Teaching in Japan is always a challenge. In the 9 years since I first came to call this country my home, I have taught in a variety of private and public schools. It’s fair to say I’ve taught in some wonderful places and some absolutely god awful ones too.

However, having the opportunity to teach special needs students, first in Okayama and now in Osaka is one of the greatest privileges I have enjoyed in my entire career as a teacher.

Teaching English in Japan is a little different from your typical teaching gig.

First off, unlike most countries, to teach English in public schools in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) one does not actually need any formal qualifications in the field of education. I completed a CELTA teaching certificate prior to coming to Japan. It is quite a bizarre situation when completing a simple 4 week course elevates you above many of your peers in terms of qualification.

However, no amount of training can prepare you for the classroom itself.

It’s fair to say the best teachers I have met in Japan are self-taught. They look, they listen and they learn from those older and more experienced teachers around them. It’s also fair to say that some of the older, more cynical teachers we encounter give us an insight into which bad habits we want to avoid acquiring and how “not to do the job” as it were.

That being said, special needs education in Japan is completely its own sphere. Whilst in Japan there is a huge effort made to include everyone in lessons and division of students based on academic ability is still something of a rarity, there are still those students who, through no fault of their own, are unable to partake in a normal classroom environment.

However, whilst huge progress is being made in both the understanding and treatment of disabilities in Japan, in some respects, the Japanese are still a little behind the curve.

For a teacher such as myself this presents a number of unique challenges when trying to prepare effective classes for your special needs classes.

As I touched on earlier, public education in Japan does tend to adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach to class composition. Unfortunately this also spills over into special needs.

If you think it’s tough trying to create effective classes for students of different intelligences in the same grade level, doing the same for special needs classes takes on a whole new dimension.

For example, you may have a class where one student is so severely impaired physically that they cannot move their limbs or speak. Next to them you may have an autistic student who can at times cry out unexpectedly, scaring some of the other students. Next to them you may find a child with down syndrome, or a kid who is academically appropriate for his age level, but due to severe personal emotional trauma or nervous disorders unable to interact with his peers in a conventional classroom.

The term “mixed-bag” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

And yet, where others may see adversity, I see opportunity. For someone who loves teaching and is thrilled at the prospect of winning over a challenging class, this is about as good as it gets.

In some of my previous writings about teaching in Japan, I have spoken of the thrill, the exhilaration that comes with seeing that sparkle in a student’s eyes when it all finally clicks and you know that they “get it”, that they can actually understand what you are saying, and respond appropriately. In the context of special needs, with all its additional challenges, this feeling of intense job satisfaction is multiplied a thousand fold.
In terms of actually preparing lessons for a special needs school, the ALT does actually have a large degree of freedom. Given that these schools are outwith the regular public school system, there is no formal English curriculum. Instead, the goal is simply to maximize the students’ participation in the activity of learning English, and to increase their enjoyment and enthusiasm for the subject. Hence, the emphasis is on fun and inclusion, without the constraints of the constant test-taking that I feel hugely stifles English language acquisition in regular Japanese public schools.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the huge diversity of student types one can find in a single class, means that we have to be very careful in planning out our lessons. Key here is communication not just with the students, but also with the Japanese teachers and support staff you will work alongside.

Also, unlike public junior and senior high schools in Japan, where your Japanese colleagues are expected to have a certain level of English, in special needs schools, where, as I mentioned earlier, English is not a formal subject, such a requirement isn’t applicable. So, be prepared to attempt to communicate in Japanese.

I will be the first to admit that my Japanese is not as strong as it should be, but also that even the smallest effort is usually recognized, appreciated and reciprocated by my colleagues. It has also given me a new found appreciation for the communication challenges my students face. As in any kind of education, empathy and understanding will always enhance your classes.

It’s also very important to remember that whilst a one-hour lesson, once or twice a month may seem like a very small, barely relevant part of our job, to these students, it can make a huge difference. The sad reality is that, until society shifts dramatically, especially in its perception and interpretation of mental illnesses and disabilities, these kids will have a tough life, full of challenges, difficulties and frustrations. For just that small period of time, we can provide an escape from that daily struggle.

Teaching has its challenges, especially when working within a system as fundamentally broken as public education in Japan. However, I can honestly say that no part of my job gives me a greater feeling of pride and satisfaction than when I step out of that special needs school on a Tuesday afternoon knowing I have, in some small part at least, helped those students take their first, tentative steps into a larger world.

Scotland-born Liam has lived in Asia since 2006. He has spent more than 9 years in Japan, and currently works in Osaka as a writer and English teacher. Follow Liam @Liam6783.



Mel · July 6, 2020 at 9:29 am

I’m offered a full-time teaching position in a Special Needs School. I’m excited and overwhelmed at the same time. Do you have any other suggestions? How should I prepare for it, mentally and emotionally.

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