The janitor in an American school is commonly an object of ridicule and disrespect, but not in Japan. Every student, rich or poor, average or exceptional, is doing the same type of work. Could students in the U.S. learn from the practice of cleaning up after themselves and others?
After lunch in Japanese classrooms, a peculiar thing happens: the students clean. The pupils care for the classrooms, public areas and even the neighborhood. While seen as weird in most other nations, it is as common as a paperclip in Japan.
Student cleaning, known as o-soji, teaches students to be responsible for their space and to respect their classrooms. The often-reported statement that Japanese schools have no janitorial staff is untrue. Non-teaching staff perform maintenance and cleaning tasks around the school.
Even first-graders take a rag to the floors of their classrooms. To help them, sixth grade students come from down the hall. Part of the older students' education is to assist, guide and care for the younger kids. It is a lesson in human relations. If they have no little brothers or sisters, they have them now. They have to step out of their personal world and serve another person.
Is respect for one another and responsibility for one's space ever part of the lesson plan in the United States? Are we building a generation of students who are above menial tasks and think the school staff is there to serve them? Can we learn from the Japanese method, or does it distract children from learning?
Getting Hands Dirty
An increase in custodial responsibility shouldn't hurt anyone. Students already keep their own desks tidy. We can ask them to clean the counters regularly, why not the floor, as well? Teachers can couple these tasks with lessons on how soaps and solvents work. We can teach chemical safety. Children can experiment with the speed and effectiveness of various methods.
Involve parents in the change. Present reasons including the system's success in Japan and the lessons it will teach. Chances are more parents will appreciate the change than will see it as a distraction from learning.
Will the schools' maintenance staff be free from cleaning now? Not really. Children are not tremendously fastidious. Custodians will need to follow up, but some of their time will be freed for other tasks. Besides, cleaning the classroom isn't really the point. It's about developing character.
Types of Respect and Responsibility
Respect and responsibility are general terms that cover many elements of the human experience. Students should learn to identify the many types of each. Assign groups of students to prepare presentations on each of the following:
- Respect for elders
- Respect for authority
- Environmental respect
- Social respect
- Social responsibility
- Responsibility for others
- Classroom responsibility
- Reputation for responsibility
Perhaps students are unaware that they need to respect themselves first. It is true that you must show respect to earn respect. Teach them the value of a reliable track record. Explain the difference between talking about and actually demonstrating responsibility.
Act it Out
Script writing and acting is a good way to turn the vague concepts of respect and responsibility into something tangible. Ask teams of students to perform a pair of cause-and-effect skits. One should show a chain of negative events caused by a lack of self-respect, for example, or irresponsible behavior. The second skit should show the benefits of acting the opposite way.
Practice conflict resolution. What should you do if you are disrespected? Will you lower yourself to their level or do you know a better way to act? List good ways and bad ways to treat each other. Demonstrate them. Show how disrespectful behavior can come from people who are insecure.
Make the behavior real by taking the students to visit the elderly. Cultivate respect for the aging by forming relationships with them. Let them highlight the ways they are so much more than old people with needs. Every one influenced the world we are living in today. Have each student return with one specific reason one person there improved our lives.
It Starts with the Parents
Do parents show respect for their children's teachers? Many years ago, teachers were among the most educated people in a society. Most of the population failed to reach college and the educator was a superior intellect. Now, with college degrees common, it's easy to wonder why the underpaid and overworked teacher made that particular career choice. Or parents can compare their difficult jobs to the teacher who manages children for a half-dozen hours a day and takes the whole summer off.
But the teacher is a leader in the community. The teacher shapes the minds and characters that form the world. Without support, it's a monumental task. Respect that.
What do parents know about the path their kid's teacher took to the profession? Was it easy getting into and through college? Is he struggling with student debt? Is she a hard-working parent just like they are?
If they treat teachers with reverence and speak highly of them around their children, it will carry over. Place the teacher up next to the doctor and lawyer because they are just as important.
A Simple Bow
Students bow every morning to greet their teachers in Japan. By hand, they serve lunch to their teacher and fellow students. Respect, responsibility and service to each other are central to the education system.
The United States will never transform itself completely into the mold of another nation, but it can learn a lot by looking around.