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May 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 8

How Japan Supports Novice Teachers

Beginning teachers in Japan receive sustained mentoring inside the teachers' room, or shokuin shitsu.

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When U.S. educators first hear that Japanese teacher preparation programs require only four weeks of formal student teaching at the end of the credential program, they're appalled: How can this be? A mere four weeks is in stark contrast to what takes place in many university-based teacher preparation programs in the United States, which typically require at least one semester of student teaching, and sometimes a full year, before teacher candidates can obtain a teaching degree.
On first look, the United States seems to provide much more rigorous teacher preparation. However, when we examine the Japanese education context, we see that Japan's teacher preparation actually takes place inside a collaborative social space in school known as the teachers' room, or shokuin shitsu. Shokuin shitsu is a shared space overseen by administrators in which all teachers have individual desks and meet daily to prepare, complete work, and collaborate on practice.
This support system may help explain the high retention rate of beginning teachers in Japan. In 2006, only 1.35 percent of first-year teachers in Japan left the profession (Sasaki, Hosaka, & Akashi, 2010). In the United States, approximately one-third of new teachers leave sometime during their first three years of teaching, and almost one-half leave during the first five years (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 2009).
Why is there such a difference in retention rates between the two countries? It's not that employment conditions are so much better in Japan. In fact, many teachers work long hours, staying in school until 7, 8, or even 9 p.m.; and many come in on weekends to coach sports. In addition to teaching academic subjects, teachers are expected to provide student guidance, supervise clubs, attend meetings, and engage in a host of other responsibilities.
But even in the midst of these strenuous work conditions, with teacher burnout and depression frequently reported, why do Japanese teachers persist in the profession? The answer may be found in their teachers' room.

A Look into Shokuin Shitsu

All Japanese children are familiar with the teachers' room, but little is known about what actually happens inside it, as only teachers and administrators are allowed to participate. My long-term relationship with Mirai Junior High School in Osaka, Japan, has enabled me to see, hear, and participate firsthand in this dynamic social space.
I came to the school in 2006 as a doctoral student from the United States, learning about minority students' experiences. In subsequent years, as a teacher educator and researcher, my relationship with the school grew through participation in professional development activities such as lesson study, appearances as a guest speaker in classrooms and assemblies, and interactions with students and faculty. My role has gradually shifted from that of an outsider to that of an insider: In 2012, I finally earned my own desk inside shokuin shitsu.
Shokuin shitsu is the heart of Japanese public junior high schools (Gump, 2002). In this space, teachers are continually nurtured as proficient professionals by collaborating with one another. Indeed, without the teachers' room, many Japanese teachers simply couldn't teach or function. This special place holds the key to understanding Japanese teacher professional development, especially for beginning teachers, as they are molded and guided by more experienced educators.
In Japan, unlike in the United States and many other countries, teachers travel from classroom to classroom, using the teachers' room as their base. All teaching and administrative staff members have their assigned desks inside this large space, with teachers sitting in grade-level groups, or islands, and the assistant principal sitting at the front of the room. The primary responsibility of running the teachers' room rests with the assistant principal. Although the principal usually has a desk next to the assistant principal and checks in intermittently throughout the day to touch base with staff members, the chief administrator has a separate office next to the teachers' room.
When teachers in Japan are not teaching—before school, after school, during preparation periods, between classes, and at lunch—they typically interact with one another in shokuin shitsu, debriefing and communicating about students and classes, reporting updates, planning lessons, grading, calling parents, and getting advice from administrators and veteran colleagues.
At Mirai Junior High School, teachers start their day at 8:20 a.m. in the teachers' room with chorei (morning call) under the leadership of an administrator, followed by brief announcements about the day's schedule and grade-level debriefings led by grade-level leaders. These daily routines are so organized that they take only 10 minutes. Afterward, teachers who have homeroom responsibility head out for their classrooms, along with the grade-level leaders who monitor the hallways, while the few remaining teaching staff either stay in the teachers' room or patrol the school building.
For the rest of the day, teachers continually go in and out of shokuin shitsu to briefly touch base with one another and administrators about any unusual student behavior and to drop off and pick up teaching materials, finally coming back to shokuin shitsu after their club supervision duties are over at 6:00 p.m. Most teachers stay inside shokuin shitsu for several hours until they head back home.
The fast-moving pace noticeably slows down during this after-school time, when teachers begin to attend to matters they can't otherwise address during the day. They have in-depth grade-level and subject-level meetings, discuss student and curriculum issues with other teachers, individually and collaboratively prepare lessons for the following day, and make calls to parents. Teachers relax and let their guard down during this time, enjoying one another's company, laughing, and having more personal conversations about such topics as where to go for dinner and what to do on a weekend.
Within the grade-level islands in the teachers' room, the seating arrangement is well thought out. For example, in Mirai's 7th grade island, two 7th grade mathematics teachers—a first-year teacher and a 10-year veteran—are placed next to each other so the more experienced teacher can mentor the beginner.
As one of the teachers at the school noted, Japan's shokuin shitsu can be compared to a control tower in which administrators and teachers plan, discuss, and communicate day-to-day operations. For a small school like Mirai, which has 28 teachers and 230 students, teacher responsibilities are enormous, as teachers are expected to keep the school going without the help of security guards, guidance counselors, and other support staff. Outside their average teaching load of 18–20 hours a week, the teachers must participate in many of these areas by collaborating with one another.
Despite their familiarity with shokuin shitsu, many Japanese people are unaware of what happens inside. Current and former students can come into the teachers' room, but only briefly to ask questions, give updates about their progress, or take care of such needs as getting keys to a room or cooling off from the summer heat in front of a fan. Otherwise, the door to the teachers' room is normally closed to outsiders, as teachers and administrators discuss and act on confidential information.

Ms. Suzuki: A First-Year Math Teacher

At Mirai Junior High School, beginning teachers are defined as first- through sixth-year teachers. This definition reflects a board of education policy that states that after a maximum of six years of teaching, beginning teachers are rotated within the same district to gain experience in another school setting. According to the assistant principal, veteran teachers can stay up to 10 years at one school as long as this is not their first teaching assignment in Osaka. Among its 28 teachers, seven at Mirai are considered beginners, a substantial percentage of the whole.
Beginning teachers who teach core subjects, such as mathematics and Japanese language arts, collaborate extensively with more experienced teachers in the same content area.
For example, in the 7th grade island, first-year mathematics teacher Ms. Suzuki, who has just graduated from a university, sits next to 10-year veteran mathematics teacher, Mr. Tanaka, her mentor. In addition to having this proximity, throughout the day they work together as a teacher-in-charge and assistant teacher-in-charge in the same 7th grade homeroom. They also team-teach the 7th grade math class.
To improve her instruction, Ms. Suzuki often asks Mr. Tanaka for advice about a lesson plan, both before and after teaching. For example, when she was teaching students who didn't excel in math, her mentor suggested that she use a game or puzzle on coordinate planes. Further, when she became discouraged by student misbehavior in class, Mr. Tanaka suggested that certain students may behave harshly toward her because they're testing her to see if she's still on their side.
An added support is also available to Ms. Suzuki. She supervises a basketball team after school, along with two other mathematics teachers to whom she can go for guidance in the teachers' room. Ms. Suzuki told me that she couldn't imagine not having shokuin shitsu. In fact, she asked, what do American teachers do without it?

Ms. Hayashi: A Third-Year Language Arts Teacher

Ms. Hayashi, who's in her third year of teaching Japanese language arts, sits in the 9th grade island. She has frequently sought advice from Mr. Takashima, a 30-year veteran Japanese language arts teacher who also serves as the 7th grade leader this year. Although he doesn't sit next to her—he sits in the 7th grade island—Mr. Takashima often acts as her "father" who listens to her concerns and stories and provides advice.
Ms. Hayashi shares her lesson plan with her mentor and asks for his opinion on such matters as how to go about teaching sentence structure in a story. She also regularly runs her tests by her mentor to ensure she's writing questions clearly so students won't be confused.
When Mr. Takashima took a one-year leave last year, another veteran language arts teacher stepped in to guide the young teacher. They worked together both in the teachers' room and outside it, through coaching badminton together after school.
According to Ms. Hayashi, the weekly subject-level meetings in the teachers' room are the most helpful to her professional growth. The language arts teachers get together to discuss how each of the 7th, 8th, and 9th graders is doing in terms of achievement, classroom behavior, and performance on assessments. Ms. Hayashi always prepares many questions ahead of time and takes extensive notes as she asks veteran teachers for their ideas on a variety of issues. She believes that learning from teachers in different grade levels will also benefit her later on when she teaches those grades.
For Ms. Hayashi, shokuin shitsu is a place to be nurtured, whereas a classroom is a place to interact with students. She said that if she didn't have this space, she'd need to wander aimlessly around the school looking for those who could give her guidance.

The Mentors' Point of View

Mr. Tada, a social studies teacher who has taught for 37 years and who is retiring at the end of this year, arrives at school before anyone else comes in. As the person in charge of the human rights curriculum, Mr. Tada has earned deep respect from his students, colleagues, and administrators as an advocate for human rights. His desk is located in an island without specific teaching assignments, in front of the administrators, right next to my desk.
When I asked him about the teachers' room, Mr. Tada stated that shokuin shitsu is a place to "unify will." It's where teammates share and exchange information. Without this space, he noted, everyone would go their own ways; they would no longer be a team.
For another veteran teacher, Mr. Takashima, the teachers' room exists so teachers can exchange information about students to better address students' needs. Without it, he said, trying to get this information would be "inconvenient." As the 7th grade leader, Mr. Takashima mentors and supports beginning teachers and the rest of the 7th grade team every day.
He shared with me some of the challenges of nurturing young teachers. He noted that because they often initially find it difficult to manage student behavior, they can become frustrated and feel as though they've failed at teaching. Mr. Takashima asks beginning teachers to write down any changes they note in student behavior, to reflect on these behaviors, to work out an appropriate response on paper, and to try that response. After the teachers have had an opportunity to reflect individually, they come together as a group to discuss what did and didn't work, all under the guidance of the more experienced teachers. Veteran teachers like Mr. Takashima look at shokuin shitsu as an organization or support system.

A Practice We Can Learn From

In shokuin shitsu, beginning teachers make sense of their experiences with the support of their colleagues and administrators throughout the day; they learn through apprenticeship to become more proficient professionals.
Beginning teachers don't get fired or fail to earn tenure because of poor teaching or poor student performance. The teachers and the school alike are committed to their growth for the long term as these new teachers develop the skills and knowledge they need while being nurtured in the teachers' room.
Although there may be many reasons why Japan has a much higher retention rate of beginning teachers than the United States does, on the basis of this case study of Mirai Junior High School, it's clear that shokuin shitsu holds the key to supporting beginning teachers. Since its inception more than 140 years ago during the Meiji Era, the teachers' room has served as the communal space for teachers to work collaboratively (Fujiwara, 2012).
Japan's teachers' room may offer insights to administrators and teachers in the United States and elsewhere about how to make beginning teacher professional development a collegial and continual endeavor. Shokuin shitsu shows us that beginning teachers may need intentionally designed spaces that give them access to their more experienced colleagues and promote substantial and ongoing communication and support.
Author's note: All proper names in this manuscript are pseudonyms.
References

Fujiwara, N. (2012). Chugakko shokuin shitsuno kenchiku keikaku [Architectural plan of the teachers' room in junior high schools]. Fukuoka: Kyushu Daigaku Shuppankai.

Gump, S. (2002). Getting to the heart of public junior high schools in Japan. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(3), 788–791.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (2009). Learning team: Creating what's next. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://nctaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/NCTAFLearningTeams408REG2.pdf

Sasaki, K., Hosaka, T., & Akashi, Y. (2010). Shoninsha kyoinno motivation kenkyuu [How teachers sustain initial motivation]. Chiba University Collection of Scholarly and Academic Papers, 58, 29–36.

End Notes

1 Junior high school teachers in the United States typically teach 25 hours, on average, each week, or five periods each day.

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