A Ken-ALT in a Special Needs School

By Ma. Antonette Lofamia

A few weeks before leaving for Japan, I found out from my predecessor that I would be teaching in five high schools within the Nanyo B region and two special needs schools. Now, I already expected that there would be quite a bit of travel involved in the position since it’s not uncommon for ALTs to have more than one school but teaching in a special needs school wasn’t something I was ever prepared for—hence the panic. While my degree provided a short course on special education, I only had theories and no hands-on training in an environment with special needs learners.

I came to Japan as a ken-ALT or a prefectural ALT and although we mainly teach senior high schools (see Feast Or Famine: Being an ALT in a Senior High School to know more on how SHS work), we are also sometimes asked to teach in special needs schools which are a combination of all levels and ages, from kindergarten to senior high school. Special needs education in Japan is also often carried out in regular, mainstream schools in the form of special classes and support assistance for students with mild disabilities. However, there are schools especially established to cater to the needs of learners with various exceptionalities. These schools are called Tokubetsu Shien Gakko. First, it is important to take note that one particular SNS does not only comprise four levels of education, but also accepts students with various exceptionalities and disabilities. This means that one particular institution can cater to learners with speech or hearing impairments, blind-low vision, ADHD, emotional/behavioral disorders, autism, those who are orthopedically handicapped, and chronic illness. In some cases, a SNS may also have a visit education program for sick children in a hospital.

So what is it like working as an ALT in special needs schools? Let me tell you that my panic was not at all misplaced. It’s taxing and challenging—but I promise, it’s definitely the most rewarding.

My high schools vary from an academic high school (my base school), to schools that specialize in commercial, agricultural, and technical courses which I visit twice a month. The SNS, however, I get to visit only two or three times in a school term. I go to Uwa Tokubetsu Shien Gakko, which technically is just one school but has two separate establishment branches—almost a 10-minute drive away from each other. Uwa Toku has three departments: Intellectual Disability Department (知的障がい部門 Chiteki  Syogai-bumon), Hearing Impairment Department (聴覚障がい部門 Chokaku Syogai –bumon),  and Physical Disability Department (肢体不自由部門 Shitai  fujiyu-bumon).  In the case of Uwa Toku, because the population of students with intellectual disorders is larger, the Chiteki Syogai-bumon is in one branch while the Chokaku Syogai and Shitai Fujiyu-bumon are combined in another. Each branch also has a rather different organizational structure.

The Intellectual Disability Department (Chiteki Syogai-bumon) is divided into two units (departments): elementary and junior high school combined, and senior high school. Most students here can walk, run, hear, and participate in some average physical activities. Their disabilities are of various kinds and complexities which include ADHD, learning disorders, Autism-Spectrum disorder, and others. Each class would have 5-10 students and depending on the complexities of their condition, they could have a teacher-student ratio of 1:8 (high school classes), 1:4 (junior high school classes), and 1:1 (elementary classes). Students in special needs schools are surrounded by a rich number of teachers that adding to the ratio, in a class, there would be one main teacher, and one or two supporters. So if, like me, your worry is about how to manage the class, then there shouldn’t be any problem. There will be a teacher for every student who needs more support and special assistance. Here, I find that some students may tend to be overly aggressive and exhibit behaviors that are disruptive to classroom situations, but nothing the teachers cannot handle. Remember, this kind of instructional environment allows for some tolerance of these behaviors and addresses the students’ individual needs.  Also, the teachers would let you know beforehand should there be students who need special attention.

Now let’s move on to the second concern: constructing and structuring the lessons. My very first visit to my SNS was in the Chiteki Syogai-bumon, for the high school department. I did my research and prepared some fun, easy activities for the students before coming in that day, and everything went so perfectly well. The students cannot speak English well but they absolutely love English! They’re all very excited and willing to learn. The second visit was for the elementary department and it’s where I pretty much messed up. I came in prepared with an easier activity for the elementary kids but when I showed them the pictures, the teachers (all 9 of them) said it was muzukashii. They still let me try the activity/game but when it proved to be really difficult for the students, I had to cut it and come up with another, more student-friendly activity. So yes, always make sure you have some extra fun ideas with you. What I did for my next visits was ask the teachers about the proper approach to each class so I could tailor the lessons appropriately.

I say lessons, but these are more like games and activities than instruction especially for elementary. The high school and junior high school students love learning about my country, the Philippines, so I show them a lot of pictures which are often always themed from food, tourist spots, festivals, sports, and then some conversations. For the elementary students, I usually do color/shape matching games, memory games, and gesture games while adding a new English expression to each—even expressions as simple as “Oh no!”. The students have learning and behavioral disorders so it’s important to make sure the activity for the day is easy and engaging enough. Students in special education learn by special curriculum and in my experience, my SNS have little to no use of textbooks and have more courses geared towards teaching life skills (safety, personal hygiene, dressing, decision making) and some vocational activities ( agriculture, pottery, home economics, art). They also have daily exercises in the classroom for 10-15 minutes, and on special days the students go out for activities like running, walking, playing soccer, and swimming. The high school students (3rd graders, and some exceptional 2nd graders) also participate in programs that provide them with workplace training or on-the-job experience.

Uwa Toku also has a program called visit education as a branch class in a hospital. How do I participate in this program as an ALT? Videos. Teachers for the visit education would ask me to greet the students and introduce myself while they record it on a video. Sometimes, we also play some musical instruments or sing for them… all video-taped. I never got to meet the students here personally but they send me notes and letters every time, which is honestly the sweetest, more remarkable thing!

The other branch of Uwa Toku has two departments, the Hearing Impairment Department and the Physical Disability Department. Each student has one teacher assigned to them for special support and every class is conducted with one main teacher and an assistant, and some students have a combination of difficulties. For example, a hearing-impaired student may also have a learning disorder so expect a more individually planned and monitored teaching approach to this.   

There are only about 9 students under the Hearing Impaired Department from kindergarten to high school combined. Classes for the students with hearing impairment work almost the same as the regular classes in mainstream classrooms so in terms of preparing lessons, you get to be more creative and active with them. We usually do gesture games, English time bomb, and dice games. They love games that include a lot of movements, so we even did Twister when we learned colors and body parts! For the students with physical disabilities, every activity must involve adapted materials and more accessible settings. Classes go from one-on-one instruction to a small group of 7 students, and of course expect that there will be more teachers dedicated to facilitating the procedures in the classroom. Personally, I never had to prepare lessons for my visits to this department because the teachers would have everything planned for the day. Some students have mild physical disorders, while some are chronically ill (which means, in legal terms, that they are unable to perform at least two basic, daily activities). I used to worry a lot about how to appropriately approach my classes with them, but rest assured that the special needs schools provide the least restrictive environment for the students and the programs are especially designed to meet every student’s particular needs. All instructional materials, equipment, and facilities are there to respond to their needs so all you have to do, really, is to be there, and make your visits fun!

I still struggle with stuff to do in my classes, especially for elementary. I still often doubt whether my preparations for the day would work for each class, and there are times when I don’t have any idea what to do when certain disruptions happen in the classroom. However, I learned that unlike my classes in my mainstream schools, at SNS it isn’t about lesson planning but really just making the kids feel included. The job, as a visiting ALT in special needs school, isn’t really about teaching English but introducing cultures and perhaps letting them know that interacting with foreigners shouldn’t be that scary for them. My favorite part about being in an environment like this is also the most taxing part of it: designing every learning intervention specially for each student. I needed to learn the students. It was difficult because I only get to meet them once every term, but it’s incredibly fun once you get to incorporate the things they love in your games and activities. It’s as simple as adding a picture of Anpanman, or minions, or buses, or cars to your presentations and letting the student who likes them participate. It’s so fulfilling. You’re making them so incredibly happy by just doing those little things, and their “thank-you”s mean the world! I was always a little nervous every time I had to visit my SNS but unlike me, the students are always so very excited, always looking forward to that day.

Ma. Antonette Lofamia is a current ALT from the Philippines with some degrees in English literature, and Poetry. In her free time, she can be found sleepless, reading, coffee-drinking, writing,  and really just watching murder documentaries.

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