In Japanese schools, the teachers’ room is an invaluable place for teachers to learn together across their careers.
For the past several decades, Japan’s students have consistently ranked among the world’s top performing in science, mathematics, and reading. For example, on the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Japan ranked second in science, fifth in mathematics, and eighth in reading among the 72 participating countries and economies (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2015), with similar results on the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Japan is also known for collaborative professional development models such as lesson study, which has gained popularity around the globe since its development in the 1920s, when child-centered education was first introduced in Japan (National Association for the Study of Educational Methods, 2009).
While these achievements and models are well-known, less is known about teachers’ professional lives in Japan. For instance, what are the requirements for teachers’ professional development? What kinds of professional development activities do they participate in? Are these activities effective? What types of learning activities do teachers initiate? How do formal and informal learning opportunities affect teachers’ practice across their careers?
As government employees, teachers are essentially granted tenure on the very first day of hire (Ahn et al., 2016). But their status as civil servants brings with it many policies governing their work conditions, including professional development requirements. Since the late 1980s, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has required teachers to complete mandatory professional development hours that include such activities as first-year induction, 10th-year training, and license renewals every 10 years (MEXT, 2009a). These national policies target teachers at different stages in their career — beginning, middle, and veteran. In addition, many prefectures and local governments have their own professional development policies.
When talking with teachers about their professional development, we found that the mandated professional learning was less valuable than the informal collegial learning that occurred in shokuin shitsu, or the teachers’ room. Understanding the differences between the two types of learning can help education leaders in Japan and around the world to create the kinds of professional development opportunities that benefit teachers throughout their careers.
Professional development requirements
New teachers in Japan usually are assigned to a local school for up to six years (Fukaya, 2015), during which time they are considered beginners. After that, they are rotated to another school in the same district.
Because novice teachers begin teaching after only two to four weeks of formal student teaching, MEXT has made it a priority to boost the quality of their initial preparation and support. In 1989, it created a policy on first-year induction, requiring first-year teachers to go through an average of 10 hours per week (amounting to 300 hours in a year) of on-site and off-site professional development (MEXT, 2009b). On-site training includes regular classroom observations of new teachers by mentor teachers and observations of mentor teachers by new teachers. Also included in the 300 hours are 25 days of off-site training activities (Ichikawa, 2015).
Teachers at various stages in their career unequivocally endorsed the critical role of shokuin shitsu (teachers’ room) as a necessary space for their professional growth.
In addition to the national first-year induction requirement, some local governments require second-year training. For example, in Osaka City, second-year teachers continue with their induction, spreading their 300 hours over two years. In the first year, they acquire foundational knowledge and leadership skills in a multitude of topics related to the teaching profession, including mental health, understanding students, communication and etiquette, human rights education, and subject-matter education. In the second year, they focus on applying the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired. Furthermore, some local governments, including Osaka City, require fifth-year teachers to fulfill additional professional development requirements that prepare them to become mentors and acquire advanced professional knowledge and skills (Osaka City Education Center, 2018).
Mid-career and veteran teachers
In 2003, MEXT mandated 10th-year professional development to prepare mid-career teachers for leadership roles (commonly known as middle leader). The 10th-year training requires midcareer teachers to spend an average of 28 days (11 days off-site and 17 days on-site) on professional development activities (MEXT, 2017a). On-site training includes content-teaching skills, contemporary educational issues, lesson study, and conferences with the principal and assistant principal. Off-site training includes lectures on content teaching, student discipline, and other areas of interest, as well as experiences with technology and environmental education. Teachers who are already serving as middle leaders or working on license renewal may have reduced requirements (MEXT, 2002).
In 2009, MEXT began mandating that all teachers renew their teacher license every 10 years. As part of the renewal process, teachers take more than 30 hours of coursework at institutions or educational offices approved by MEXT. The curriculum is composed of more than 12 hours on contemporary educational issues and 18 hours of elective courses on subject-matter instruction, guidance, and counseling. Courses are mainly offered during summer or winter holidays, and teachers pay tuition to take them (MEXT, 2017b).
Despite these highly structured professional development policies at the national and local levels, teachers have expressed mixed views about their experiences. A nationwide survey of past first-year induction participants showed varied results regarding the effectiveness of on-site induction (MEXT, 2015). Similarly, interviews of 12 mid-career and veteran teachers at a junior high school in Osaka showed that teacher opinions varied depending on, for example, who taught and facilitated the course and whether participants were able to get the topic of their choice (popular topics get filled and closed right away).
Interestingly, among these hit-or-miss results, one form of professional development received a consistent positive response across all interviews: Teachers at various stages in their career unequivocally endorsed the critical role of shokuin shitsu (teachers’ room) as a necessary space for their professional growth. Let us now turn our attention to what happens in this collegial space, using a case study site at Mirai Junior High School in Osaka.
Informal learning in shokuin shitsu
Teaching in Japan is considered a collective professional endeavor. To foster this collective attitude, schools in Japan have shokuin shitsu, or teachers’ room, where all teachers have assigned individual desks and meet together daily to prepare, complete work, and collaborate on practice, overseen by administrators (Ahn, 2014). Teachers in Japan travel from classroom to classroom while students remain in the same classroom. So shokuin shitsu becomes a home base that teachers use between teaching, homeroom, supervising clubs, and other responsibilities throughout the day. Often grouped by grade-level islands, teachers at different stages in their careers interact with one another about students, lessons, events, and other matters. While official work hours end at around 6 p.m., many teachers continue to stay in the teachers’ room until 8 or 9 p.m. to catch up with their work. This time away from students also serves as a time to visit with colleagues and have informal personal conversations (Ahn, 2016).
Instead of being isolated, novice teachers are always surrounded by experienced colleagues in a trusting environment.
For beginning teachers, shokuin shitsu is an indispensable space in which to make sense of their questions and experiences with the support of their colleagues and administrators (Ahn, 2014). It serves as a classroom where new teachers are able to ask pressing questions, share immediate concerns, and seek needed advice from various colleagues without the fear of being judged. Instead of being isolated, novice teachers are always surrounded by experienced colleagues in a trusting environment. They do not have to wait until the next scheduled meeting or make appointments to ask questions but can share issues and questions as they arise. When an urgent matter comes up, experienced teachers and administrators draw on their vast knowledge and experience to help the new teacher arrive at a viable solution. New teachers are comfortable seeking such help because, in Japan’s apprenticeship-
oriented approach to teacher development, learning is viewed as a process rather than a single event. Mistakes are a given and forgiven, because experienced teachers and administrators understand the learning curve of beginning teachers.
When Mr. Nakamura, a sixth-year teacher in charge of student discipline, was punched by a 9th-grade student, the entire school staff got involved. Immediately after the incident, colleagues and administrators in the teachers’ room began gathering to comfort the visibly shaken teacher. Knowing the student’s family situation well, these experienced colleagues helped Mr. Nakamura understand the circumstances that possibly led to the student’s violent behavior, without criticizing his actions, and they later worked with him to create an intervention plan. When interviewed, Mr. Nakamura said he could not imagine being without the support of the teachers’ room. To a beginning teacher like him with an enormous responsibility as a teacher in charge of student discipline, the teachers’ room is a place of refuge, a safe niche that promotes his growth. Other beginning teachers echoed his views on the indispensability of this space in their own daily professional learning (Ahn, 2014).
Mid-career and veteran teachers
It is understandable that beginning teachers will need a safe, supportive space for continuous learning. But what about more experienced teachers? How do they feel about their professional learning in the context of shokuin shitsu?
For mid-career teachers like Mr. Toyama (science and 8th-grade homeroom teacher) and Mr. Takeda (math teacher and human rights curriculum leader), who have taught for 10 years, the teachers’ room plays a vital role in their professional lives. Although from time to time they benefit from attending formal professional development trainings offered by the city and Osaka prefecture, they are keenly aware that the teachers’ room allows them to engage in discussion and reflection on teaching in the company of their colleagues. As another mid-career English teacher with 15 years of teaching and leadership experience shared,
When everyone gathers in the teachers’ room, we exchange information and confirm our common purpose among teachers. Regardless of age, we all learn from one another. We are colleagues. We learn from young people’s energy and veteran teachers’ skills. We learn what we don’t notice. Even in the mid-career teacher’s eyes, shokuin shitsu is a learning classroom.
These mid-career teachers’ voices reveal that, even after their beginning years, informal, day-to-day learning continues to take place in the common ground of the teachers’ room.
Highly experienced teachers
Highly experienced teachers also see value in the teachers’ room. As Mr. Takashima, a well-respected 37-year veteran teacher who has been a teacher leader since 2003, told us, “Teachers grow in the field. When teachers run into a problem, they solve it through collegial discussions.” Because of his firm belief in collegial learning, the veteran teacher intentionally chooses each year to nurture and mentor less-experienced teachers as a grade-level and language arts leader. He sees the shokuin shitsu as the place where all teachers gather formally and informally throughout the day and week to solve common issues related to children. To Mr. Takashima, who has experienced many hit-or-miss results in formal professional development sessions, the ongoing and unplanned nature of learning that takes place in the teachers’ room is critical to teachers’ professional growth.
Similarly, Ms. Kobayashi, a 20-year veteran physical education teacher, who serves as a 9th-grade leader, treasures the shokuin shitsu. While she found some of her earlier professional development programs to be ineffective, she was passionately supportive of the opportunities for growth she found in the teachers’ room:
It is a must . . . Most teachers gather here. I need a space where I can communicate my spur-of-the-moment thoughts. From my seat, I’m always listening to other grade-level teachers’ conversations as a reference. When it applies to me, I join in the conversation.
Ms. Kobayashi told us that the pockets of conversation that take place in different locations in the teachers’ room keep her on her toes, with her antenna constantly extending, because she knows many of these conversations add to her insights in solving students’ problems and other issues. And when she has something to say that will benefit the group, she can’t resist chiming in.
Continual learning in shokuin shitsu
According to Mr. Takashima, teachers first notice, then learn, and finally grow. In Japan’s teachers’ room, this professional learning cycle takes place continuously for teachers at various stages in their career. The teachers’ room serves as a germinating ground for learning without the feeling of embarrassment or fear of judgment by their peers. In this learning space, all teachers are entitled to participate in formal and informal collegial conversations that hone their thinking, ultimately leading to professional growth.
Japan’s teachers’ room as a continuous shared learning space holds promise for teaching professionals in the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, as the 37-year veteran administrator Mr. Honda stated, “There is no apex in the world of teachers. We aim at becoming better teachers [all the time]. [Shokuin shitsu] is a place to sharpen each other with the attitude of learning and a calling to help others learn.” Japan’s teachers’ room sheds light on a bottom-up professional learning approach that may help explain the ongoing success of Japanese education and offers a possible model for promoting collegial learning in schools around the world.
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Citation: Ahn, R., Shimojima, Y., Mori, H., & Asanuma, S. (2018). Japan’s innovative approach to professional learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 49-53