Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Individualised Academic Standards and Bullying

Image from the film All About Lily Chou-Chou, a wrenching story about the fluidity of roles between bully and bullied
Something that really jumped out at me when I started working in Japanese schools was this scenario:

Student A shows the teacher a long and ambitious sentence with multiple clauses. The teacher finds a single misspelling and puts a huge red cross through it. “What are you thinking?!” The teacher growls. “Pay attention! Don’t bring this half-arsed rubbish to show me!”

Student B shows the teacher a sentence along the lines of “Me likes anamal doG.” “Great!” The teacher gushes. “You worked  so hard, you’re really starting to get good at English!”

From an Australian point of view this seems like clear cut favouritism; possibly even bullying. The thing is, in Japan, chances are student A is the favourite and the teacher cares very little about advancing student B academically. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the more critical a teacher is of you, the more potential they generally seem to think you have. It isn’t only a classroom thing, either. I noticed it in naginata too. An Australian friend of mine withdrew from a Masters program in translation and interpretation after a year of unrelenting criticism and negativity from his Japanese teacher wore down his self-esteem and enthusiasm for the course. When the teacher found out he was leaving she cried and said that he was her most promising students and she had had high hopes for him. When he incredulously responded that he thought she had hated him she was dumbfounded and seemed unable to understand why he would think such a thing.

As with most things in Japanese schools, my feelings are mixed. I think holding diverse children who are maturing at different speeds and have differing levels of support at home to a single absolute standard is a fundamentally flawed practice. As the saying goes, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it I stupid.” For some children, simply putting pen to paper in another language is a huge achievement. For others, writing long sentences comes easily. I absolutely see the value in acknowledging each achievement by weighing it against the child’s potential and not an abstract standard. But. It’s me, so of course there is a but! It can easily turn into simply dismissing and writing off some students. I’ve been told that two of my current junior high third graders (grade nines) don’t need to d anything in class. At one school, the JTE said that just getting out of bed and coming to school was a big achievement for a certain girl. At another school the JTE said that quietly reading comics during class was the highest goal for a specific boy (who had been disruptive in the past). I am not questioning my teachers’ judgement here; they have insights into the kids’ lives and understand them in a way that will forever be beyond me. However, as long as I don’t pressure the kids I have been allowed give them some individual attention and I know that with a bit of support and encouragement they have the capacity to keep up with their classmates. By not giving them that extra nudge and support we are jeopardising their high school entry prospects and therefore in some sense their entire futures.

The other ‘but’ is that the “I’m cruel because I care” approach can contribute to bullying. The positive use of harsh and persistent criticism can make the recipient unsure if they are being bullied or encouraged. This becomes a problem particularly between senior and junior students. When accused of being bullies, students often counter with “I was just teaching”. The controversy in recent years over corporal punishment in schools and sports reflects this ambivalence. Relationships become complicated. Some of the deepest and most heartfelt friendships I’ve seen as an ALT have been between children I initially identified as bully and victim. This dynamic is dramatically visible on graduation day, when the bad boys of the grade~ the ones who spent the most time being yelled at in the staffroom by tag-teaming teachers~ always cry the hardest and linger the longest after the ceremony. The teachers who did the yelling often cry too. My first term as an ALT I had one teacher who seemed to have no other job than following a certain boy around and whacking him on the head with various objects whenever he was bad (which was every five minutes). On graduation day the teacher and boy were locked in a hysterically sobbing mess of an embrace that lasted so long the other teachers eventually intervened to physically pry them apart, send the boy home and sit the teacher down in the staffroom for a hot cup of tea.

The danger is, how do you know when it’s abusive? In Geisha: A Life, Mineko Iwasaki writes about her boyfriend turning up with drunken friends in the middle of the night and demanding that she cook for them all. Was this really, as she seems to have interpreted it, part of a carefully weighed strategy to help her become a better hostess, or was he a thoughtless arsehole with a sense of entitlement who took her for granted and treated her like a servant? Obviously I have my own opinion on that one, but it isn’t always so clear cut. Eryk’s recent post on bullying contains this quote:
Akiko: We tried to talk to the person being isolated when our teacher told us to do so. But she didn’t really respond to us. If she could be a bit more cooperative, like try to join in or talk to us, then I think things can get better.
Tamaki: You mean, she won’t be bullied if she changes her attitude?
Akiko: Yes, because that’s why she is being rejected…. actually it’s like she is rejecting being with us. If she wants to be a part, she’s got to change herself.
In Australia my perception was that bullies and victims are distinct categories, but in Japan the roles are fluid. It’s entirely possible that these kids genuinely wanted to become friends and were trying to “teach” their classmate how to behave. If she had responded better to their “training”, perhaps they would have gone on to be kind to her. I’m not in any way trying to ascribe pure motives to bullies. I’m simply pointing out that the cultural prevalence of put-downs as “instruction” is a huge complication in getting to the bottom of bullying issues.

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  1. I can't comment on the bullying connection, but I don't think that the first part of your post is unique to Japan. I have experienced this in Australia. The kids who have potential are the ones who are pushed and criticised. If you are allowed to get away with sloppy work and your teacher is good in their field, chances are you're not talented enough to be worth putting in the extra effort of criticism and reproach, even in Australia and especially in the arts. Despite its more worrying side I can certainly relate to it, both as one of the pupils who were pushed and as a teacher myself. But of course, my teachers never crossed the line of actually being nasty or abusive in any way which makes a huge difference.

    1. Yeah, I should probably include a disclaimer in all school-related posts that I really have no idea how school works in other countries >.<