Each April, as the new academic year starts, it’s customary for schools in Japan to hold an entrance ceremony for incoming students. The new pupils assemble in the auditorium, sit quietly while the principal and teachers make speeches, and often sing the alma mater.
For the students, listening to a bunch of grown-ups drone on about the value of education isn’t exactly riveting, and it’s debatable if the words of wisdom that are imparted really make any difference at all in their academic careers. For parents, though, this is a special day. They can appreciate the ceremony as the rite of passage it is, and it gives them an excuse to snap a picture with their child wearing their brand new uniform, which will quickly become too small for them as they grow up all too soon.
It’s a sentiment any parent can feel, even – or perhaps especially – parents who are educators themselves. However, one high school teacher in Japan is being publicly criticized for skipping her school’s entrance ceremony to attend her son’s, instead.
The unnamed woman, who is in her 50s, teaches at a prefectural high school in Saitama, where this year she also serves as homeroom teacher for a batch of incoming freshman. Ordinarily, educators in this position attend the entrance ceremony and officially greet their new charges. However, the date of the entrance exam of the school where the woman teaches coincided with that of the high school where her eldest son has recently begun studying.
Teaching children may be all about preparing them for the myriad possibilities of adult life, but that doesn’t mean the teacher in question is capable of breaking the laws of reality, and the timing of the two events left her unable to attend both. Deciding to prioritize her son’s ceremony, she chose not to attend her own school’s, so took the morning off to attend.
At the ceremony, the principal explained her absence, and another teacher passed out copies of a written greeting to the absent teacher’s students, which said, “As your homeroom teacher, I am deeply sorry to be unable to greet you all in person on the important day of your entrance ceremony.”
▼ Quite cordial, since we estimate that at most high school entrance ceremonies, 10 percent of the kids in attendance are sleeping, and several times that many are more concerned with what to have for lunch than with what anyone on stage is saying.
Apparently this wasn’t enough in some people’s eyes, as at least one parent is reported to have expressed puzzlement, saying, “Do teachers these days think their son’s entrance exam is more important than their own students?”
The woman’s absence seems to have struck a particularly sensitive nerve with Koichi Gono, a Saitama prefectural assemblyman who was a guest at her school’s ceremony. “She is lacking in appreciation of her duties as a homeroom teacher, and also in ethics as an educator,” he fumed. “This also gives me doubts as to the administrative capabilities of the school’s principal.”
▼ It’s unclear whether Gono then rushed home to write a scathing review of the school’s lunch for his personal blog.
The woman wasn’t the only teacher to pass on her employer’s ceremony for familial reasons, as three other Saitama prefectural high school educators took time off to do likewise, attracting the attention of the prefecture’s Board of Education. Chairman Kunimitsu Sekine passed along what he called “the worry felt by students and guardians who noticed their homeroom teachers were not in attendance,” and the body itself issued a statement imploring educators to “think of themselves as teachers, first and foremost, when choosing a course of action.”
Not too long ago, this might have been a cut-and-dried case in Japanese society, which has traditionally held that the group should be given priority over the individual, especially in cases of work responsibilities versus family time. Internet comments, though, show the shift that’s occurring in Japanese culture regarding work/life balance, as many felt the teacher who chose to attend her son’s ceremony had done no wrong.
“I’m hoping to become a teacher in Saitama in the future, but this news makes me sad. Just as the new students’ parents should care for their children, so too should this teacher care for her own son.”
“Making such a big deal out of this because one prominent person [Gono], who isn’t even part of the organization, got upset is dumb. Saying she has a lack of morals is just spiteful and nasty.”
“I think [Gono] is being completely unreasonable.”
New blogger Hayato Ikeda hypothesized that the students whose teachers were absent are unlikely to think anything other than, “Oh, my teacher has a kid.” One could even make the argument that this knowledge would help both pupils and parents more empathetically communicate with their teachers, with the assumed understanding that they have a current, contemporary understanding of the difficulties and concerns of the parent/teen relationship.
Frankly, with a whole year of classroom instruction yet to come, it seems more than a little premature to be throwing anyone under the bus.
▼ Lesson 1: How not to freak out about trivial stuff