Japan’s teachers taking leave for mental strain in record numbers

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

Concerns are growing over the shortage of people willing to work as teachers, as illustrated by the decline in the ratio of applicants to job openings for public school positions.

Teaching is a highly demanding profession, and includes such tasks as providing guidance for extracurricular activities, interacting with students’ guardians, and making reports to local boards of education. Partly for this reason, the number of teachers who have taken temporary leave due to mental strain has reached a record high.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has also increased teachers’ workload. In response to this situation, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will next month conduct its first-ever nationwide survey of public schools concerning the shortage of teachers, to help it thoroughly investigate ways to deal with the problem.

‘I cry as soon as I wake up’

“When weekends came around, I would feel guilty toward my family, and toward my students because I was grudgingly giving them guidance. There were days when I cried as soon as I woke up.” So said a male teacher in his 30s who works at a public junior high school in Chiba Prefecture, recalling his life three years ago.

The man was a deputy advisor for a sports club at his school, so he had to attend practices and matches even on weekends, giving him little time to be at home. His wife would complain tearfully, saying, “You won’t help me with the children.”

At the same time, everyone at his school was preoccupied with their own work, so he couldn’t ask anyone to take over the burdensome task of directing the sports club.

When school personnel were reassigned, the man became an advisor to a sports club that required fewer activities on the weekends. However, “I may have been just a step away from developing a mental disorder,” he said. “I still feel bad toward my colleagues who are in charge of demanding clubs.”

Teachers who are looking for help after being mentally driven into a corner are flooding into Sanraku Hospital, a facility run by a mutual support group for teachers and other staff at Tokyo metropolitan schools. This has included teachers who played a pivotal role in devising measures to prevent infections with the novel coronavirus.

Kaoruko Magane, head of the psychoneurotic department at the hospital, said: “In one case, there was a downward spiral in which a teacher who was covering for a colleague on temporary leave collapsed due to the increased burden. It’s urgent to improve working conditions for teachers.”

Longest hours among OECD

According to a nationwide survey by the education ministry of teachers at public schools, a record high of 5,478 teachers took temporary leave due to mental strain in fiscal 2019.

Another survey by the ministry found that 782 teachers quit their jobs at publicly run elementary, junior, and senior high schools due to mental strain in fiscal 2018, also a record high. The causes cited included a growing number of tasks and their increased complexity.

An international survey on working conditions for teachers conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose findings were announced in 2019, showed that teachers at Japan’s elementary and junior high schools work the longest hours among all such teachers in OECD member countries and regions. The survey made clear the burden of such tasks as making reports to local boards of education and being involved in club activities.

Baton not passed

The impact of these factors has also been reflected in the ratio of applicants-to-job openings for public school teaching positions.

Applications for teaching positions at public elementary schools reached a record low of 2.7 people for every available job in fiscal 2020. According to the education ministry, the applicants-to-jobs ratio at public junior high schools also fell below that for the previous year, as did the ratio for jobs at senior high schools.

Overall, the ratio dropped to 3.9, down 0.3 points from the previous year.

In response, the education ministry launched in late March a project it calls “#Teachers’Baton,” calling on active teachers to share daily anecdotes via social media, to let people know more about the appeal of being a teacher.

However, the statements posted by teachers have notably contained descriptions of the harsh state of affairs, saying things like “The job itself is fun, but we’ve been exploited in many ways under the pretense of a rewarding job” and “We have no time to deal with children one on one.”

The education ministry said, “We are listening carefully to teachers’ complaints via social media about their straitened circumstances on the front lines of education. We want to accelerate work-style reforms at schools.”

In May, it will conduct its first nationwide survey on the shortage of teachers and the primary causes, to discuss ways to deal with the matter.

Prof. Sawako Yufu of Waseda University, a scholar of educational sociology, said: “There are many teachers who don’t properly take sick leave for fear of putting an extra burden on their colleagues, but instead force themselves to return to work by just taking repeated short breaks. Teachers at schools are exhausted.

“The number of teachers should be increased amid unusual circumstances. such as when the ministry’s new official guidelines for teaching are implemented. The central government needs to secure human and material resources, and provide teachers with a working environment with some breathing room, in which they can prepare for classes and other tasks.”