Teaching the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Watching someone speak American Sign Language (ASL) is like watching a dance. The graceful flow of fingers flying, and the hand gestures that feel so obvious and obscure at the same time, can be mesmerizing. It can make you feel connected to the greater world in a way that verbal communication doesn’t.

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In some ways, ASL is a natural form of communication that everyone uses every day. When people get excited, they use their hands to make gestures that more effectively express their feelings. When you visit a foreign country and you don’t understand the native tongue, you automatically begin using a form of charades to communicate about things as simple as asking directions or ordering from a menu. Likewise, ASL is so fun to learn and use that parents and educators even use it to communicate with hearing babies and toddlers who haven’t learned to speak yet, teaching basic words like “drink” as well as more complex concepts, such as how to potty train a reluctant toddler.

As a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, you’ll need to demonstrate fluency in sign language. Most universities and colleges teach ASL to fulfill the second language requirement for their Bachelor of Arts degrees. Most teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing love to learn and practice this artful, visual language. They enjoy this form of communication simply for the beauty of it, and the elegant and graceful way it makes them feel.

Unlike other special education teachers, many times you won’t be teaching people who feel they are disabled. The deaf community has very strong feelings that they are as capable as hearing people to interact in the world and lead very happy and successful lives. They simply need a more specialized education and additional assistance to do so, and this education is centered on the use of ASL. This attitude is empowering for both students and teachers.

That said, some students and parents have a difficult time seeing deafness as a gift. It is very rewarding for many teachers to help them accept deafness and learn to flourish. As deaf people remind each other, “You’re a person first. You are also deaf.”

What is it like?

There are several different settings where teachers of deafness can work. There are self-contained private schools such as John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia, the Learning Center for Deaf Children in Massachusetts, and the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis. Almost all states also have a residential school for deaf children, similar to a boarding school, supported with state funding.

Public school systems also employ teachers to work with students who are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. Many times, these teachers travel from school to school teaching special skills to individuals or to small groups of deaf students. Teachers may find this frustrating, because of the time spent traveling as opposed to teaching.

Turn it down or you’ll go deaf!

Every kid has heard an adult yell, “Turn that down before you go deaf!” But is it true? Can you really go deaf from listening to your iPod too loudly? Or attending a rock concert?

Medical experts say yes. One time exposure will likely only result in temporary hearing loss, a feeling of pressure in the ears, or ringing in the ears. But prolonged exposure, listening to loud music repeatedly on a regular basis, can result in permanent hearing loss.

However, this isn’t limited to loud music; it’s exposure to loud sounds of any sort. Experts recommend that people wear earplugs to loud concerts and when you’re around loud machinery.

If there is a high population of deaf students in a public school, the teacher may be in one classroom teaching the regular school curriculum, but this is less likely. Some teachers with training in deaf education will be in a special resource room with kids of many disability types. ASL is extremely useful in communicating with people who experience a broad range of disabilities from autism to cerebral palsy to mental retardation, in addition to speech impediments.

Aside from proficiency in ASL, teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing must also have clear “lip patterns”—what one might call pronounced enunciation. You’ll be helping students, especially younger students, how to read lips. This serves several purposes. First, hard of hearing students can hear sounds, and many can hear certain syllables, phonics, and pitches better than other sounds. For this reason, it is crucial to speak very clearly. Another reason is that both hard of hearing and completely deaf students tend to read lips.

In fact, over the next few days you might try to notice how often you watch people’s mouths, rather than their eyes, when they’re speaking. Notice how much better it helps you understand what they’re saying. Most people have this habit without realizing it. Obviously, deaf and hard of hearing students rely on this form of communication far more than other people.

Still another aspect of your job may be to give younger students oral deaf training. Even when a child is diagnosed with severe or profound deafness, they can still develop speech and listening abilities with special speaking and listening training, or by using sophisticated hearing technologies such as the cochlear implant. Parents and family play a key role in this type of early-childhood education, but teachers are vital to teaching both child and the family how to help the child learn to listen and talk.

Any teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing will need a good understanding of “deaf culture,” and to be sensitive to the issues and controversies surrounding deaf issues. One such issue is the controversy over helping people hear versus accepting deafness as a natural and normal way of being. The debate can get very heated. Some parents and students might be against any type of hearing assistance, feeling it implies that being deaf is a wrong or inadequate way of being; others might embrace hearing technology, feeling it allows them or their children more access to the broader culture and more mainstream opportunities. “Deafness is not a disability, but rather another way of being,” deaf activists say.

There is also controversy within the deaf community over whether or not deaf children should be given hearing aids, especially cochlear implants, which are highly sophisticated hearing aids implanted in a person’s ear to markedly improve his or her hearing. You’ll have to navigate these waters in order to give each child the educational assistance that best suits them.

In addition to the particular skills required to teach the deaf and hard of hearing, you will need to be able to teach the required state curriculum. Thus, you’ll need to teach specialized subjects such as math or English in secondary schools; or, if you’re teaching younger students, you’ll need to teach the state’s elementary education curriculum. This is a lot for one teacher to handle, and requires a dedication above and beyond a mainstream teacher’s.

Working with the deaf and hard of hearing population is more a calling than a career. Those who feel ambivalent about working with those who have communication problems, or with special needs kids, will likely find the work too frustrating.

Can I get a job?

Because this job requires so much additional training, and requires people to dedicate so much of their heart and soul to the work, there is a shortage in highly trained and qualified teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. So, yes, you can most definitely find a job.

Between 2010 and 2020 special education careers are expected to grow 17 percent, which is about average. Due to the degree of the specialization, it will help if you’re willing to relocate. Most states have only one deaf and hard of hearing school and it would be advantageous if you were to live close to one. However, this isn’t to say there won’t be an available job opening in your own school district.

As with most teaching professions there are schools around the country which are desperate for qualified teachers, especially special education teachers. These schools are usually in poorly funded districts, high minority schools, and in rural or inner-city locations. While these schools don’t represent the most desirable places to live, or the easiest working conditions, they do carry benefits such as relocation costs, contract signing bonuses, loan forgiveness, and higher pay incentives.

What does it pay?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for special education teachers is $53,220. The median salary for preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school special education teachers is $52,250, while high school teachers average slightly more at $54,810.

Other things to consider when looking at whether to take a position are retirement benefits, sick and vacation days, and health care benefits. Also ask if there are loan forgiveness programs, which will make a significant impact on your monthly budget.

How do I become a teacher in this field?

First, find out if you enjoy working with kids who have hearing problems before committing to extensive education and training in this field. It’s a huge commitment, and you should be positive about your decision before investing significant time and money in it.

You can explore this career in several ways, including sitting in on deaf and hard of hearing classes, volunteering at a deaf school, or getting a part-time job as an aide in a special education classroom. You’ll know pretty quickly whether this type of job makes your heart beat in excitement, or if it’s just not your thing. If you have a family member or a close friend who is deaf or hard of hearing you’re ahead of the game, because you understand the reality of what being deaf is, and probably already know whether or not this is your calling.

DeafEd Teacher Preparation Program provides specific information about deaf education certification and a listing of each state’s available programs. There are also several specialized deaf and hard of hearing focuses within deaf education programs, including Oral/Aural, ASL/English, bilingual, and comprehensive.

Once you’ve completed your general and specialized training you’ll have to get a teaching certificate. You can find information about your state’s teaching certification requirements at the Teaching Certification website. Part of this training will be in the classroom, followed by student teaching for at least one semester. When your education is complete, you’ll have to pass a Praxis Test or state exam to be awarded a teaching certificate.

Teaching DeafEd is a very rewarding experience and it will never be boring. It will require a great deal of skill and patience, a mastery of many different job elements, and ensuring that each child’s special needs are met. But the challenges are what can also make it a highly rewarding career.

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