Veteran journalist Peg Tyre is on a study mission to understand education in certain Asian nations. She has written several reports, some of which were posted here. She has written to tell me that she has enjoyed the feedback from readers of this blog, so keep those emails and reactions to her coming.

A teacher in a primary school giving a healthy-living lesson
Japanese Teachers Put In Longer Hours Than Any Other Teachers on the Planet
“Being a teacher is like being a 7-11. Open 24 hours.”
Here’s the project: The Japanese government, like many Asian countries with high performing schools, wants to educate students to become more innovative and creative in order to compete with AI and participate more fully in a global economy. They are promoting English language instruction (with an emphasis on speaking), creativity, self-expression, meta-cognition, critical thinking and problem-solving. I’m on a research trip in Japan to find out more.
Thanks to all the folks (and especially teachers!) emailing me questions and sharing reflections. Very inspiring. Keep those emails coming.
You Asked: What’s It Like To Be a Public School Teacher in Japan?
So I Looked Into It!
Answer: They Get a Ton of Respect But the Hours Are Crippling.
And lots of teachers fear the push to change schools is going to make those hours even worse.
The Good Part: It takes time and determination to teach in a public school in Japan. You need a college degree with an emphasis on education, a supervised practicum and you need to get a license and renew it every few years. The job application process is highly selective and only the best candidates land jobs. Once you get a job, you are encouraged to collaborate with your fellow teachers, and do a great deal of observation of other classrooms. Professional development is considered necessary for everyone.
Being a public school teacher in Japan is a prestigious job. You are entrusted to look after the academic, social and emotional lives of students as individuals and also foster group harmony, so people consider you a moral beacon. You teach kids life skills (like brushing teeth), help them navigate socially, help direct their careers and even do a little ad hoc family counseling.
Unlike in the US, where reformers often suggest that kids in low-performing schools would learn more if teachers were smarter, better educated or more dedicated, Japanese people regard the teachers in their local public school as something akin to a pastor or a doctor in a local clinic. The government appreciates you. Parents don’t criticize you. And school administrators are pretty supportive as well. The pay is pretty decent, definitely enough to live a middle class life.
The Bad Part: The hours are shockingly long.
In 2006, primary school teacher worked 53.16 hours a week.
In 2016, primary school teachers worked a whopping 57.29 hours per week.
Senior teachers and vice principals have even it worse.
In 2006, they reported working 59.05 hours a week.
In 2016, they logged 63.8 hours per week.
That includes teaching time, supervising clubs and activities after school, counseling, lesson planning, grading and preparing materials. Teachers also take their students on class trips on Saturdays.
In the Japanese context, working long hours is considered a virtue. But karoshi, literally working yourself to death, has become a big social problem in many sectors of the economy in Japan. And teachers are not immune.
Makamura Kunihiko is a veteran teacher and now principal at Sapporo Fushimi junior high school. (His photo is below) In an interview a few days ago, he told me that among his staff, about 20% of his teachers, usually parents of young kids, leave at 5 pm. About 20% of the teachers in his school stay until midnight– working.
Good Lord! What Does the Union Say? The responsibilities of the job, they point out, are unsustainable. And in the last few years, the number of people who say they want to be teachers is dropping. “Teachers are worn out. To keep ourselves healthy and to make sure we have enough [bandwidth] to communicate with students, we need to address the issue of overwork,” says Tamaki Terazawa, head of international affairs for the Japan Teachers’ Union.
The government has responded by asking schools to get community members to run after school programs and supervise class trips to shorten a teacher’s work day. And that is starting to happen. The government also capped the hours teachers can work but that’s a pretty toothless initiative since unpaid overtime falls into that gray area made up of what you are required to do and what you think should do. And teachers in Japan (and workers in Japan in general) don’t have many models for work-life balance.
A Day in the Life of as Japanese Public School Teacher:
8:15 am….. start work.
4:45 pm…. formal school day ends.
5:00 pm….supervise clubs or activities.
6:00 pm……teacher team meetings.
8:00 pm…… grading and lesson planning.
Weekend….. teachers often supervise class trips.
NEXT UP: Readers prompt me to think more deeply about who gets to be creative. How? And Why?
Interested in reading what I’ve discovered so far?
Newsletter 1: In The Beginning
You can take an active role in shaping this project. Please send me questions, observations, research, history and personal reflections about your own teaching and learning, thoughts about rote learning and your ideas about what makes an innovator. Tell me what you want to know from my reporting. Twitter: @pegtyre or email:
Also, if you know of someone who might be interested in being part of this project, kindly send me their email and I’ll add them to the mailing list.
My trip is made possible by a generous Abe Fellowship for Journalists (administered by the Social Science Research Council.) I retain full editorial control. I also appreciate the moral support of my colleagues at the EGF Accelerator, an incubator for education-related nonprofits.