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

teach

“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.

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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.

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I’ve spoken with burnt out SLPs (Speech Language Pathologists) 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.

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

“So it’s lies.”

“Well…no.”

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.

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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:

Positives:

— 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.

Challenges:

— 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.