A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes

It was two days before the semester began. I was sitting in my office preparing for class when the phone rang. I looked at the call display and saw that it was the department head calling me.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Hi, Sarah. I just wanted to give you the head’s up that you have a student with a disability in your class this semester.”

We get at least one student with either a physical or learning disability every semester, so this was nothing new. As instructors we were used to working with the disability resource centre on campus to help accommodate students with “learning needs”, as they were called.

“OK…?” I queried, wondering why this situation warranted a phone call.

The department head hesitated and said, “She’s deaf.”

I had taught a blind student once, but never a deaf student. I was a bit baffled. There are four primary skills in language learning: reading, writing, speaking and listening. I wondered how I was going to handle the latter two with this student.

The department head continued, “She would like to come to see you today if that is OK?”

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know.” I went back to my course preparation, wondering how in the world I was going to teach a deaf student Spanish.

Little did I know at the time that Zaina would be the first of two deaf students I would encounter in my career and that experience later lead to project work in the area of Deaf  Literacy.

But at the time, I was apprehensive and unsure of what to do.

First contact

An hour later, Zaina showed up at the door, accompanied by her cousin, Hiba. She beamed a smile and waved hello. I smiled, waived back and motioned for them both to come into the office and sit down.

My first surprise was that Zaina was multilingual. Her native language was Arabic and she was also fluent in English, French and American Sign Language (ASL). Spanish would be her fifth language, she said, but it would be her first time taking a language course as part of her post-secondary education. She was very focused on doing well in school and so, had asked Hiba to enroll in the course with her.

Hiba, who was also multilingual and fluent in ASL was as interested in learning Spanish as she was in helping her cousin succeed.

Zaina, explained that she had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant, which allowed her to hear to some extent. She said if she did not understand something that Hiba could translate it from English in to ASL for her.

I said that since it was a second language class, that most of the class was to be taught in Spanish, though I began to understand that I would need to change things up a bit for this situation.

Learning from my student

I confessed that I had never taught a deaf student before and that I would rely on her to tell me what she needed.

She asked for 3 things. “First,” she said. “We’d like to sit at the front of the room so I have a clear view of you and can watch you as you are teaching. Would that be OK?”

A student asking to sit at the front of the class? Heck, yeah! That would be easy.

“Second,” she said. “It will help if I can see you while you are talking.” She said that she found it difficult when teachers would write on the board and speak at the same time.

I replied, “Well, that’s just bad teaching, regardless of whether your students are deaf or not.” She nodded in agreement.

“Lastly, it will help if I can ask you about things I do not understand. Would that be OK?”

Again, this seemed like a no-brainer to me. Zaina explained though, that she had previously had teachers who got impatient if she asked for clarification during the class. I replied that it would be helpful, in fact, if she did ask questions as we went along.

Within a few moments I figured out that Zaina was very much in charge of her own learning. She demonstrated self-awareness, discipline, high levels of interest and engagement and self-regulation. She knew what she needed and was not shy about asking for it.

Adapted learning (and teaching)

As a result of Zaina’s being in my class, here are actions I took:

More “prepared” visual aids. Previous to that point, I had incorporated visual notes and explanations spontaneously into the class. With Zaina there, I prepared more PowerPoints so that the visuals could stand alone as an explanation. It turned out that other students loved them, too.

I stopped moving around the classroom. I used to circulate around the classroom during  a lesson, talking as I went. Sometimes, I even taught for a few minutes from the back of the room. With Zaina in my class, I made sure to remain in her range of vision at all times.

I paid more attention to what I was saying. As a trained speaker and Toastmaster, I learned to become aware of the “um”s and “ah”s in my speech. With a deaf student I focussed on using precise, concise language.

I asked her what made sense for her. I knew that I was venturing into uncharted territory. I asked her to help me, help her. The end result was a collaborative approach to learning that proved successful.

I opened myself up to trying new things. I knew I had some teaching techniques that worked well, regardless of the group. At the same time, I was not so stuck on what had worked in the past that I was not willing to risk trying something new as we went along.

Inspired insight

Working with Zaina made me realize that no matter how hard I tried and how much I prepared, I would never know exactly how to teach every single student 100% of the time. There are some teachers who are deeply convinced that their techniques are superior to others’ techniques. They will say with seductive (if not a little dogmatic) charisma that their methods are really amazing.

In the early years of my teaching career, I listened to a few teachers like that. I even tried to be like a couple of them. They were so convinced of their methods that it was nearly impossible not to be seduced by their unwavering belief in themselves.

Working with Zaina, and other students I have had since then, showed me that it is impossible for a teacher have all the answers. In fact, thinking that you do have all the answers means that you necessarily are not willing to consider other ways of doing things. Being a leader or a teacher or a role model does not mean figuring out the one right way to do things and then convincing others that your way is right. For me, at least, it means a constant and unrelenting search to learn more techniques and strategies and adopting the practice of “resilient adaptability” in my professional practice. That means being resilient enough to deal with unexpected challenges and adaptable enough to figure out new solutions as you go along.

How about you? How have people you have worked with prompted you to try things differently, open yourself up to new ways of doing things and improve your own professional practice? What worked? What didn’t?

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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