Finding Our Voices

August 17, 2017

Through my district’s Teacher of the Year process, I told myself that no one would see the value in what I do compared to the other fine teachers on that stage. I teach PreK, for goodness sake!  People think all we do is play! The other finalists taught AP classes and led outstanding clubs and committees.  However, on the night of the awards ceremony, one of my fellow finalists said something that helped me to see it all from a different perspective. “We all work with kids who choose to learn, we just help them achieve more.  You help your kids actually become someone.”  That comment caused me to stop and think, and to realize that I have to be a louder advocate for my students.  Not many people understand where our students start and the difficult road they face. What is it that my colleagues and I do that makes us different from every other elementary classroom? Let me give you a brief glimpse into our world.

I teach Deaf/Hard of Hearing children, ages 3 to 5 in a separate classroom in a regular school.  Our county has two options for preschool: an aural/oral track and a total communication track.  I have spent almost 29 years in the latter.  Although the technology has changed considerably over the years, the philosophical issues remain.  From the time their child’s hearing loss is diagnosed, parents are faced with conflicting professional opinions as to how best to communicate. What seems to get lost in this war of philosophies is that establishing effective communication as soon as possible is non-negotiable when it comes to future success. To develop a sense of self, to build relationships, to organize and make sense of the world, a child needs language.  There is no time to wait.  Unfortunately, many of my students are products of playing the waiting game.  Their parents do not learn sign language for fear they will not talk or because they are intimidated by learning another language.

Most people assume our children are simply ESL students and should be treated as such.  My class is very different than an ESL class.  ESL students enter with a first language to which connections are made with a second language.  My students enter school with no language.  They don’t know their names, their family members’ names, or the names for the things they see every day.  In our classroom, we provide repeated hands-on experiences to which students can attach meaning through the signs and speech we are modeling.  Working closely with our speech pathologist and classroom interpreter/aides, we bombard our children with language from the time they arrive at school until the time they board the bus home.  We encourage parents to use sign along with speech at home, sending weekly vocabulary picture cards and posting online story videos to help parents support the learning occurring at school. We must have that communication at home.  Without that, our children will struggle emotionally, academically, and behaviorally.

Walking through my door on any given day, you will see a busy and very noisy (Most people assume our classes will be silent) classroom.  Learning is anchored to visuals plastered around the room.  We eat breakfast and lunch together, learning the names for foods and practicing manners that hearing children learn at home.  A good portion of our day is spent on social skills, learning our names, names of people in our classroom community and how to appropriately interact with each other. We also use calendar time to make sense of the events occurring in our home and school lives, including birthdays and how old we are. Sandwiched between are math, literacy, fine and gross motor skills. Walking out my door at the end of a school year are children who have started establishing a sense of self and a foundation on which to build future social and academic success.

Chris Arenth, NBCT

Chris graduated from Cocoa Beach High School, then received her Bachelor’s Degree in Speech Pathology/Audiology from Florida State University, and her Master’s Degree in Deaf Education from the University of North Florida. She taught in Duval and Putnam counties before coming to Orange County Public Schools in 1989. For the past 28 years, Chris has worked with Deaf/Hard of Hearing children at Lake Sybelia Elementary, first as the speech clinician, then as a classroom teacher. She currently teaches preschool in the Total Communications Program. Chris received her National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist in 2003 and served as a Master Teacher with the DeafEd.Net Join Together Project. Outside of her school life, Chris enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren, doing yoga, interpreting at her church and spending time at the beach.