You know those puzzles where you have to remember how many people have entered and exited a house, and what the final count is? I had one of those classes a while ago.
First of all, at this school each class has a main teacher, an Assistant teacher (me) and a team-teacher, another English teacher who checks workbooks and such. At first I was dubious about this practice – on one hand it would hold the teachers accountable – they couldn’t be taking naps or throwing fits like at my last school. On the other hand, there’s often not enough for me to do, and I loiter around the corners getting in the way and breathing over the students’ shoulders. How much worse would it be with three?
One day, K-sensei (the only male) was the main, and S-sensei (a cheerful young woman) was the team. They told me I didn’t need to come to this class since there was two of them. But I don’t want people thinking I’m dispensable – what’s that job about Jury Duty, “My boss can get along without me but I don’t want him to realize it”? So the three of us go to K-sensei’s homeroom class.
29 students have already entered. Enter three teachers. Bell rings. 7 more students rush in and take their seats. K-sensei makes them stand and explain where they were. This is fairly standard, especially with classes taught by the homeroom teacher – they often blur the line between “teaching” and “discipline.” K-sensei seems to accept the apologies until they’re all seated – then very suddenly, he is angry.
Now I am wary of this sudden anger. It’s an ability of every male teacher, to be silent one second and suddenly yelling the next. I think it’s supposed to demonstrate that yes, they are scary, but yes, they are in control. I am no disciplinarian, so I can’t testify as to its efficiency. But I have also seen it used horribly wrong. At my first school, M-sensei would regularly scream at the students until they shrank in terrified silence, unable or unwilling to respond to any game or question I would try. Then he would be perfectly calm as we walked out the door. “If they’re scared,” he confided to me, “they aren’t noisy. It makes my job easier.” “Yeah, they also aren’t learning anything. Which makes my job impossible.”
So K-sensei lectures them a bit – sternly, but he doesn’t yell, which is a relief. Then he says something along the lines of, “You need to reflect on your actions. I’m going to sit in the staff room.” He puts S-sensei in charge and leaves. One teacher down. S-sensei looks across the room at me with a blank expression. She wasn’t prepared to do more during this period than check a few workbooks, and here she had to improvise an entire disciplinary system. I looked back just as blankly. I was here to assist a language class – not disciplining the children is even part of my contract.
She drew herself together, and told the students to “hansei.”
Ohh, “hansei” is one of those fascinating Japanese words that tells you so much about the culture and yet is so difficult to translate into English. My lovely copy of “The Japanese have a word for it” says this:
Hansei means to reflect on one’s failings or misdeeds, with the idea that this self-reflection will cleanse the individual and result in self-rehabilitation. The individual absolves himself or herself of responsibility for any misbehavior.
If you watch any news here you will hear it constantly – about politicians, criminals, athletes caught cheating or using, actors who display overweening hubris. We might say “soul-searching,” in asking someone else to “take a good, hard look at yourself,” or in saying someone is “repentant”. Meetings after an important observation are also called hansei-kai – which always remind me of the post-mortems we’d have after every show back when I did theater.
You’d think it would be a heavy activity – but it’s also used in extremely small matters. A teacher at my last school wanted the students to hansei about every single thing. “That student rolled her eyes at me,” she’d daily whine. "And then she did not reflect on herself.”
If there’s a place for such things, I suppose a school is it – within reason. Sometimes it gets to the point where there’s more reflection than there is education, and the students seem to be napping rather than repenting. But this was the beginning of the year, so there was room yet.
The students reflected for a while, with S-sensei asking leading questions. What do you think you did wrong? Why do you think K-sensei is disappointed? What can you do to avoid being late in the future? Of course the eager students who want to answer aren’t the ones who are supposed to be speaking up, but in the group-mentality of making everyone hansei together, all answers are created equal.
S-sensei asks several students to go tell K-sensei they’ve reflected and would like to start English class, please, if he isn’t still angry. To have a general representation she picks a boy and a girl, and since no student could stand to walk down the hall with someone of the opposite sex, she picks another boy and girl.
Four students exit the room. 32 students and 2 teachers remain. This is an interesting waiting game – total silence, total stillness, how to maintain a posture of “I have been ruing my actions for the last half-hour.” I wonder if I can study a poster at the back of the room, if I should make a repentant pose as well, or if I should assume a teacherly, “I have been beating these students within an inch of their lives” expression.
Four students return, with no teacher. They file uncomfortably back to their seats without responding to S-sensei’s curiosity. “Where is K-sensei?”
Finally, one mutters, “Somehow… the members are wrong, he said. He wants the original seven to go apologize.”
I try not to scoff. Of course we in the classroom should have seen this coming and sent the guilty parties, but on the other hand… isn’t he just having a tantrum, K-sensei? If we send those seven isn’t he just going to make some other demand? “They should crawl into the staff room on their knees, smeared with dirt, and commit seppuku in front of my desk.”
A little nervous now, S-sensei herds those seven together, makes sure their uniforms are straight, and marches them out. Seven students and one teacher exit, 29 are left – and me. I haven’t a clue what I’m supposed to do with them, so I keep an eye out to make sure they stay in hansei posture and don’t start reading or, god forbid, actually study English.
Six students come back. “Oh crap, he’s eaten the last boy,” I think. They don’t say anything, possibly too traumatized by their near brush. S-sensei rushes back in. “What happened?” I thought she’d been with them to face the lion but evidently she’d been gossiping with another teacher in the hall. They don’t answer, and finally she decides to let the whole class start on their workbook – with five minutes left of class, and still no main teacher, it’s obvious there won’t be much English taught here.
The seventh boy, miraculously alive, stumbles in. A moment later, K-sensei darts in without making eye contact, and drags out one of the other seven. Ah, so we’re doing the one-on-one treatment. But the bell rings so I return to the staff-room – it no longer is my problem.
Later K-sensei, temper subdued, comes to my desk to apologize. What does he think I need an apology for? For wasting time in my capacity as assistant? For forcing me to witness the shameful actions of his tardy students, or his own rage? For dragging me into the hansei process that, as a foreigner, is obviously beyond my understanding? I don’t know, and I don’t really care – as long as they don’t direct that “spotlight of guilt” on to me – I have enough of it on my own, thank you, I don’t need it to be a public display. My main concern is that it not be a weekly demonstration – though I know it’s their duty to instill moral values as well as English language into the students, it’d be nice if one didn’t have to be at the cost of the other.
反省 学校 先生
I’ve linked this skit before but it never stops being awesome, and it’s also an excellent example of “hansei.”