One of the first things to know about Japanese schools is that the Teacher’s Room is the hub of activity. Every teacher has a desk in the Teacher’s Room—even the P.E. teachers, the school librarians, and the home economics teachers, although they probably don’t need one. Even the Vice Principal has a desk there. So if a teacher isn’t teaching or managing a club activity, he or she will probably be found in the Teacher’s Room (unless he or she popped out to the bank or the local Italian restaurant for lunch, of course).
This is in contrast to at least my high school in America, which seemed to lack a designated communal office—or perhaps it had one, but I didn’t know where it was and it probably wasn’t put to very much use. Instead, every teacher had their own classroom where they worked and taught and even ate lunch. So all the teachers are a little more isolated, at least to student’s perspective.
In this post, I’ll give you a little tour around the Teacher’s Room in Japanese high schools (aka where I desk-warm during school breaks).
1. A teacher’s desk is a second home.
Japanese teachers work long hours. Hence, their desks reflect this. Common items include: blankets (it gets cold in the winter), fleece jackets (really cold),coffee mugs (for tea and coffee, of course), toothbrush and toothpaste (for a quick post-lunch brush), humidifiers (sometimes the air is dry and you need a personal humidifier, I guess), a snack drawer full of snacks (I can attest to having one), personal porcelain teapots and matching teacups (for those who want to enjoy their tea break in style), and spare indoor sneakers (you never know when you’ll need shoes that you can only wear inside a school gym and never outside).
2. In the winter, offices are typically heated by a solitary kerosene stove.
This really isn’t the most efficient way of heating a room. The teachers whose desks are right next to the stove are a little too toasty for comfort, and those unfortunate enough to sit miles away from the stove (like myself in all four of my schools) freeze. Classrooms are set up exactly the same way.
Sometimes I wonder if Japan has rejected centralized heating in part because of the potential social implications. Even though it makes life a bit colder, I will say that having a single heat source is very encouraging for socialization. On particularly chilly mornings, I’ll walk into the room to find a group of teachers huddled around the stove and chatting while defrosting. You don’t need to be invited into the conversation—you walk over to the stove, making a show that you are cold (not difficult), and someone will most likely fill you in on the topic and ask your opinion. During the 10 minutes between classes, frozen students will mill around the classroom stove and talk instead of sitting alone at their desks, immersed in their smartphones.
3. Awesome schools have a tea machine.
My base school and one of my three visit schools have a fabulous invention: a tea machine. Tucked into a corner of the office kitchen (every office has a kitchen), this wonderful machine features four different teas—green tea and houjicha (a reddish-brown roasted green tea) seem to be the two staples, and the remaining two slots switch between lemon tea, black tea, apple tea, and mugicha (barley tea) depending on the season / school. You can choose to get any of these 4 teas hot or cold, so the tea machine is heavenly at all times of the year.
I love the tea machine.
4. Students can also be found in the Teacher’s Room; cleaning or getting yelled at or chatting with a teacher about their future plans or getting math help.
I’ll elaborate specifically on the cleaning: in Japanese schools, there are no janitors—students clean the schools. Every day after the last class, there is a ~20ish minute time where students sweep floors, wipe down chalkboards, mop the bathroom tiles, and even scrub the toilets. I actually love this feature of the Japanese education system—I think it gives a sense of discipline and student responsibility for their school. Hence, there is significantly less graffiti in Japanese high schools. The downside is that the bathrooms aren’t always as meticulously clean (poor students stuck on bathroom duty usually rush through the chore).
Unsurprisingly, students also clean the Teacher’s Room. They empty all the trash containers, clean the kitchen sink, and sweep the floors. It’s fun to chat or help the students during this time. Two of the first grade girls in my Tuesday school’s English Club are on Teacher’s Room Cleaning Duty, so I always have a chance to pepper them with questions about their day.
5. Everyone is listening.
When you cram 40-50 teachers in a room, there are always conversations happening—and everyone else seems to be listening with one ear.
I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s a very social place, so when two people are wrapped up in discussion, sometimes a third or fourth who are working in the vicinity are dragged into the mix as well. My supervisor sits diagonally across from me, and we often chat about upcoming classes or books or her kids or recent holidays. Every so often, the math teacher who sits beside me and directly across from my supervisor joins the conversation, even though his English is very limited. Then suddenly, from across the room, an older science teacher exclaims his jealousy (teasingly) that the math teacher sits so close to us and hence gets free English listening practice all the time. Or the home economics teacher who sits nearby will start firing off questions about the most recent topic (overheard) to my supervisor so she can translate them into English for me.
It’s not uncommon for a two-person conversation to turn into a very sidetracked six-person conversation, and it’s always amusing (although admittedly the language usually switches to Japanese, so it’s also more confusing for me).
6. Every Teacher’s Room is Different.
Even between my four schools, the Teacher’s Rooms have different moods. My base school (which I go to on Mondays and Thursdays) is pretty relaxed. There are periods of quiet where everyone is working diligently, but there are also many periods of conversations and laughter. Everyone mixes very well with one another.
My tech school’s Teacher’s Room, on the other hand, is very different. All the teachers are present for the 8:30 morning meeting, but after that, the majority of the technical teachers (the mechanics, the electricians, the engineers) all leave and go to their separate department offices, located in different parts of the building. They all have desks in those department offices, so they stay there or teach classes for the rest of the day. Hence the very large Teacher’s Room (double the size of my other schools’ offices) is very quiet and very empty for 99% of the day. There is still laughter and conversation between the handful of regular-subject teachers, and I have great conversations with my two English-speaking colleagues who sit nearby, but the atmosphere is definitely less communal.
School level also plays a huge part in the Teacher’s Room atmosphere. My coworkers are generally more relaxed as they work at low-level schools. Whereas at the high-level schools, I’ve heard that there are fewer long conversations between teachers and the atmosphere is a bit more stressful. However, no matter what level the school is, the teachers always stay late!! Working till 8 or 9 at night—due to overseeing club activities and planning lessons and making tests—that is all too common at all schools, although high-level school teachers commonly work on the weekends on top of all that!
So there you have it: a little glimpse into the Teacher’s Room at a Japanese High School!