I’ve never taught in an American school, but based on my interactions with people who have, I believe I can safely assert that American teachers work hard. Despite the climate of public opinion, which has increasingly demonized them over the last decade, my impression is that most American teachers work well over 50 hours per week, not including all the extra hours spent at home grading papers and preparing materials for class.
Although American teachers receive (at best) middling pay, the job comes with a major fringe benefit, one that is constantly lorded over them as an excuse for garnished wages: American teachers get a lot of vacation time. True, it isn’t as flexible as regular time-off, since teachers can’t up and take it whenever they want, but even so, the summer vacation enjoyed by teachers is the envy of working people everywhere. And winter break is nothing to sneeze at, either.
For the most part, teachers in Japan have it about the same. Same long hours, same mediocre pay. But there are some major differences. For one thing, Japanese teachers tend to get a lot more respect than their American counterparts. In part, this is just a product of Japanese society as a whole, where people go to considerable lengths to avoid offending one another, and nobody would think of denigrating another person’s job. The Culture of Blame that is so pervasive in America just doesn’t exist here on anything like the same scale. This isn’t always a good thing, as historically, close ties between the Japanese bureaucracy and private sector interests consistently undermined the public good while generating only modest outcries. (Wait… this seems somehow familiar). Still, I think overall it’s a positive that, when something bad happens, Japan’s first instinct is to fix the problem rather than castigate the people at fault. Whereas in America, we get so caught up in the fun and excitement of scapegoating that we sometimes lose sight of what’s actually wrong. Economy bad? Budget deficit? Racial achievement gap? Barber shaved your sideburns a little too high? DAMN TEACHERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING!
But there’s a price to be paid for that extra respect. The culture here may not be one of blame, but it’s certainly one of hard work, so much so that the Japanese invented a term (karoshi) for “occupational sudden death” from overwork. For the Japanese, a suspect work ethic is perhaps the most damaging social stigma. This means that people not only work awfully hard, but also take pains to keep up appearances, in order to avoid the perception of laziness. For teachers, the result is a lot of extra days at the office.
Aside from the national holidays that affect everyone, the Japanese academic calendar includes three major breaks: (1) Summer vacation, which lasts the whole month of August; (2) Winter vacation, which is the two weeks surrounding New Year’s; and (3) The end of the year break, two weeks at the end of March and beginning of April for graduation and the start of the new school year. While there are no classes during any of these breaks, Japanese teachers have to come to work during ALL of them. (Not quite every day—we do have six days off for New Year’s, though this includes a few national holidays).
Now, Japanese teachers get 20 vacation days per year, and in theory they can use them during these breaks. The reality, though, is that most Japanese teachers never get close to using their full allotment of vacation. And this isn’t because they’re all humorless automatons that can’t function outside the office. It’s because the social stigma against slacking off is so great that, even though these are days they are entitled to use, they don’t consider it appropriate to use them all.
So teachers are stuck at work right now, just like they were in August when I first arrived, without any classes to teach, and doing… I’m not sure what, exactly. They do seem to be working diligently, although if they were goofing off, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Since I don’t have any of the administrative duties that the Japanese teachers have, there’s really no work for me to do, but since I have to keep showing up, I spend most of the day studying Japanese, occasionally taking breaks to read or write a blog post (on MS Word, since I don’t have any internet access at my desk). My Japanese is definitely improving, and while that isn’t saying much, every little bit makes my life here easier.
Lucky for me, though, I’m not Japanese, so the expectations are different. If I wanted, I could take time off now, but I’m choosing to save my nenkyu for March/April, when my parents may be coming to visit, and for a possible return to the States (date TBA) for my friend’s wedding. And I will be taking a little trip—to Kumamoto and Fukuoka, the two neighboring prefectures with big cities—during the six-day New Year’s break, starting on Thursday. Rest assured, though, I’ll be using those 20 days. I mean, my coworkers have gotta understand—letting vacation days go to waste is downright un-American.