Bullying: Another Look
Because of the large response to the bullying editorial, I decided to write a follow-up to address some of the common questions. I really should have made the original article longer, but what can I say? I’m a lazy bastard.
The teachers really just stand there and do nothing? How horrible!
Well, yes, it is a bad situation, but don’t persecute the teachers just yet.
I used to wonder why the teachers didn’t do more in the way of discipline. In my first year, I noticed in one class, there was a boy who’d constantly just sing. The teacher never addressed it, and it always left me thinking, “why? Why doesn’t she tell him to just shut up? That’s pretty disruptive.”
I think in the very first editorial, way back when, I mentioned two rules/aspects of the Japanese school system that makes things very difficult in the way of discipline.
1. Students have the right to an education. Which means we can’t send a disruptive student out to the hallway, to the principals office, or even home, because this would be violating their rights.
2. All students will pass through the grades and graduate, regardless of their actual academic performance.
What that boils down to is, we can’t do anything. We can’t send the bad students away, and there’s nothing to threaten them with. We can’t give them more homework, because they already aren’t doing the regular work. You can’t say “you’ve been bad, so clean up the school/erase all the blackboards on the second floor/carry these buckets of water” or whatever, because they’ll just say “no” and there’s really no way to force them to do it.
So it’s not necessarily that the teachers don’t want to do anything. It’s just that they cant. The teacher I mentioned before, with the singing boy in her class, once spoke to me about how frustrating it is to have their hands tied. And as for Lil Pavarotti, I found out why the teacher always just ignored him – it was her way of keeping him at Level 1, so to speak. If she did say something, his response would be to sing louder, and switch to a more obnoxious song. The more she’d try to shut him up, the louder he’d get. So, ignoring it was her way of keeping him at merely annoying instead of class-breaking disruptive.
I’ve learned recently though that the “right to an education” thing has a clause which allows teachers to send students out of the room if it’s found that they are interfering with other students rights to an education. Teachers NEVER use this though. Who knows why. Sometimes, the attitude seems to be “we can’t give up on them”, and the teachers will try to get the kid to do their work and settle down, which never works. It could also be fear of the PTA. I heard of a case once where a teacher sent a group of disruptive kids home, and it sparked outrage and controversy.
The few discipline options that Japanese teachers might have, they just never think to do. Most bad kids are involved in the after school clubs (it always seems to be between baseball and soccer for the boys). If a kid was being bad, why not threaten to bench them for the big game? It worked in America somewhat – bad kids had to keep from failing at least to be able to continue on the school’s sports team. However, teachers just never think to do this. Also, I can see the PTA getting all huffy and involved should the teachers even attempt it. Detention also doesn’t exist in Japan – I once told my classes about it, and the universal response was, “Wow, American schools are harsh!” Even the teachers were a bit surprised to hear about detention, with quite a few saying, “it’d be nice if we had that here.”
So, a teachers failure to act isn’t necessarily them not wanting to, but just not being able to. A lot of teachers just have to ignore all the chaos going on around them and power through the class, or else they’d spend the entire 50 minutes saying things like, “Hey, stop wrestling in the back!” or “Put the Game Boy down!” In the case of bullying, sometimes calling attention to something will only make the bullying worse. For example, I saw once where a bad student took a pen from another student. The teacher saw it as well, and ordered the bad student to return the pen. Instead of returning the pen, the bad student then decided to liberally take other items from the other student. And this is just a small example. So sometimes, doing nothing is the teachers way of keeping it from escalating, as addressing it will only make the situation worse, not better.
There is a lot of irresponsibility though. One of the things that I hate the most is seeing the teachers be all friendly with the bad students. A bad student will interrupt a class to ask a question that’s completely unrelated to the lesson, and the teacher will stop teaching and take the time to answer their question. In the Ghetto School, the bad kids treated the teachers room as a hangout spot, coming and going as they pleased. And the teachers would entertain them, engaging them in conversation, laughing at their jokes, etc.
I hate seeing this because I think it sends an awful message to the good students. The bad students bully the good students at will, not to mention disrupting class and making it hard to study. The good students don’t necessarily understand why the teachers can’t do anything about it. So not only do they have to deal with being bullied, but they have to watch as the bullies get along friendly with the people who should be in a position of authority. I imagine that’s a big reason why students who are being bullied feel as if they have nowhere to turn.
Why don’t you do anything about it?
I think many of you overestimate the power/position of the ALT in the schools. We rank somewhere in-between the school secretary, and the lady who tends to the garden. Actually, probably even lower than that.
ALT’s are regarded as special school visitors. Many ALT’s go to more than one school – I had three, but I’ve heard of others having many more, even ten or twenty. Even if the ALT only has one school, they aren’t considered to be full-fledged faculty. There’s the language barrier – most ALT’s don’t speak Japanese, and at a school, the only people who do speak English are the English teachers (and sometimes, they don’t even speak English…). Even if the ALT did speak Japanese, there’s that Japanese Suspension of Belief that doesn’t allow them to believe that you speak Japanese.*
*I had a conversation with a non-English teacher once, in Japanese, about the presidential elections, and the differences in the Democratic and Republican parties, and explained the whole blue state/red state thing. …A few weeks later, the same teacher goes to Ms. Americanized (who sits across from me) and says to her, “We’re having an end of the year party in two weeks…can you explain that to him?” …How in the world can we have a conversation about politics, in Japanese, and yet she thinks I won’t be able to comprehend “drinking party in two weeks”?! Japanese Suspension of Belief, that’s the only explanation.
At any rate, if the teachers have no power, ALT’s have minus power. If we try to take matters into our own hands, we end up being the ones getting in trouble. The whole situation is a glass tapestry, and here we come trying to Gaijin Smash our way through it. Since I’m a big black guy, at first I tried using my size and stature to intimidate the bad students. It worked at first, but when the students realized that all I could do was stand menacingly over them, it didn’t work anymore. Many of them turned it into a joke, to see if they could get me to come over and make the mean face at them.
Some ALT’s go into Stand By Me/Dangerous Minds/Welcome Back Kotter mode or whatever, and try to “reach out” to the bad students. “Surely, they must be having problems at home. Maybe they just need someone to talk to”. And that’d be nice if this was Hollywood, but it isn’t. Most of these bad students bully and disrupt classes for attention, and when we give it to them it just tells them “Hey, your tactics are working! Step it up a notch.” I’ve even heard of some ALT’s who preferred talking to the bad students because they had more “personality”. I hate this because, again, it sends an awful message to the good students.
Personally, I give bad students/bullies the cold shoulder. I don’t smile at them, most times I don’t even return their greetings. If they’re going to show a complete lack of respect for the other students and teachers, why should I respect them? It drives the bullies nuts too, some of them have gotten downright pissed that I won’t acknowledge them. Some teachers have asked me about it, and tried to indirectly coax me into being nicer to the bullies. I think the good students at least understand what I’m trying to do – they know that there’s at least one adult that understands their position.
Unfortunately, this is all I can do. I can’t stop bullying or disruptive behavior no more than any of the other teachers in the school. Sometimes, it’s very frustrating. Which is why I say that Japanese schools, at least the middle schools, are fucked up. As a foreigner in Japan, we often see aspects of the culture that don’t appear to make any sense, but we hesitate to say anything negative about it. “Well, it is a different culture. What works for one, may not necessarily work for another.” But no matter how you slice it, Japanese schools are fucked. They need change – ground-breaking, fundamental change. I don’t see it happening, because Japan hates change. People will argue and squabble back and forth, but ultimately nothing will be done.
I really, really hope I’m wrong though.