The Japanese Way: The teacher transfer system

Every April brings a new round of enkai farewell and welcome parties among teachers in Japan.

The Japanese Way is a monthly column written by Kure JET Courtney Coppernoll in which she attempts to shed light on how and why certain aspects of Japanese culture differ from our own.

At the end of March every public school in Japan, from elementary school up through high school, experiences what I like to call “The Great Teacher Shuffle,” an event in which teachers across Japan are transferred to new schools at the behest of their respective Boards of Education (BOE). Teachers are given essentially no choice in the matter (aside from quitting their jobs) and their new schools may be located in different cities from the ones in which they currently live and work, requiring an hour-long commute or even a change of address. The average amount of time a teacher spends at a single school before they’re transferred is about three years, though some teachers may stay for five or six years, or even longer.

Since BOEs don’t give a reason for these transfers (and, in fact, transferring teachers are given only a week’s notice about the change) I set off to find out what the motivation is behind employing this kind of system.

  • “I don’t know” — Believe it or not, the most common answer I received (from teachers and community members alike) was “I don’t know.” Apparently, frequent transferring is such a natural part of “how things are done” in the Japanese education system that many teachers just haven’t given it much thought. Even one of my JTEs, who spent 10 years at his first school, but has been transferred every three years since then, said he’d never really thought about why his time at any one school had shortened so dramatically.
  • Experience — The more schools for which a teacher works, the more experience he or she will gain. By working at a number of schools over their careers, teachers can be exposed to more teaching styles, new ideas, and different types of students and schools. Ideally, this variety of experience will produce better teachers.
  • Control — A couple of people mentioned (with furtive glances in both directions) that the Japanese government transfers teachers so frequently in order to prevent unions from forming (one of them actually called it “conspiracy” prevention). The purpose of a union is to allow its members to voice their concerns and to negotiate working conditions with their employers. Essentially, it gives workers more control in the workplace. If the teachers at a school are changed yearly, however, it makes it more difficult for individual schools to form unions because they lack consistent membership and leadership.
  • Fairness — Rotating the teachers around every few years or so ensures that no single school is always stuck with a “bad” teacher, while at the same time no single school is able to keep all the “good” teachers. In other words, keeping all the schools on a level playing field.
  • Keeping teachers on their toes — One BOE employee told me that the government is concerned that teachers who stay at a single school for too long will start feeling a little too comfortable with their jobs, which may lead to apathy and/or laziness. When a person starts a new job, however, they’re usually very eager to please and want to perform well since they’re “the new guy (or gal).” So, if you start a new job every few years, one would hope that you’d spend more time in the “Yes, let’s work!” phase and less time in the “Yeah, whatever” phase.

I have to admit that I was really surprised at how many “I don’t know” responses I received for this topic, and I can’t help but wonder if teachers at other schools would have something different to say. So, for this particular column, I’d like to do something a little unusual and ask all you lovely readers for a favor, if I may be so bold: Ask your teachers what they think and post their responses here. I’d love to hear other possible explanations!

Do you have questions you’d like Courtney to explore in The Japanese Way? Email them to wideislandview (atto) gmail (dotto) com.

Photo by JoshBerglund19. Published under Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0.

6 comments

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  • Dan

    Hey, nice article. This system has always confused me too. At first I found it better to shake things up and not let a teacher’s tenure get in the way of their motivation. But, I would definitely find this system frustrating (if it affected me, of course). The response you received about Union Control is quite intriguing. It never even crossed my mind. Sorry I have no additional stats for you (at the moment). I will be sure to ask a few teachers when I confirm the vocab for said conversation.

  • joiboi

    wow i didn’t realize that japan had a shuffle system for teachers, wondering does it affect all teachers?, or is this only for the government run schools?

  • Courtney Coppernoll

    joiboi:

    I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m pretty sure it this only happens with government-run schools since it’s the government (i.e. boards of education) who decide all the switches. Private schools, on the other hand, can hand-select their own staff. Individual private schools (as opposed to chains) also wouldn’t have any other schools to transfer their teachers to!

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