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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

No Substitute For Teachers

I only spent three years in Japan working as an assistant English teacher (AET) on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme between 1990-1993, leaving my job as a newspaper journalist in Toronto, Canada where I prided myself on my ability to notice things.

However, I only recently discovered that Japan does not have a substitute teacher system.

Yeah… come to think of it… at no time did I ever see a stranger come in to take over a regular teacher’s class… not once in three years.

Of course, I wasn’t sick either… just two days in which I became violently ill with sever allergies AFTER arriving at one particular school.

Several times I saw a teacher wear the surgical mask to step in him or her from spreading their germs… but nope… they always showed up for work, to class… and no substitute teacher was ever needed.

Never. Not once.

That’s pretty admirable, now that I think of it.

That’s not to say that it can’t happen. Some family member could be sick or die, that illness is a lot worse than previously diagnosed, or sometimes the Japanese teachers have learned too much from their gaijin (foreign) AET and are pulling a “sick day”.

When that happens, with no substitute pool to pull from the apparently one of two things can occur.

1) Students are expected to self-regulate their homeroom class that either moves from classroom to classroom for such subjects as science, home economics, music or physical education or remain in the homeroom class for subjects as math, English and Japanese.

In the case of the latter where they are to remain, the teacherless class is expected to maintain decorum and use the opportunity to study.

While this might actually successfully occur at some of the more decent schools within Japan, or amongst the more academically serious Grade 8 or higher classes, I am very proud to tell you all that in most cases the Japanese classes are JUST LIKE OURS!

2) No teacher? Anarchy rules! Briefly.

One Japanese teacher of English asked me to go ahead and wait for her in our English class as she had to do some last minute photocopying.

No problem… the kids are cool right… they wouldn’t thumb their collective nose at me and get loud?

They did. And they did.

After 10 seconds of mayhem, a neighboring teacher came in and yelled at the class to shut up: “Urasai!”

I can respect that. I bowed deeply and thanked him. He bowed slightly and continued to rip the class a new one until the JTE arrived to take over ripping them a new one.

Apparently that was HIS homeroom class, so the disobedience looked bad on him.

I’m not naming schools, suffice to say it was one of the big ones in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken.

While I publicly was disappointed with the students’ behavior, inside I was doing cartwheels for showing me that they weren’t the typical Japanese robot students I had been lead to believe was the norm.

I think stuff like that happens more often than we realize… yes, the students acting normal, but more to the point the fact that when a teacher is away, there is always another teacher who does not have a class in any given period.

They simply take over and watch as the students work quietly.

I doubt a principal or vice-principal would ever deign to play the substitute. They are all former teachers, but acting the substitute is not within the scope of the duties any longer. It would be bad form to be seen doing the work of a lower-level worker.

But I bet some would… Japan has changed a bit over the past 24 years since I left.

Anyhow… no substitute teacher pool to call in for emergency help. It’s all taken care of from within the school’s community.

Andrew Joseph
PS I always liked this The Who song, but truthfully I really hate the song after knowing what the song is all about.
I’ve been a substitute far too often and quite frankly, besides being disappointed it makes me angry.
Then again, I am a complicated guy.
Accept no substitutes.


  1. From what I see currently, in my village in Japan (in Iwate prefecture). Whenever a teacher is not there another teacher of the school takes over their class, they are not left alone. And have often seen principals and vice-principals step in (and have occasionally taught with them as well.)

    Thankfully whenever an English teacher leaves me in charge of a class for a period/ a short time, the students behave the same as always or slightly better than usual xD

    1. Ha! you are lucky! But yeah - I figured a teacher who didn't have a class would come in. I saw some other "factual" blog say the kids would self-police, but I doubt that really happens in the real world of Iwate and Tochigi-ken... I'll check out your blog soon!