety over classroom management that teachers have been feeling. They are facing an uphill battle as Japanese society breaks away from traditional values of conformity and harmony and places greater emphasis on individualism.
Causes of breakdown
According to a survey released in October by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office of Education, nearly 19 percent of public elementary schools in the metropolis said they had experienced unruly classrooms.
Classroom collapse is defined as a situation in which students ignore their teacher and act up, walk out, run amok, speak out of turn or even destroy supplies.
According to another report released in October, compiled in part by the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, about 32.4 percent of 6,614 elementary school teachers surveyed replied that their schools had at least one class that exhibited such a breakdown in discipline.
The term classroom collapse began to be commonly used about five or six years ago. But experts have been unable to pinpoint what causes a classroom to become dysfunctional, let alone how to remedy the situation.
In May 2000, researchers drafted a report on classroom collapse at the request of the then Education Ministry. They analyzed 150 classes in which children become unruly and destructive.
The report concluded that dysfunctional classrooms are not a "simple response to a single cause" and can happen in any elementary school, regardless of classroom size or the teacher's age or gender.
The researchers did cite teacher incompetence as the main cause of classroom collapse, but other factors -- including student dissatisfaction with the way classes were run, a lack of leadership from principals and a lack of cooperation among teachers -- were also found to have played a role.
The report also said that there is no panacea for classroom breakdown and that schools must solve each of the small problems that contribute to it.
Some school officials place the blame for classroom collapse elsewhere.
Toshio Tanigaki, principal of Taimei Elementary School in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, blames the parents, who he says are not fulfilling their duty to teach children basic manners and discipline at home.
"Some parents are confusing (selfishness) with individualism," Tanigaki said.
Tanigaki attributed the selfishness of children and parents to changes in the way kids are raised. Couples are having fewer offspring and families tend to have little interaction with neighbors. This makes it difficult for children to learn how to get along in a group, he said.
"Parents have fewer children and therefore spoil them," he said. "Children also have fewer chances to interact with people of different ages, as fewer of them live with extended family members. They become reclusive or become prone to emotional outbursts, even when faced with only minor (interpersonal) troubles."
Lack of respect runs wide
But behind the loss of control felt by teachers is a sense of distrust that runs deep among parents, other experts said.
Naoki Ogi, an educational critic, said parents are growing skeptical of teachers' ability, partly because they are better educated than many teachers.
"Teachers used to enjoy a sense of elitism because they were among a minority of university graduates," Ogi said. "But now, it is easier to get a college education. Adults today grew up at a time when one's abilities were gauged by which university they attended, so they are programmed to judge teachers in that way. . . . The fact is that very few schoolteachers have degrees from top universities."
Ogi added that children now have access to various sources of information -- TV and the Internet -- whereas schools previously were the main source of knowledge. As a result, students today often find themselves seemingly more informed than their teachers, causing the children to think less of them.
Experts also attribute the recent surge in dysfunctional classrooms to the elementary school system, in which one teacher spends the entire day with a class, unlike in junior high or high schools, where eight or nine teachers specialized in different subjects hold classes in turn. Elementary school teachers thus tend to keep classroom problems to themselves, according to experts.
As in any organization however, whether a teacher can ride out hard times hinges on the atmosphere in the workplace, some teachers said.
Mariko Oshima, a teacher at a public elementary school in Hachioji, western Tokyo, said that while teaching is tough, she is being helped greatly by her colleagues.
"School administrators are tightening their grip on us (through rigid assessments) and parents are getting more and more demanding, but I'm fortunate because I have colleagues I can share my day-to-day gripes with," said Oshima, who has been a teacher for 26 years.
Teachers get support
Yoshihiko Morotomi, an assistant professor of clinical education at Chiba University, has visited schools in various cities and held consultations with teachers who have lost control of their classes or have had difficulty communicating with their colleagues and bosses.
He said many teachers are serious and tend to shoulder all classroom troubles on their own.
Morotomi became so concerned with the mental health of teachers that he established a group to help emotionally distressed teachers in fall 1999.
The group, which consists of about 200 current and former teachers, as well as volunteer counseling professionals, has responded to cries for help from teachers via e-mail, faxes and interviews. The group's Web site has an online message board, where teachers can post their troubles.
"I've just been to a hospital. Now I'm officially depressed," one teacher wrote recently. "I'm forgetful and I can't stand (work) in the morning. (The doctor) recommended I take leave."
"Hi, I'm an elementary school teacher," another wrote. "At school I yell at children, intervene in fights during class and get bogged down doing chores during recess. I wish I could improve my teaching skills, but I just don't have time. I wish I could quit my job."
Morotomi said the main objective of the group is to create a support network for teachers. He also wants teachers to know that it is OK to complain about work.
"While society and children are changing, teachers have been so busy with daily work that they have not had a chance to reflect on themselves," he said. "With so many problems in school, teachers cannot handle everything on their own."