Teaching the deaf is demanding, but immensely rewarding, writes Paul Norris.
TO establish a career as a primary teacher requires dedication and training in a wide range of professional skills including early childhood development, linguistics, arts, numeracy and literacy.
But what extra is demanded of a primary teacher when their students are deaf?
Jan Wigley has always been interested in educating deaf children, but she first established a career in primary education in a mainstream school specialising in literacy and co-ordinating prep to grade four. Inspired to study further, she applied herself to qualify as a primary school teacher of the deaf.
"My background is that I've done normal primary school teacher training and then a graduate diploma in special education majoring in hearing impairment. I have a qualification to teach hearing-impaired students, and I've also done a bachelor of education in integration as well,'' says Wigley. Wigley is acting co-ordinator of 30 students between prep and Grade 6 in the deaf facility with seven other specialist teachers at Melbourne's Rosanna Golf Links Primary School, a mainstream school of around 260 students.
Wigley says there is a drastic shortage of primary teachers who have a specialist qualification in teaching children with a hearing impairment. "As people know, (many) primary school teachers are starting to retire and we're going to be short of primary teachers -- and teachers for the deaf are already in short supply.'' According to Deaf Children Australia (DCA) there are around 16,000 deaf children in Australia needing professional specialist teachers. Australia has about 860 teachers of the deaf working with children.
Margaret Brown, an associate professor and head of early learning development and inclusion in the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne, says that in the past 20 years the major changes in the education of deaf children have related to new technology. "When I first started teaching deaf children we had pretty primitive hearing aids. Now we've got these more sophisticated models that we can do a lot more with. I think that the options for deaf children are better, and the outcomes for children are much improved. But they still remain deaf children, even though we have [bionic ear] implants and hearing aids. They still require intervention but I think we can aim higher nowadays for these children.''
Hearing loss in most deaf children is permanent and may even deteriorate as they age. Wigley's school ensures children are well equipped with the latest hearing aids, which teachers check daily. They also use the latest educational PC software designed for users with a hearing impairment.
"Australian Hearing visit here monthly and they check all the children's hearing aids and monitor their ability to hear, which is just a fantastic service. About half the students wear hearing aids and the other half have implants,'' says Wigley. Various modes of sign language support are also used in education, and several parents of deaf children in Australia have recently demanded through legal challenges that their children be given more professional specialised individual learning support.
According to DCA, Auslan is recognised as the nationally accepted sign language of Australia's deaf community. While Auslan might be the main sign language, there are secondary sign languages used as well. Auslan can be studied at Year 12 and Melbourne's Kangan Batman TAFE college also offers diploma and certificate level courses in Auslan, integration aides, notetaking and interpreters.
Damian Lacey, chief executive of DCA, says 83 per cent of hearing impaired children in Australia attend mainstream schools. He indicates there will be more challenging career options for teachers of the deaf in the future. "Parents are wanting more highly skilled professionals to be engaged with their children from a range of competencies -- from auditory-verbal therapy to appropriate Auslan skills to more speech support skills and a whole lot of people, interpreters and note takers,'' says Lacey.
Jan Branson, director of the National Institute for Deaf Studies (NIDS) at La Trobe University, says the Department of Education in Victoria has already funded a teacher of Language Other Than English ( LOTE) retraining scheme which allows teachers of the deaf to retrain as Auslan teachers or work as bilingual teachers in state schools.
"NIDS is staffed predominantly by deaf people who do all the language teaching. We provide instruction in Auslan at all levels, training for LOTE bilingual teachers and provide special access for deaf students who wish to study and become community language teachers or work as teacher aides in schools,'' says Branson.
Marilyn Dann is a lecturer in the University of Melbourne's education faculty and has been a teacher of the deaf for 27 years. She would love to have many more currently employed teachers to do their postgraduate course. "There are so many vacancies within the field, and it really is a very rigorous course. It requires a great deal of commitment either over the year doing the course in one full-time year or part-time over a couple of years,'' says Dann.
Wigley says as acting co-ordinator of a deaf teaching facility she's faced many challenges. "Looking and assessing each of the children's needs and being able to teach accordingly to develop the child is just a key thing. We don't want them to be really different, we want them to be part of all that goes on here at school because what the facility's here is for an inclusive education,'' says Wigley.
Branson suggests hearing people who wish to become teachers of the deaf must understand that deaf people in Australia consider themselves a linguistic minority, not a disabled group.
"Therefore anyone wishing to teach in that area must have an excellent knowledge of their language and culture,'' says Branson.
Brown advises student teachers of the deaf need a lot of knowledge about how language develops in young children through the years of schooling. "A good teacher of the deaf also needs the attributes of being able to problem solve, to assess that child's performance and plan an appropriate intervention program that's individualised to that student. Those would be the major qualities that a good teacher of the deaf would have,'' says Brown.
Rosanna Golflinks PS
Melbourne University Post Graduate Diploma in Educational Studies ( Hearing Impaired)
Deaf Children Australia
National Institute for the Deaf
By Paul Norris, The Weekend Australian, August 26, 2006.