My Experiences Teaching at Disability Schools

My life is nothing like I imagined it would be. How many times have you heard that before? In contrast, have you ever heard someone declare that their life turned out exactly as they thought it would? I would like to meet that person, and possibly slap them across the face.

I just wanted to finish what I started. I wanted to become fluent at Japanese, but someone kept raising the bar. To be fluent you have to study it at university at least. After graduation, you find yourself still lacking, you have to live in Japan for a least a year to be fluent. Three years later, and I have finally come to realize that you would have to have lived in Japan your whole life, possibly a few past lives as well, because this language is absurd. Well… my expectations are at least.

The easiest way to get into Japan is to be an English teacher. At some point in my childhood I may have declared that I wanted to be a teacher. However, I never pursued the thought. I still don’t really. Luckily Japan has thought of everything, and created the ALT. ALT stands for assistant language teacher, and is a great way of being lowered into a teaching job that you are not qualified for in the slightest. At first I was a tape recorder at junior high school. I was paid to read a textbook aloud, and smile a lot. Sometimes I let kids touch my hair, and stare deep into my suspected colour-contacts, aka naturally blue eyes. I then found myself making games and worksheets, psyching up or calming down a class, and in general just being helpful.

It is not just that my job is not what I expected, I am not who I expected. I accepted a leadership position after two years, flying to Tokyo, conducting orientations and giving advice to people who I had only just met. People tell me things. I make small talk. I have connections and acquaintances. The teaching changed as well. Teachers come to me for a lesson plan. I am reliable, but I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing. I teach at three very different schools, a vocational high school, an academic high school and a disability school. It is at this point that my life gets way off the expected track.

The other day I visited a school for children with severe disabilities. My usual school is for children who have long term illnesses, but are still well enough to study for the most part. Some of them live in a hospital that is attached to the school, some of them are in wheelchairs, but most look just like regular kids. I have also visited schools for kids who are mentally impaired. I met children who don’t age mentally, who don’t understand social rules, and who remain beautifully innocent their entire lives. I played with them and gave them their first ever taste of vegemite. At the end of the day, I felt like I had made a difference; that I had connected with them in some way.

This school was different. As I walked into the entrance, wheelchairs lined either side. My grandfather spent most of my life in a wheelchair, so I am no stranger to the concept. However, these were not your everyday wheelchairs. These were specially designed, each and every one, for seriously ill kids. Some of them were hospital beds with two wheelchair-like wheels on one end, so the occupant can move the bed themselves. Others were shaped to hold an entire little body in place.

This school is attached to a hospital as well. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is a hospital, as even the classrooms have that feel about them. The staff rooms even look like nurses stations. I have never really liked hospitals. For starters, I feint at the sight of blood. Actually, to be honest, I feint just listening to people talk about injuring themselves. I once felt feint in a translation lecture at university where the guest speaker was describing an MRI. I had to lean forward, discreetly put my head between my knees, and block out the English translation with the incomprehensible Japanese to avoid it. This time, I had to look at the ceiling to stop from feinting, as students were wheeled into the “classroom” one by one. It is confronting, standing in front of a room full of near life-less little bodies, unnaturally coloured and fragile. Words can’t describe.

At the end of the day, I cried. I cried because I couldn't understand the meaning of their lives. Some of them could barely breathe, barely open their eyes, and had to be fed through an IV at lunch in the lunch room. I sang, danced, smiled, shook their hands, but there was nothing. No signs of life. No hint of meaning to their existence, only pain, and a bunch of carers and teachers pushing empty wheelchairs around the room in dance formation. I was angry at myself for even thinking these things. Life, of course, is precious. These children are precious. Their wheelchairs are all different colours, with cool characters on the wheels and funky designs. They whisper life. They whisper I am alive. I just wasn't prepared.

My regular school was a shock at first as well, and is sometimes difficult to work at. It is a small school, so I have gotten to know the students really well. There is one kid who is so much like me it is scary; we like all the same things. One day I came to class on a cold winter’s morning to find huge dark rings around his eyes. It was the first time I had seen him actually looking sick. I couldn't shake the sinking feeling from my heart for the rest of the day. I was afraid. I still am afraid that if anything were to happen to him, or to any of my students, I wouldn't get over it. They are so beautiful, with passion and dreams that they have shared with me. Every now and again, I get glimpses of their fragility, and it weighs down on me like a wet blanket.

I don’t think I am cut out for this job. Someone told me that to be a teacher, what it means to be a really good teacher, is to care about your students; to respect and recognize them as individuals, to make them feel special, and to make them laugh. I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think my heart can take it, the strain of connecting to little hearts and minds that may not always be around. But, at the same time, I don’t think I can refuse this connection either. I don’t think I can walk into the classroom with anything other than my whole self, my whole heart, opened up to them. So I walk, across the thin ice, hoping that if I fall I can swim. I am driven forward by the students. Even if the ice is thin, my life is definitely richer with them in it.

I visited that other hospital school for the second time a week later. I played board games, threw peanuts at a picture of an Oni (monster), and sung Baa Baa Black Sheep 7 times in 45 mins. It was a challenging day as expected, however, I didn't cry at the end of it. In the lunch room, after I had finished eating, a pack of students surrounded me, and escorted me to my next class. I smiled and laughed with them as we walked, and rolled down the corridor. These are the days that make life meaningful.


When I started studying Japanese I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined, no one in their wildest dreams could have ever imagined that I would end up here.        

A Christmas poster made by some of the students at my regular disability school. 

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