1. What is your educational background, and what interested you in becoming a teacher of the deaf?

I grew up in Rochester. Rochester has the second-largest deaf population in the country. I experienced it a lot growing up. I also come from a family of teachers. Those two aspects just kind of fell together. I went to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee to get my undergraduate degree in teacher of the deaf. I did my student teaching at Metro Nashville Public Schools. The program at Vanderbilt was interesting to me because it was small and more personalized. I really hit it off with the woman in charge of the program. She was a great mentor for me. I still keep in touch with her. Everything came together, and I’m truly so grateful for my experience and what I do. 

2. How does the BOCES Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program work?

It’s a really unique program. Usually, teachers of the deaf either work at a school for the deaf or are out as itinerants, where they see kids with hearing loss who are in a general education class. They work as support in the classroom a few times a week. Our program is self-contained. I have all of my kids in my own classroom.

My classroom is located in the Solvay School District. There are two teachers in the elementary program. My focus is on kindergarten and first grade. The program is for kids whose hearing loss impacts their learning so severely that they can’t benefit from the general education classroom. They need full-day instruction directly from the teacher of the deaf. There are only so many teachers of the deaf in Central New York. To find that full-day instruction, you have to come to our program. If a student needs those services, their district can contract with BOCES. Students from the Mexico, Central Square, Syracuse City, Jamesville-DeWitt School Districts and more all come to our program. We’re kind of like a hub.

3. Can you share a little bit of how you make the magic happen when helping elementary students read and learn sign language?

Our philosophy is that a student with a hearing loss learns as a student without a hearing loss, just through different methods. We generally use sign language as the primary language and then with modifications. We modify the language and vocabulary we use. Even though many students come in with little language, we are still expected to teach the New York State learning standards, just at a different pace. 

We use a lot of visuals. My teaching assistants and teaching assistant interpreters are very helpful. Sometimes, when I am in front of the whole class, I am too far away for the students to focus on me. The assistants sit with various students and sign everything that I am saying. They help reduce or increase proximity, so students don’t have to look so far away (for example, when I am signing a story). This helps the students a lot with focus.

4. What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things, especially at the kindergarten level, is seeing their tremendous growth. They come in with little language and don’t know very many signs. Their parents are so impressed and express a desire to keep up with them. The kids pick things up and learn the names of things so quickly. They’re like little sponges, so seeing the fast growth is very rewarding.

Know an educator who deserves a mention? Email courtneyk@familytimescny.com.

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