The Life Itinerant: Glimpses of my first year as a TOD


“Are they nailed in?” a nine-year-old boy asks my student after she gives a presentation about her cochlear implants.

“What?” She can’t see his lips from across the room and the class is restless.

“Are there nails?”

“No!” She laughs.

“Do you miss being able to hear, or are you used to it?” another student asks.

“I’m pretty used to it.”

This exchange is representative of my year teaching deaf/hard of hearing students — kids can be goofy/bizarre and then surprisingly insightful.


One of my students is a 10 year old with about 10-25 spoken and signed words.  (His hearing loss is not his primary disability.)  He is inconsistent with most of these — when you show him two pictures and ask him to point to the ball, he will sometimes point at the ball, and sometimes at the tiger.  He knows the sign for “ball” and if you say “ball” he will go and get one, but he won’t consistently pick out a picture.  With early language acquisition in hearing impaired children, it’s important to be as literal — or as close to the physical 3D object as possible.  But after that, the learner needs to grow to learn more abstract concepts.  Language itself is abstract: a set of verbal symbols that represent objects and ideas.

I spent my year with this student trying to expand his limited vocabulary and help him communicate with the world around him.  I wanted him to be able to express what he wanted and didn’t want, what he liked and didn’t like.  Sometimes he would point or stare at something and make noises — he wanted to communicate so badly, but didn’t have words or signs.  At the end of the year, he had made improvements in many areas, but he still didn’t have that communication piece that I wanted.

It turns out I am not a miracle worker.  It is disconcerting and upsetting when I think about lower level students like this…when I am not sure that I was of any substantial help after eight months of bi-weekly visits.  I end up telling myself that at the very least he had a steady, encouraging relationship in his life — but the reality is that that’s only part of my job.

There is humor throughout.  During my last month with him, he rubbed my stomach and said “baby.”  He understood the concept of babies being carried within a mother!  And I would never wear that shirt again.


I’ve spoken with burnt out SLPs (Speech Language Therapists) who are contemplating quitting because they can’t deal with working on the same sounds with the same kid over several years — not out of impatience, but out of a sense that even when the kid can produce the sound in therapy, he/she will never generalize it (have it cross over into spontaneous speech).

Perhaps it is similar to doctors with patients who won’t do rehab exercises or social workers with families who won’t knock habits permanently.  Teaching, especially students with impairments, means taking on responsibility for another’s welfare, even when it is not fully in your control.  (Or, often, theirs.)

I can’t make my students care about school work.  I can’t make my 8th grader talk to his teachers about missing assignments.  All I can do is provide him with tools and examples and deliver my best inspirational monologue a la Robin Williams and hope something gets in.


“An idiom is when we say something that doesn’t mean exactly what we’re saying. It’s not literal.”

“So it’s lies.”


D/HH students often have difficulty with nonliteral language.  Figurative language (idioms, metaphors, similes), sarcasm, irony — these are all typical struggles for a student with hearing loss.  It’s abstract language and because it isn’t used as often in everyday speech, they often aren’t as exposed to it (they miss a lot of incidental language — the language that surrounds us and isn’t spoken directly to us)  and need to be taught directly.

This particular conversation was with an eight year old who was extremely literal, but we did make some headway and he drew some fabulous literal and non-literal definitions of idioms which I will upload soon.


The highs are high, the lows are low, and everything else is a work in progress.  The “a ha” moments sometimes feel few and far between, and are often the result of a lot of time and effort — but they are wonderful when they happen.

I loved my kiddos this year.  I will miss them.

Reflections on my first year as an Itinerant Teacher of the Deaf

There are lots of career paths available to oral/aural TODs (teachers of the deaf) — from early intervention (working with birth to three year olds and their parents) to schools for the deaf to self-contained classrooms and more.

My program at Smith/Clarke was heavily focused on classroom instruction — all except one of our student teaching placements and externships were completed within a classroom setting.  All of the lesson plans I completed, except for speech planning, were for a classroom of students.  Our courses covered all bases from EI (early intervention) to language acquisition and audiology, and everything I learned was applicable to itinerant teaching — but most examples and projects revolved around classroom learning.

After completing the program, I was convinced that I wanted to work in a small classroom at a school for the deaf like the ones I had experienced, studied, and analyzed.  I wanted the sense of belonging to a school community, I wanted a daily relationship and deep understanding of my students, and I wanted a space of my own and a sense of ownership over what my students were learning.  I was convinced that a private, reputable school for the deaf would give me the mentorship and examples of best practice that I needed.

As I hunted for jobs around the country, I discovered that the private schools in locations I was interested in had extremely low turnover because the teachers loved their work.  Also, the private school positions didn’t come up on most search engines, and I had to research locations or look at schools based on professor recommendations.   Finally I found a school that had a great program, supportive staff, and directors who my advisor at Smith knew personally.  Unfortunately, it was in a location I eventually decided I didn’t want to live in.

There are no shortage of jobs in deaf education around the country.  Most of them are itinerant public school positions — jobs that I was wary of, especially as a first year teacher. An itinerant teacher of the deaf is a teacher who has a caseload of students in a district and travels to the different schools as a resource to classroom teachers and a service provider for the student.  Each student has different goals addressing their individual weaknesses, and the itinerant teacher provides instruction and support on these goals — and keeps data showing progress (or lack thereof).

I had been warned by someone that public school itinerant teachers had huge caseloads and stressful lives.  And, as I wrote earlier, I graduated from a program that gave me more experience as a classroom teacher than an itinerant.  But I kept coming across itinerant positions in great locations with seemingly supportive staff and small caseloads.  I took a plunge and decided to sign a year long contract that placed me in a district outside of Atlanta, Georgia.  Here are my thoughts on my itinerant teaching this year:


— The one-on-one relationship with the students.  I loved being able to go in and get to know each student — their strengths, weaknesses, interests, quirks.  I found that I greatly prefer talking with students and not at them.

— The driving.  This often comes up as a con for itinerant teachers who don’t like having to drive long distances between schools.  Most of my schools were within 15 minutes of each other (30 at the most), and I enjoyed the time I got to recharge between students.  I didn’t have to stand on my feet all day teaching class after class.

— The different schools.  (This is both a positive and a difficulty, more on that later.)  I enjoyed getting a feel for the culture of each school.  If one school had difficult teachers or limited work space, I only had to be in it for about 45 minutes at a time.  Not being a part of a teacher community in a school meant that I didn’t have the same support or sense of belonging — but I also probably missed a lot of drama.

— No extra duties.  I didn’t have lunch duties or recess duties or after school coaching, etc.  Of course if I had these I would do them cheerfully — but it was nice being able to focus on my lessons.

— On that note: no tests to create (I did make occasional assessments) or homework to grade.

— Freedom.  Itinerant work means a lot of freedom — freedom to move your schedule around, freedom to create your own lessons and worksheets without worrying about being responsible for your students to pass standardized tests, etc.

— Variety.  During my program, my advisor asked which age group I preferred and I told him that I had enjoyed them all.  (Although upon reflection and further experience, I definitely have some preferences.)  Being an itinerant meant that I could go from working with a nonverbal 10 year old to a highly functioning 8th grader.  I had a deaf-blind three year old and a football loving 12 year old.  With some students I was working on getting them to repeat noise patterns, and with others I worked with them on complicated math and science vocabulary.

— Co-workers and supervisor.  I lucked out with my co-workers and supervisor — they were all supportive, fun, thoughtful, professional, and deeply cared about the impact of their work.  My fellow TODs didn’t groan when I repeated questions or made mistakes or texted them about driving my car into a ditch.  They always offered advice without being condescending, they were gracious and helpful, and constructive.


— I came in without any training of the online IEP and data system that the district used; but I got lucky because they were in the process of starting a new system and I received the training with everyone else.

— Different schools.  Being in and out of schools meant that I wasn’t involved in a school enough to always be in the loop on certain events (field trips, testing, talent shows).  I often found out about these when I went to work with a student and he/she wasn’t there.

— Some of the classroom teachers I worked with were so stressed and busy that they rarely replied to emails.  I often had to ask several times for paperwork I needed from them.  (Most of the teachers were great and extremely supportive.)

— Levels of students.  I worked with preschoolers up to a senior in high school.  While this provided variety (which I loved), it also meant a lot more leg work in customizing lessons.

— My personality.  I am laid back and don’t like to ruffle feathers.  I also tend to listen more than speak when I am in meetings or groups that I don’t know.  I had to learn to be assertive (which often felt pushy) to advocate for my students’ needs.

These lists could go on a lot longer, but they do a pretty good job of giving you an idea of my experience as an itinerant teacher of the deaf this year.  I am excited for what next year will bring.

More than you know


Fall, 2012.

I like daffodils and orchids and sunshine and bubbles and kites and colorful tights and nailpolish and chai tea and small braids and…”  The first paragraph of my online dating profile was a run on sentence list of things I liked.

My friend A, a semi-fearless traveler with a penchant for adventure, was appalled, and declared that it didn’t reflect me at all.  I believe she thought I was portraying myself as a Giggle Giggle Hair Girl to attract men.

I am not a Giggle Giggle Hair Girl.  Not that I have anything against them — when that’s their genuine personality — it’s just not me.  Not that I don’t giggle — I am quick to laugh; one of my favorite games is fake laughing until you real laugh.  But I am not so good with the clothing that fits and matches, let alone outfits with jewelry, scarves, shoes, and hair.  Hair.  I started cutting my own hair when I was college-poor, and I haven’t stopped, even though my method of gathering it into a pony and lopping at it with kitchen scissors is hardly refined.

But I digress.

A thought I was putting on a Giggle Giggle Hair Girl facade, when in reality I was listing out the things that made me excited, many of which admittedly had a whiff of Zoey Deschanel to them.  (Who tends to fit into another trope, but in the pursuit of coining mine, I will omit it here.)  OK, but I don’t want to live in a world where liking bubbles (seriously, go look at one) and kites (so magical) is relegated to the realm of GGHGs.


I have a secret fantasy of going door to door soliciting people to buy copies of “Death of a Salesman.” I can understand your happiness at reading “Death on the Nile” while on the Nile.

This, among other thoughtful, humorous comments, was in his first message to me.   So I naturally friendzoned him, in about as literal a way possible:

I’m glad you contacted me! We’re clearly meant to be friends.

He was too extroverted, I decided.  And I wasn’t crazy about the picture of him posing in front of flowers.

And then…then we skyped.  For five hours.  And everything changed.


I should have known when you didn’t want to be seen reading Calvin and Hobbes on the metro.

As I was coming out of a previous relationship, I joked with people about “I should have knowns.”  I had spent over a year in a relationship, convinced that we would work out in spite of personality, cultural, and value differences.  We would work through sheer determination.  I kept trying to do x, y, z.  And then I was just trying to try.

Relationships are hard.  Marriage is hard.  It’s what everyone is always writing about, talking about, getting counseling for, wringing hands over, ending phrases in prepositions with.

Love is a choice.  It’s an action, a verb.

I still believe all of these things.  But start with a good foundation.


I caught the happy virus last night

When I was out singing beneath the stars.

It is remarkably contagious –

So kiss me.

– Hafiz

We were long distance for over a year.  Upside: it forced us to talk instead of do activities side by side.  Downside: Sharing life over a screen is nothing like sharing life. Upside: We appreciated every moment we had together. Downside: This meant we were obnoxious to hang out with for everyone else.

…and  I remember telling his sister that we were only disgusting because we were long distance.  Not to worry. Things would change.

I know that if we stick this out that one day we will fall out of love and have to remember to fall back in again.  That date nights will have to be scheduled, that we will have to remind ourselves to hold hands.  Maybe we will have children and turn into sleep-deprived passive aggressives.  We might hurt each other and wonder if forgiveness is ever possible.  We might take each other for granted, stop communicating, dig into ruts.  It will be work, it will be effort, it will be choices.

But.  For now we are a shmoopfest.  We are a stereotype.  We look into each other’s eyes and philosophize about what it means to stare into another’s eyes.  (Trust me, you should be glad we found each other because nobody else wants this mess.)  We create lists of countries we will visit and countries we will live in.  We spend hours over a beer at a brewery.  We look at each other’s hands, and cook for each other, and chase each other, and laugh.  We laugh a lot.  We are very seldom hungry.


“I’m running a little late because I’m in a grocery store…I’ll explain later.”

He is buying groceries for a homeless man again.  Why do they always want steak?


I was single for the first 22 years of my life.  And I loved it.  Being single was a wonderful experience for me, and the only reason I would give it up would be to be with someone who makes me better than I can be on my own.  Who wants to join me in exploring the world.  Who wants to live and give and share with others.  Who takes my ideals and runs with them.

Who fits with me on an emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual level.


“If you could travel back and live in any time period, what would it be?  What about the early 1900’s?”

“That would be cool, but I don’t think it would be a great time to be a woman.”

He didn’t want a Giggle Giggle Hair Girl.  But he did want her 2nd cousin, the Red Lips 40’s Heels Girl.  I only wear heels at weddings and funerals. I am slightly tilted when I walk. When I apply lipstick, I get a pinkish glow over and under my lips, and bits of red on my teeth.

I didn’t want Creative Dreamer Man.  I wanted Mechanical Engineer C++ Man.  But then, I didn’t know that being with him would be like coming home.

The traveler’s curse


“Don’t ever tell anyone anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

– Holden Caulfield

My brother says we weren’t so much raised as traveled.  (Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s in his unpublished book.  Sorry, Chris.)  And it’s true: one of my friends’ favorite pastimes is instructing me to give “the list” when someone asks where I’m from.  It’s rather a jerk move because when someone asks them about their day it’s not like I force them to list off their movements of every hour.

Don’t get me wrong — I loved it, the constant unknown, the exploration, the newness, tastes, smells, sounds of a different place.  I loved arriving at a new house, echoey and imposing, with empty rooms waiting to be chosen and filled.  I loved unwrapping our shipments and rediscovering possessions.  And I loved the people.  People from all over the world who became acquaintances, friends, family.

When someone asks about my childhood, about the moving, about the difficulty of packing up and leaving a place, I usually tell them I loved it but that it isn’t for everyone.  I don’t tell them about the indescribable ache when yet another best friend moved to a different continent.  I don’t tell them about my friends who found the moving depressing and semi-traumatic.  And I can’t tell them about what it feels like to have different places make residence in your body like so many unsolicited but vital organs.

Every memory, every move, every culture and friend and experience has infused my life with so much vivid color that I can’t help but write adjective-heavy blog entries extolling the virtues of the nomadic, international childhood.


Though I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world, there’s still the “otherness” that follows me like a shadow — easy to ignore in the right lighting, but occasionally starkly contrasted against my life.  It is the otherness of feeling that I don’t truly belong anywhere, which is an acceptable feeling during the occasional existential crisis, but not something you want on a regular basis.  I will never be fully American.  Nor can I claim to be Omani or from any combination of the Middle Eastern countries I love.  But the otherness shadow is always there.  It’s there when I bring up the craziness of Egyptian roads and people stare at me. (If you’re from Africa, why are you white?)  It’s there when I smell shisha or hear Arabic or crave Lebanese food.  And it’s also there when I’m in these countries and know that I do not share their heritage, their culture, their language and customs.


Having friends scattered across the world is wonderful, but achey.  The friend who talked to you late in the night about nothing and everything.  The friends who infused your life with brightness when you were wandering alone.  The friend you constantly laughed with because your weird sense of humors hit just right.  The friend who shaped your ideas and challenged your assumptions. The friends you shared life with, eating, joking, failing at exercising, singing, adventuring.  The friend you haven’t seen in 10 years who welcomes you to stay and everything has changed but nothing really has.

These people, who were so essential in illuminating your life during certain years, become distant with distance.  They, who were so colorful, are now fading, preserved in memory, on Facebook, on Skype, but not tangible, daily relationships. But they are part of you, and the more you move, the more of them you meet, the heavier your shadow becomes, filled with not just places but people.  And these people are not content to be a shadow: they are part of you, shaping you more distinctly than a place or a move.  It is something, trying to keep up with all these pieces of yourself, trying to preserve memories, let them go, wade through bouts of nostalgia, and, above all, being thankful for all the love that has been in your life. Past, present, and future.


It’s fine.  It’s growing up.  It’s TCKs…and everyone else.


Georgia on my mind


The skies are big here, and if that sounds redundant or cliche, you are right.  But you are also wrong.  Because “big” is the best way to describe them — no need for gaudy language like “vast” “endless” “immense” — these are Georgian, straightforward, you’re-in-the-south, big skies.  It’s something I had stopped thinking about, the sky, something that had been pushed to the periphery of my thoughts.  But when it’s big, and cloudy, and changing colors and textures in front of you, you start to notice.


“When you said ‘Georgia,’ I wasn’t sure you meant the state.  For all I knew it was the country,” he says and laughs.  It’s true.  I’ve been bouncing between states and countries since college — and before college — and Georgia the country was equally likely, if not more likely than Georgia the state.

“What brought you here,” I am asked, quite frequently.  That or, “Where’s your accent from?” I think of my accent as a sort of pan-American affair with a dash of California and Connecticut.  Newcastory.  The occasional British lilt or expressions have mostly disappeared, though I did disturb my sister-in-law with my pronunciation of “basil” (“a” as in cat) this summer, and I can’t quite bring myself to say “foy-er.

It’s a little strange though, planting myself in the South after a year in New England, a year in Korea, and a couple years in Europe.  I wanted warm weather, friendly faces, hearty food, and, yes, big skies.  I got all of these, along with some minor culture shock: different grocery stores, different values, lots of college football talk, greeting cards that unironically praise George Bush.  Nothing too unexpected (I’m a little Texan), but I didn’t realize that people actually carry guns on them.  There’s a weird comfort in knowing that I can have Chick-fil-a any time I want — it’s like a blanket wrapped around my shoulders when I didn’t know I was cold.


During a couple of my preteen years, we spent our summer in North Carolina, hiking up mountains and surveying the broccoli trees that covered the hilly surfaces.  It was warm, but we still had a jacuzzi, which was, and is, the height of human brilliance.  (A huge bathtub with bubbles that you can share with friends?  Yes, please.)  We would drive into Georgia for the cheaper gas.  That was my only interaction with the state until this year.  That and becoming a secondhand Braves fan through my little brother, Lord knows how he found them — the Braves seem to have that effect on people.


There are Southern phrases that I can’t say in my accent.  They just don’t sound right.  Are you from not-a-southern-American-state?  Say “Bless your heart.”  See?  “Heart” has to be soft and drawn out, not the “ar” in a pirate “argh.”  Same goes with the name “Peyton.”  I can’t say it.  For some reason I manage “y’all” just fine, probably because I believe very strongly in the need for second person plurals.

I’m just enough out of Atlanta (40 minutes) to where the accents have a decent oomph to them.  One lady with a drawl said that she had traveled to a vacation spot in Maine, and a local had been so excited about her accent that he took her by the hand and walked her around, having her speak to people.


All of that to say — I’ve moved to Georgia.  I’m working as an itinerant teacher of the deaf which is crazy awesome and intense.

A world without deaf people?



“So…do you think with the increases in technology that we’re heading towards a world without deaf people?”

He phrased the question slowly, thoughtfully, with genuine interest written on his face.

I looked at the girls sitting next to me; two of my housemates who have been with me in the MED program for almost a year.  One of them, K, is profoundly deaf — she has a CI and communicates orally, but she is also fluent in ASL(American Sign Language)/SEE(Signed Exact English).  We exchanged glances, and then launched into a flurry of explanations and corrections.

Why there isn’t a solution for Hearing Loss

– There is no “cure” for deafness.  When a deaf person removes his device, he can’t hear anything.

-The etiology (cause) of deafness varies, but there will never be a world where these don’t exist, unless it is a world without illness, genetics, and — let’s be real — humans.

– Hearing with a device (Cochlear Implant or Hearing Aid), is not “normal” hearing.  It is using 4-22 electrodes to replace tens of thousands of hair cells.  The quality and clarity of sound is different, as is the access to sound.  A deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) person who is aural/oral will struggle with listening in background noise, will deal with auditory fatigue, and will not always have access to every frequency.  (Certain speech sounds are in higher frequencies, like “s”.  If you can’t hear a sound, it will be difficult to produce.)

– Not everyone is a candidate for cochlear implants.  Whether it’s biology (absence of auditory nerve), neural capability, or not a significant enough loss (severe to profound).  Also, even if a person is a candidate, there’s no real way to know how she will do.  There are predictors and factors, but there are no guarantees.

Change the question

Asking about a world without deaf people is, to put it bluntly, considered offensive.  You can ask about improving technology, improving sound access, improving services and educational opportunities for DHH students.  But don’t ask about life without deaf people — there is nothing wrong with being deaf.  In fact, there is a Deaf community with traditions, culture, and values, who sign and value their identity as deaf individuals.

Many people in the Deaf (capitalizing the “D” refers to culturally deaf people)  community resent the field aural/oral deaf education because they see it as an attempt to “fix” something that’s not broken.  The oral approach is also threatening because it takes away the future members of their small community.


After explaining these ideas, and dialoguing about our classes and the various methods needed to teach DHH students, my roommates and I walked back to the car.  It felt like our first opportunity to educate someone about deaf education, using all the information we had learned this year.  (Undoubtedly K has spent her entire life educating people about hearing loss, but it was even a first for her in regards to the amount of knowledge we’ve acquired over this year.)

What is a TOD?

I’ve learned a lot this year.  An unbelievable amount, really.  Naturally, it’s the tip of the iceberg — but it’s a sizable tip, and a great starting point for continuing my foray into the field of deaf education and the trenches of teaching.  I still have questions every day.  Every. Single. Day.  Like, a million.  Like, an annoy-my-teacher-and-classmates-because-my-hand-is-perpetually-stuck-in-the-air amount.

Deaf education is anything and everything but static.  It is a world of fluidity, of nuances, of “it depends on the student”s and “it depends on the circumstances”s.  Because, when it comes down to it, no two cases are the same.  The loss is different, the family is different, the resources are different, the neurological makeup is different, the IQ and aptitude are different, the district is different — everything needs to be tailored for each student.

And so, we are jugglers.  We are teachers of language, advocacy, academics, social skills.  We are educators, advocates, role models, referrers.  We are invested.  In the child, in his future, in her hobbies, in his social life, in her college dreams.

And, on a vaguely related note, we are pushers.

On Lent, Facebook, and Bill Watterson

I gave up Facebook for Lent.  I’ve done this for a few years now — I wonder what sort of dip in site usage Facebook sees over these forty days.  I wonder if whoever is in charge of retention at Facebook finds it worrisome that some users consider it as a vice on par with smoking or fatty foods.  Or maybe they are pleased at the idea of Facebook being an uncontrollable urge which, naturally, will be returned to after the forty days.

I enjoy Facebook.  I like sharing and interacting and having access to friends and family across the world.  But when I think about my values, about the type of relationships I would like to cultivate, the type of interests I want to pursue — Facebook is at best a neutral addition to my life.  At worst, it is a distraction from all of these areas.  I think Matt Steele discusses its potential for inauthenticity pretty well — “I can carefully curate my life to look like a shimmering stream of Hallmark moments.”

So I gave it up for forty days.  Because it was a distraction to school, to work, and to real life.  Because I have more meaningful ways to spend my time.  And on a similar/unrelated note (can we create a word for that?), I’m leaving some thoughts from Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes:

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

And, if you have time, check out JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Commencement speech: