The Joy of Teaching Special Needs Classes in Japan

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As some of my regular readers may recall, a few months ago I posted an article about how to cope with a sudden and unexpected transfer in the workplace in Japan. In truth, whilst I hope the story was of benefit to some of you, as it is hardly a unique situation, for me personally it was also somewhat cathartic. I was moved from a set of schools I really enjoyed working in, to a group of schools which were radically different in many ways. I’m not going to lie, it has been a challenging time, as both I and my Japanese colleagues adapt to working with someone radically different in teaching style and approach from our previous colleagues.

However, amidst the challenges and the occasional frustrations, there has been one shining light. This is the first year in which I have had the distinct honour and pleasure to work in a Special Needs school. So, every Tuesday, I make me way across the city to the special needs school, or “Tokubetsu Shien Gakko” to give it its full Japanese title.

As an ALT you may also find yourself periodically asked to work in such a school, and you will notice a number of differences from your regular schools. So, today I hope I can impart some advice as to how best to approach this new challenge.

As in all aspects of English teaching, there is no “one size fits all” approach, and you may well find that what works well for me may not necessarily work for you in your school. Most of all, remember that each class, each situation, and indeed each student, is unique, especially when it comes to special needs education.

Probably the first thing you will notice upon entering a public special needs school is the sheer size of these places. Whilst a typical junior high school will, depending on size usually have around 30 or 40 full-time teachers, my current special needs school has about 130 or so teachers. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, in order to make best use of resources, many cities in Japan will have elementary, junior high and senior high school special needs students all housed under one roof. From my own point of view it also means I can expect to teach elementary, junior high and senior high students all within the same school day.

As you will no doubt appreciate, depending on the severity of their individual condition, many special needs students require continuous, specialized care. As such you can expect to sometimes find 3 or 4 or perhaps even more Japanese teachers working alongside you in a single class.

As is often a source of frustration in mainstream Japanese public schools, in Special Needs Schools students are grouped together based not on academic ability but purely by age range. From a special needs perspective this presents a unique challenge to the teacher. Whilst in a regular school one needs to account for multiple ability levels, in special needs we also have to account for the physical and mental capabilities of each and every student.

Imagine a severely physically challenged student who cannot communicate by any means other than moving their hands. Sitting next to him is a boy with down syndrome. Next to him is a girl with a behavioral disorder who is prone to sudden outbursts of aggression. And rounding out the front row of your classroom you have a boy who, on the outside seems no different from one of your students at your regular schools, but due to a previous psychological trauma has acute anxiety issues and won’t even make eye contact, let alone communicate with you until you’ve spent several months building trust between the two of you.

Suddenly the challenging of producing a balanced and engaging lesson for all becomes exponentially more difficult. However, this seeming randomness cuts both ways in this case.

Unlike teaching English in a regular school, most special needs schools do not have a curriculum as such. Instead the teacher is invited to use their own judgement in preparing lessons that are engaging and have realistically attainable outcomes for the students.

It’s important to remember that for all its advances, Japanese society is still a bit behind the curve when it comes to recognizing and treating special needs, especially psychological disorders. However, things are improving steadily, and I can honestly say that in the short few months I have spent working in this particular special needs school I have encountered one of the most dedicated, hard-working and humble groups of teachers I have ever had the privilege to work alongside.

So, with all this in mind, how can you prepare lessons that are effective in this environment?

I would say, without a shadow of a doubt, the single most important piece of advice I can give is to get to know as much about the students as you can prior to teaching them for the first time. Sit down with the teachers from each class, find out about the unique strengths and weaknesses of each student in each class. Use this information when planning and preparing your lesson activities.

Also, remember that as with any new teaching job, the first few lessons will involve a lot of trial and error. Some things will work great, others won’t. Whatever happens, don’t get frustrated, and please persist. In time, you’ll get there.

These students may have had a difficult start in life, and in a society as competitive as Japan, realistically things will only get tougher as they move towards adulthood. With this in mind, remember that any progress you can make with this students, any brief moments of joy and accomplishment you can bring into their daily life will be hugely appreciated.

Without a shadow of a doubt, there is no greater sense of satisfaction one can take from teaching in Japan than knowing you are making a difference to kids’ lives. Nowhere else is this difference more apparent than in teaching at a special needs school.

No matter how difficult a week I am having, whatever personal or professional dilemmas I may be juggling in my head at that time, never once have I come into the special needs school and failed to leave with a smile on my face.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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  • erikavail . says:

    I’m a special education teacher with a Masters degree, I would love to work full time in a Japanese Special Needs school. Is there a certain way to search for Special Needs open positions on gaijinpot? Thanks

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