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Teachers left to work it out at Japan schools with foreign students in special ed

A teacher is seen writing the readings of kanji characters next to the kanji in a textbook for a Filipino student in a special education class, at an elementary school in the Kanto region on Sept. 19, 2019. (Mainichi/Atsuko Suzuki)

MAEBASHI -- With many children of foreign nationality being placed in special education classes at Japanese schools despite it being suspected that they do not have intellectual impairments, the Mainichi Shimbun went to see how teachers are using their skills to support these students.

Two years ago, a 10-year-old Filipino boy enrolled at an elementary school in the Kanto region. He joined the fifth grade, but wasn't able to understand Japanese well, so he ended up being placed in a special needs class.

His teacher, 53, soon realized the boy didn't have any intellectual difficulties. When they read the textbook slowly together, he was able to understand the content, and he could clearly express the feelings of the characters in a fable by popular children's author Kenji Miyazawa.

What the boy struggled with was kanji characters, of which there are many, each with multiple readings in Japanese. When writing for tests, he answered in phonetic hiragana characters.

To help the boy, his teacher would write the readings of the kanji next to them on printouts and in textbooks, and she took care to kindly and clearly explain the meanings of words when teaching in classes.

There were also merits to having him in special education classes, which are fundamentally based on providing more individually tailored instruction. The boy could ask without concern questions that might be embarrassing to ask in front of peers in a standard class setting. He improved to the point that in a class observation when he was in the sixth grade he did a quiz-style presentation in Japanese about what he'd learned in social studies and other classes.

When enrolling foreign children who submit low IQ test scores, another school in the Kanto region judges whether the reason for their results is due to intellectual impairment or poor Japanese ability by placing those children in special education classes.

The school's special education class is supervised by an experienced teacher who serves as its homeroom teacher. She says that the school didn't go through a process of reviewing its education policy, but instead the principal and others asked her to take on the task, telling her that they believed in her ability to make it work.

According to a senior official of a board of education, there is a persistent culture of looking down on special education classes compared to standard classes at schools, sometimes making light of education in the former type of classes. The teacher in charge of the special needs class at the Kanto region school said, "I may have been entrusted with this role, but sometimes I feel like I've just had it all left on me."

There are also cases of schools being unable to receive sufficient support and cooperation from their local governments. A teacher at one elementary school in the Kanto region became the main instructor for Brazilian and Filipino children in a special education class. Teachers are required to create individual study support plans based on the Course of Study for children enrolled in special education classes.

In creating the support plan, teachers seek the opinion of a doctor regarding the extent to which students may be intellectually impaired, and hold multiple face-to-face meetings with the student and their guardians.

Because some students and their guardians didn't understand Japanese, the teacher sent a request to the local government for an interpreter to be dispatched to a meeting. But the local authority didn't fulfill the request, citing a staff shortage as the reason why. In the end, the teacher used a mixture of English, written messages and gestures to communicate with them. After about a week, education plans were decided.

Shortly after the children started attending, they stopped coming to school, and after some months they went back to their home countries. There was no explanation from their guardians as to whether some circumstance had led to them leaving Japan, or if they had always intended to stay only for a short period.

One of the other teachers voiced their frustration about the case, but the educator involved responded as if talking to himself, "We have to support the children, regardless of their nationality."

(Japanese original by Atsuko Suzuki, Maebashi Bureau)

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