30 January 2011

Special Needs School

With translation's slow catching up between one language and the next, it's easy to explain how political correctness gets left behind. I have utterly no knowledge of Special Needs kids, their varying types of abilities and disabilities, and obviously still...no Japanese to make the conversations I had to have more direct. The result was a meeting in which I was told about my visit to the 'handicapped school', where some kids had 'mental retardation' or 'mental and physical disabilities' (so vague!). Can they move around the room? Yes, some need help but yes.
I later realised that the Japanese name for my school, Tokubetsu gakko, actually means Special School, which demonstrates that though politically correct advances are made in Japan as often as anywhere, translation is slow!

From past experience, and (luckily) from the JET midyear seminar, I had a little more info. As a child I visited St Michael's House in Dublin. My primary school class used to visit and play games with the children there. One little girl, who I had become friendly with used to pinch my forearms. It was very difficult to get her to let go.
At the JET midyear seminar, which happened before I had a single visit to my Special Needs School, there was a workshop on Special Needs Education in Japan. Many JETs described their schools and students. From this I learnt that some kids like to touch you, hang off you, drool on you etc. It was important to design activities that everyone could do.

Armed with my minutiae of information, I made 4 visits to my school in November and December. The teachers I met were the loveliest people ever. I quickly learnt that most were regular teachers, transferred to the school as the Board of Education saw fit. They had no special extra training for the entirely different job they were then expected to do! Each of them had or had to develop amazing patience and boundless energy and enthusiasm to keep up with the kids. I was mostly supervised by ones who had recently been high school English teachers.

Each day, I was met by a teacher by the stone statue of Doraemon outside the school. I was treated like royalty, and served matcha in a meeting room while we went over the day's plan. Walking through the corridors, every kid we passed starred at me and wanted to shake my hand. In the classes, I was only required to make a short self introduction, using pictures. The JTEs would translate. The kids asked far more questions than my regular high schoolers had, and interesting ones too! Do you like Halo 2? What kind of animals do you have in Ireland? Do you prefer Ireland or Japan? (always tricky!)

Apart from my introduction, the lessons were planned by the JTEs and would usually involve singing a song or playing a game together and the students presenting something they had prepared for me. Oddly enough, unlike at regular school I didn't hesitate to sing and dance around with the students, wildly flailing my arms and generally looking like a complete fool..no one cared. All the JTEs did it. All the students did it. We had fun.

The kids were some of the worthiest human beings I've met in my entire life. They made valiant efforts to communicate with me, though we spoke barely a word of one anther's languages. At break time they took my by the hand and brought me outside. We played football and looked at the pictures hung up all around their classrooms and corridors. They were so excited to meet me. Everyone wanted to shake my hand, sit beside me, link me, stand beside me in the circle, talk to me and be my volunteer. It was a bit of a culture shock after the reservation and awkwardness I'm used to from students, not to mention the lack of physical touching in Japan!

I realised that I was kind of hopeless as a teacher there, as I had been at regular school initially.
During my first self intro, I tried to explain the significance of the 3 leafed shamrock with regard to St Patrick's Catholic teaching. I'm sure this would still be fairly difficult with an adult audience, whose language you were speaking!
During my second visit, I decided to try Irish dancing with the students. We formed a circle and I played Riverdance. When everyone was excitedly jumping up and down (not exactly the neat 1-2-3 I'd hoped for but whatever), I tried to coax them into 2 straight lines to dance the Haymakers Jig. Not a hope. Of course, we had a lot of fun free styling it around the room, and they did get to listen to Irish music!

At the end of the day, I think I can see why JETs have been reluctant to broadcast their experience of working in Special Needs Schools. I get the impression that comparatively little is said about it by people who go there. One reason is not knowing enough. For example, what sort of disabilities do the kids at the school I visited have? I don't really know the answer. Some had Down Syndrome, some were in wheel chairs, but beyond that I'm not equipped to answer. The JTEs' English wasn't sophisticated enough to explain.

Another reason is the sensitivity of the subject, the politically incorrect terms and the pitying or special tone that other teachers tend to use when they refer to your Special Needs School. Are the schools something shameful to be avoided in conversation? A difficult subject, with a high likelihood of offending someone?

Finally, my own lack of clarity about where the Special Needs line is drawn makes the system difficult to access and thereby comment on. Where do dyslexic students go? Students with ADD? There are no support systems to help kids with these problems in my regular school, for instance. So I worry whether they get a fair chance, or whether in fact children with intellectual disabilities get the best chance by being lumped together and branded 'Special Needs'.

Despite my ignorance and the questions I can't answer, I think it's worthwhile to convey my experience of the Special Needs School I visited. It's possible that by sharing what we do know, we can learn more.

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