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American Annals of the Deaf

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Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren
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Instead of embracing their deaf identity and their sign languages, many deaf and hard of hearing kids in public schools do everything they can to hide these aspects of themselves, even when it is clear to all that they are not hiding anything. We learned that the difference between feeling a need to hide these deaf aspects of self and being comfortable with being seen unabashedly as deaf, was often in the behavior and attitudes of the parents and teachers.

The participants mentioned frequently that their teachers made a difference in how they felt about themselves and in how they fit into the school social environment. Some teachers were special—they took a personal interest in their deaf students and were not afraid to get to know them. Some teachers were just so much better than others at recognizing the needs of a deaf or hard of hearing child and doing something about it. Some teachers were somehow comfortable and flexible with using different communication strategies. These teachers were the ones who engaged with the deaf child and made the child feel included and valued rather than awkward, dumb, or embarrassed. They were the ones who made ASL (and by default, the deaf or hard of hearing student) seem fun and cool, such as our participant says in this excerpt.

I used the AM/FM system so much more in the 6th grade. I remembered I avoided using it up until that point. I didn’t like how it made me stand out in the classroom and brought attention to me. It’s probably also because my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. B., had a ball with it. She loved wearing the mic! Mrs. B. really loved the idea of having a deaf kid in her classroom. She took ASL classes and showed me off to her friends. She wanted to be “besties” with my Mom. Anyway, Mrs. B. really had high expectations of me and told me often that I had potential to do better, grade-wise. Thanks to her, my grades improved so much that year. (F30W)
Sometimes, our participants told us, the teachers who were most fearless and able to support them were in nonacademic departments such as shop and creative arts. One of our participants had this to say:
I always signed up for art classes every semester because there was not much talking in the class and art teachers are always the most expressive in the body language. They were comfortable with me. I felt relaxed in the art classes. I may not be the best artist but I love the environment in the art class. I did have secret desires for taking foreign language [classes], advanced history and advanced technology classes but I did not want to deal with an interpreter so art classes were always a best choice for me. (F25SE)
F30NE’s teacher had a wonderful idea. “The one thing that made my transition into the new school much easier was having a small informal meeting with my teacher. My teacher invited a few of the students who would be in my class so we had some interaction time getting to know each other so I wasn’t entering my first day blind. I think that really set a good tone for the year, and it ended up that one of the first classmates I met at that first meeting later became an interpreter.”

These stories are important because they illustrate clearly what many others also said: Teachers who were not afraid to communicate with their deaf students clearly enabled student–teacher relationships to flourish. Additionally, these teachers became positive models for peers and other adults in the school. Observing an engaging interaction between a hearing teacher and a deaf or hard of hearing student, made it easier for others to try also. Hence relationships between deaf and hearing peers were also much more probable. As we saw in the above stories about the art and shop teachers, direct communication did not always mean speech. What was important was being comfortable and flexible. Teachers who always communicated with their deaf students through the interpreters, or who made the interpreter their primary relationship rather than the student, were viewed as far less effective teachers.

Respondents who did not have good experiences with teachers often recognized the difference a supportive teacher would have made. We heard such comments as

• “I wanted my teachers to be more knowledgeable, understanding, and open about having a deaf student so I didn’t have to feel so much like a freak,”

• “My school had low expectations for deaf students,” and

• “Teachers don’t get it!”

Research shows that having strong relationships supports school achievement (Putnam, 2000). In general, our participants told us these relationships are not happening. Other researchers, who also used focus groups as means of gathering data, also identified teachers as being able to make a difference in the successful school experiences of oral deaf students (Eriks- Brophy et al., 2006). We need to find ways to help general education teachers feel comfortable communicating with the deaf and hard of hearing students in their classrooms. We believe changing teachers’ attitudes and behaviors may very well be a key that will open doors for these students in general education settings.

Small Communities

In addition to actively supportive parents and teachers, respondents identified another factor that they perceived as making a positive difference in their self-concept: the size of their community and school. Being from a small town and attending a small school, particularly one that emphasized personal strengths (e.g., a creative arts school) both made the school experience easier. Everyone in the school, and sometimes the entire town, knew the deaf individual, so no awkward explanations of being deaf were necessary. In small classes students got more attention and communication was less stressful. In small communities deaf and hard of hearing children and youth were more able to get their needs met and to have their views of self confirmed by others. Their identity seemed more assured; however, even this did not work perfectly: On leaving for college, individuals found themselves totally unprepared for knowing how to meet new people, and it was often at that point that their identity struggle began. So while they were comfortable in their identities in mainstream K–12 schools, they had significant social and personal challenges in college.

One woman in our focus group illustrated this well. She was a rarity in that she had a solid group of hearing friends whom she had grown up with in her neighborhood. In school they were rarely in the same classes and our respondent, describing herself as a straight-D student, denied her deafness most of the time and felt marginal at best. During her senior year she watched her friends all choose colleges while she herself took a job at a local CVS, feeling college was an impossibility for her due to both grades and finances. It took a couple of years and much nagging from her friends before she had the confidence and determination to change her destiny. She applied to Gallaudet University, was accepted, and became someone to be reckoned with, obtaining a B.A. and doing a semester abroad.

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