Interview with a ...
Teacher of the deaf
What do you do?
I’m a teacher in a charter school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, from 3 years old through high school. I use American Sign Language (ASL) as the direct language of instruction. Specific to my school, I’m a reading specialist tasked with helping students develop literacy skills.
How do you vary your instruction to students across such a broad age range?
With early childhood and elementary school students, I sometimes teach one-on-one or in small groups. We might do vocabulary-building activities, like puzzles or matching, to work on recognizing sight words or high-frequency words. With some of the older elementary students, we might read passages or sentences in books to focus on figurative language, like metaphors and idioms. The goal is to increase their reading-comprehension skills in English.
With middle school and high school students, I support the teachers in developing lessons to meet their students’ varied needs. I help teachers group the kids on the basis of the communication strengths and weaknesses of each student. This year, I’ll also be doing some preteaching of concepts to help students get ready for when the teacher covers specific content.
Besides working directly with students, what other duties do you have?
I’m kind of responsible for our library: for the collection of books, organizing the early childhood and picture books, setting things up so that teachers can find them. For outreach, I’m working with our public library to get more current books and promoting a literacy night to families and the community. I’ve got an author coming from Gallaudet [university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students], and in other years we’ve brought in a deaf illustrator and deaf author.
I have lots of paperwork, because all of the kids in my school have an IEP [Individualized Education Program, a written plan identifying support services that students need]. Some of those IEPs include reading goals, and I need to write progress reports for my caseload.
I also lead or am heavily involved in professional development activities, like mentoring or workshops, within my school that are related to reading or literacy. And I attend events like parent–teacher conferences, back-to-school night, and registration.
Tell me a little about your background.
Growing up, I saw sign language being used everywhere; that definitely sparked my curiosity. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology, and I have a master’s degree [in deaf education] from Gallaudet. My master’s was a 2-year program that included a practicum and an internship, and I spent a semester student teaching at the New Mexico School for the Deaf.
In between earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I taught special ed in the Peace Corps. I went on a lot of home visits, which involved developing relationships with students and their families.
What skills are important for teachers of the deaf?
If you’re going to work in a setting like mine, you need to have native or near-native fluency in ASL. I’m not a deaf person, so I needed to become fluent in ASL as a second language to be able to use it in teaching.
You also need to be tech savvy, because we use a lot of technology in the classroom. We’re heavy on visuals like photos and movies, so being able to edit and create small videos is a necessary skill.
What qualities do teachers need in general?
You have to be a people person: You have to be able to work in a school as part of a team and with families, with kids. You’ve got to be able to multitask and be super organized, because you have to keep a lot of data on your kids. And you have to be observant of your students’ development, which doesn’t always happen right in front of you. I make a lot of anecdotal records about things I notice informally and write down later.
You shouldn’t expect to sit in a chair all day. I’m walking around the school to visit different classrooms, and, with the early childhood group, there’s a lot of sitting on the floor, squatting, and running after kids.
What advice would you give prospective teachers of the deaf?
If you want to work in a setting like mine, you need to understand the Deaf community and get involved in it. You also have to understand language development and ASL.
But it’s also important to be really open minded, because there are so many different philosophies of deaf education. Whenever I come across professionals who are entrenched in one viewpoint, it makes me realize how critical it is to be willing to consider other perspectives.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Keeping up with the paperwork and progress reports.
What’s best about your job?
Watching the kids make progress, and seeing when students discover they can read on their own—having that little "light bulb" go on. It’s fascinating watching them develop language and preliteracy skills, like drawing out hand signs and making letterlike marks.
Any career highlights so far?
I was the first teacher hired at this charter school, back when it was only early childhood and kindergarten through second grade. Twenty years later, we’re still here. Now we go all the way through high school, and we’ve made a name for ourselves. I’m really proud of that.
Kathleen Green, "Teacher of the deaf," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2018.