A teacher at a private high school in Tokyo says she loves her students but dreads the question they always ask when the semester winds down: "Where will you work next year?"
Jobs at private schools had been in high demand among Japanese teachers because they offered higher pay and benefits, freedom in the classroom and even prestige.
But the changing demographics have forced private schools to cut costs. As a result, they are employing fewer full-time teachers while hiring more part-time instructors who have no guarantee that their contracts will be renewed.
"I thought that working at a private school would be attractive because it does not involve transfers to other schools," the 29-year-old part-time teacher said. "But the reality was different."
Critics say the transformation at private schools will lead to a decline in the quality of education, while creating job instability and making it even more difficult for teachers to make ends meet.
In 2011, about 34,000 teachers, or 36.8 percent, at private senior high schools in Japan were "non-regular" workers, or those who are not full-time employees, according to a survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
That was an increase of about 9 percent, or 2,800, from 2001.
By comparison, 19.7 percent of teachers at public high schools in 2011 were non-regular teachers, according to the survey.
The actual number of private high school teachers in 2011 remained unchanged from a decade ago, at around 90,000, but the number of regular teachers fell by about 4,000.
One reason for the change at private schools is shrinking enrollment amid the declining birthrate.
According to the Japan Private High School Federation, the number of students at private schools dropped 15 percent over the decade.
However, the private schools are unable to reduce the number of teachers because parents are attracted to the schools because of their small class sizes and lessons based on the students' abilities, which rarely exist in public schools.
The education ministry said that unlike public schools, private schools are under no restrictions on how they hire teachers or decide on their status.
To save money, the schools have downgraded the status of many full-time teachers to non-regular, lowering the ratio of expenses for full-time teachers from 70 percent to 66 percent of total personnel costs.
"At schools facing difficulty in management, personnel expenses are first to be victimized in cost-cutting. The trend will continue for some time," an official at the federation said.
The average cost for a full-time teacher at a private school was about 8.27 million yen ($104,000) in 2010, down 7 percent from 2001.
The 29-year-old teacher in Tokyo said that until this spring, she worked at a private high school in Saitama Prefecture where 40 percent of about 100 teachers were part-time instructors.
In Saitama, the teacher said, she not only taught 16 social studies classes a week, but she also had to prepare examination questions and to take part in career counseling for her students.
She earned about 1.6 million yen a year, and once worked part time at a restaurant for extra cash.
Some teachers find themselves doing work they had not signed up for.
"I cannot possibly refuse when I am asked to do things not described in the contract, such as coaching the school's swimming club," said a 34-year-old part-time instructor at a private high school.
He said he sends out his curriculum vitae whenever he sees a job offer.
Although he acknowledges that teaching at different schools can cause instructors to become out of touch with their students, he said he has no choice under the current conditions.
"If my life becomes stable, I would be able to concentrate even harder on teaching," he said.
According to a large staffing agency, part-time instructors at private high schools are paid on average 2,800 yen per class hour. They are often not paid overtime, and their bonuses and welfare benefits are much smaller than those for regular teachers, an agency official said.
A private high school principal recognized the harsh reality facing the teachers but said there is not much he could do.
"I was surprised by the high ratio of part-time instructors at a private school, whose sales point is the quality of teachers," the principal said. "But in reality, all we can do is to maintain the number of regular teachers."
Lesser-known or inconveniently located private schools face a different problem: They are having difficulty recruiting non-regular teachers by themselves and are using staffing companies specializing in education.
"It costs more than if we directly employed part-time instructors," said the principal of a private high school in the Tokyo metropolitan area that uses 15 instructors dispatched from staffing agencies. "But we were not able to recruit personnel for the new academic year (starting in April). So in March, we went to an agency for the dispatch."
A vice principal at another private high school said, "We have had an instructor, who also taught at a "yobiko" prep school, dispatched to prepare our students for university entrance examinations."
Naoki Ogi, an education critic who has taught at a private school, said the percentage of non-regular teachers is too high. He also said the rules prohibiting preliminary interviews for dispatched personnel make it very difficult for private schools to find teachers best suited for the school's traditions and philosophy.
"If personnel costs are kept lean and education standards decline, it will affect not only a specific private school but the entire society," Ogi said. "Many non-regular teachers are motivated and enthusiastically educate their students. But as long as they have to work under unstable employment conditions, their aspirations won't last long."
"The government should lose no time increasing education budget."
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