Tracy Boland has identical twin boys. And although one is hearing and one is deaf, they’ve been in school together since their very first day of preschool. Boland credits Clarke’s Katie Jennings as an immeasurable part of her son Will’s success.
Jennings has worked with 10-year-old Will—who has a bilateral, profound sensorineural hearing loss and uses bilateral cochlear implants—since first grade. Based out of Clarke’s Boston-area location, Jennings is an itinerant teacher of the deaf who travels to mainstream schools around Eastern Massachusetts to ensure that students with hearing loss are given the best possible chance for success in what may be a challenging and completely new setting. Sometimes she meets with teachers, other times with students, and often both.
“It’s common for me to encounter teachers who’ve never worked with a student who is deaf before. While most are familiar with sign language, they have never seen a cochlear implant or a digitized hearing aid before. Nor have they used a personal FM system—a small microphone/transmitter that sends signals directly to a student’s amplification device on the ear. So, in addition to providing teachers with strategies which help students learn more effectively, I spend a lot of time teaching teachers about technology and equipment management.”
Because so many students who are deaf can now listen and converse quite well, teachers often don’t realize that they can fall behind. Quickly. Itinerants can often help tease out the root of a problem, and offer a simple fix before it morphs into something more serious.
“Sometimes,” explains Jennings, “a classroom teacher thinks a student has a behavior or a learning issue, when in fact, the issue is a hearing one. Children with hearing loss work so much harder throughout the school day than their peers with typical hearing. It’s possible that they may have some listening fatigue and seem distracted. The teacher may be wearing the necklace to the FM system incorrectly; or a scarf may be muffling her voice.” Regardless, students can sometimes miss key parts of lessons without realizing it.
“A big part of my goal working with students is to build their awareness and self-confidence so they can approach classroom teachers with things they may be struggling with. For instance, they may be assigned to sit next to a humming computer or in the back of the class where they can hear sounds in a nearby hallway. Those little noises can really affect the way that a child accesses the teacher’s voice.”
Claire Troiano, director of Clarke’s Mainstream Services, believes that the itinerant teacher of the deaf is key to many students’ academic success. Often, she says, it is this relationship which can make the difference between a student keeping up with classmates versus constantly catching up. “Itinerant teachers can’t possibly teach the academic content of all classes. So, a large part of their work is helping prepare students for classes they might be struggling with. They provide students with background information, context, vocabulary and the speech and language of a specific curriculum. Follow-up includes making sure the student understands the concepts of the lesson, and that they can talk and write about that particular topic.”
“As an itinerant,” says Jennings, “my job is to help students address any areas of communication breakdown, anywhere in the school setting. So, when social issues present themselves—on the playground, in the lunchroom—I help my students understand the situation, and help navigate a solution.”
Sometimes the itinerant teacher is the only person who knows where the child came from, where the child is now and where the child and the family hope that child will go in the future with his or her education. Because of this familiarity, Jennings finds that sometimes it’s helpful for a teacher to “observe how I work with that student; how I phrase certain things, how I wear the FM system, or even where I stand in the room.”
Jennings’ enthusiasm for learning is infectious. And it doesn’t take long for her warmth and accessible demeanor to put others at ease. Watching Katie and Will interact, one can’t help but notice their very deep connection. “From the very start,” Boland explains, “Katie made it her business to get to know Will on a personal level. She fostered that relationship and has created more trust between herself and Will than we could have ever imagined possible. She has helped him navigate his mainstream schools just beautifully.”
Jennings greatly admires many things about her students. “What I admire the most,” she says, “is their positivity and their willingness to take any challenge and run with it. They are faced with a huge challenge, which they work very hard to overcome. It’s amazing to see them succeeding and being a part of their class just like the other kids.”
“Will,” says Jennings, “is really a brilliant student who makes school and reading fun. He is also one of the most creative students I’ve ever worked with. He uses these really funny little accents when telling stories, and has a great group of friends. This fall we presented together at a conference to a packed house. Will was walking around the room addressing questions, just like a talk show host! I feel so grateful that I get to work with him, as well as his family.” The feeling is mutual. “Katie,” says Boland, “makes us feel like we face every school year as a team, the greatest cheerleader and advocate of which is Katie! We feel grateful every day and every year that Will gets to have her on his team. Thank you, Clarke!”
Read the full article about Katie and Will and his family on pages 8 and 9 of the Spring 2015 issue of Clarke Speaks
Watch Will's video as his twin brother interviews him.