Can You Hear Me Now?

I’m a special needs teacher– not that I teach kids with special needs– I, myself, have special needs.  I’m hard of hearing with little hearing in my left ear and about 65% in my right.  I wear a hearing aid in my right ear, and most of the time everything sounds like it’s coming from that side.  It makes life interesting. Especially when I spend the majority of my day with teenagers.  Who. Can. Be. Oblivious.

My first group of students didn’t get it.  I told them about my hearing and what I needed them to do, and it literally fell on deaf ears.  Kids mumbled.  They spoke without raising their hands, so I didn’t know who spoke.  They got frustrated with me.  One kid refused to repeat himself, and when I told him that I was interested in what he had to say, he responded, “I don’t like to say things twice” (hint, then don’t go into the teaching profession).  If I asked for things to be repeated they rolled their eyes snidely retorting, “never mind.”  My level of frustration was through the roof.  After another “never mind”, I let loose.

“Look guys, I can’t hear.” I pulled out my hearing-aid. “See, I’m not kidding.  I can’t hear.  It’s not my choice to not hear you.  I’m not joking.  This isn’t fun.  I need your help.  I’ve told you I need your help. What do you do?  You roll your eyes.  Refuse to repeat yourself.  Cover your mouths so I can’t see what you’re saying.  Mumble.  Say “never mind”.  Look I need your help.  I takes a lot of energy to hear what you are saying.  What if I treated you the way you treat me? What if you asked me for help and I rolled my eyes at you?  If I knew exactly what you needed, but refused to give it to you because I didn’t feel like it?  Have I ever done that to you?  NO.  I’m sorry that I can’t hear.  I’m sorry that you have to deal with it, but I have to deal with all of the time.  The least you could do is help me.”

I stopped when one of my students began to cry.  Life got better after that.  It wasn’t perfect, but my louder students repeated what the soft-spoken ones said. Students pointed to the student who spoke, so I had a frame of reference.  When I asked, “who said that?”, the speaker happily raised his or her hand.  There were still some challenges in other classes.  I caught one kid making fun of my hearing and I skewered him: “Do you think you’re the first person who’s ever made fun of me?  You’re not.  The others who have made fun of me?  I don’t even think about them.  They mean nothing to me.  Do you want to be in that group?”  I joke about my hearing with my students so I can laugh at myself, but one student took the joking too far and wouldn’t stop until I asked him if he wanted a referral that said he was making fun of the hard-of-hearing teacher.  He got the picture.   I’m not this harsh or direct in every instance. I know the kids who will respond to it, and then there are others who I ask to stay after class to discuss their behavior.

After my first term I needed a way to get my kids to understand what I needed from them.  Just telling them the first day didn’t work.  They didn’t pay attention. I needed a more formal means of communication and decided on writing them a letter to give them on the first day of school.  In it I wrote about my life, my hobbies, my education, and my hearing. I clearly laid out how much hearing I have, what I do to hear them, and what I need them to do for me.  On the first day of class we read the letter together.  They all absorb the information, and I think seeing it in print makes it more real to them.  Afterwards they can ask questions if they want to.  Then I ask them to write me a letter all about themselves and their challenges.  Their letters are candid and many of them share their struggles and what they need help with.  It is their moment to tell me about their quirks.

The letter hasn’t been a fool-proof solution– nothing in high school ever is, but it’s helped a lot.  When a student doesn’t help me, the others are quick to admonish him or her.  They have even said, “Dude, remember the letter?”.  There are other benefits from reading their letters: I learn all kinds of stuff about them. They share some of the most amazing experiences to the most trivial of details (“I like purple shoes!”).  Some tell me who they have problems with in class, so I know not to seat them together.  The best part is knowing what their interests are, so when I explain things in class I can compare the concept to their interest.  I often will talk to them about their interests as they come into class. Letters help build those teacher-student connections that are so vital for classroom success. After reading each letter I write a couple of comments, so the students know I read it, and then hand them back.

On my desk is a new letter to be read with the class on Monday, and I await to see what my student’s responses bring.

Readers: What do you do to help build connections with others?  Or Teachers: What effective strategies do you have to build connections with students?  What classroom challenges have you had to overcome?

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21 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. I can’t imagine teaching older kids. Touche. The letter is such a great idea. Not only so that your voice is heard, but that the kids know that you care about theirs as well. It’s bound to make the rest of the year a lot smoother.

    1. There’s pros and cons to both older and younger kids. I’ve worked with both groups, and my personality and sense of humor is better suited for older kids. The letter does make the school year smoother. There’s a saying among teachers, “They don’t care until they know how much you care.” And it’s true. When students know that their teacher cares, they will do things they really don’t like doing because that teacher asked them to. It’s really quite something when that happens; for me, it lets me know that I have their trust and it makes me be more on their side. Kids really just want to know that someone hears them and understands them on some level (even it’s just through a shared love of macaroni and cheese).

  2. Was this intentional, “I told them about my hearing and what I needed them to do, and it literally fell on deaf ears.” ?? Clever, clever.

    1. (yes.) Thank you. Most days in the classroom I feel like I’m speaking Swahili, and I’ll even ask them, “Am I speaking Swahili?”. It’s often that I think they should have the hearing aid.

  3. Wow…you really said that? Can I just say this – you are one kick ass awesome teacher!
    Also, I can somewhat understand the stresses of having issues with hearing – I suffer from tinnitus of the right ear and that frequently gives me grief.
    In answer to your q…to gain connections with people – I often just tell them outright – if they don’t listen, then I know that they are not worth my time. If they can’t take into account my considerations like I take into account theirs, then I sever connections. Of course, you couldn’t do that in your position, and I’m glad the letter thing worked. My year 12 legal studies teacher asked us to do the same thing – didn’t turn out so well…in case you didn’t know, never tell an avid Star Wars fan that you love Star Wars. The teacher asked me to bring a light sabre to class and have a duel…I told him I didn’t have one and thought that it would end – nope – he brought two and asked me to duel him in front of the class. Well, permission to hit a teacher…awesome I thought…not so much it would seem – I played the part of the dark knight, given the red light sabre and all – and after a few quick taps I caused his light sabre to snap in half. An elegant weapon from a more civilised time? I think not. FYI – great post!

    1. Man, your teacher sounds like a total dork. A light saber competition? With a student? Sounds like he was trying too hard. Great story, though! I sometimes get ringing in my ears, and it totally sucks– can’t hear anything! I don’t know how you manage having it often.

  4. Teens can be tough. I can relate to the hearing issue somewhat, as I found I was hearing less I went in to a ENT and he found I have a hereditary condition where I have diminished hearing over time. Age hasn’t much to do with it, at least not yet. The eye rolls, the “never minds,” the mumbling are all frustrating. Honesty seems to be the solution. “Hey, I can’t hear so well and I need your help.” Most teens seem to get on board when they realize that there is a vulnerability about us.

    1. Yes, kids as a whole are very sweet, supportive, and sometimes more empathetic than adults. They will help and appreciate an up-front approach. My first group was just stubborn. Sometimes it does feel like they forget that we’re human, though.

      What are your options for your hearing? Will you get a hearing aid? I always thought those big horns that they used back in the old days would be pretty cool… : )

  5. I too was a teacher with a hearing loss. I taught technology to middle/high school students… As I was reading your post, it was like you had been in my classroom. I wish I used a letter!! The cool thing about your post… ALL teachers hearing or otherwise could really benefit from this letter writing tool! Kudos!! Best of luck for the NEW school year.

    On a side note: I think the letter writing is a great tool for deafies and HOH in any work setting to lay the foundation for their communication needs in the workplace. I’m sharing this on my twitter feed. Deaf Girl Amy 🙂

    1. Thank you for your nice comment and sharing my post! All teachers require patience with students, but I don’t think many realize how much more we have to work to get what is said and how tiring it can be. As you know, listening involves focus, reading lips and body language, translating the words into what they really said, and just being vigilant in general. For you, I imagine that you had the additional barrier of computer screens blocking your students’ faces or having their backs turned toward you. Eek! I like your idea of using the letter in the workplace– most people “get it”, but there are those with confused ideas about how to communicate with us who could use some clarification. BTW– I’m a HOH Amy. 🙂

  6. What a great idea! What I think might make it connect more with the kids is that you give them a chance to do the same thing. It so important to make them feel like they’re being heard–figuratively, not literally. It also helps them see how serious you are about your needs.

    1. Thank you. It has worked really well, because– as you stated– they feel heard and important. Another strategy that makes the letters more effective is follow-thru by discussing with them something they wrote. Even though I write on their letters, some don’t really understand that I actually read them until I talk to them about their interests.

  7. I love this post 🙂 learnt a lot on communication troubles of persons with hearing problems thru not just ur post but also ur comments… it does take a lot of energy and vigilance… love ur way of writing letters… it feels very personal and shows that someone really cares .. I shall use it in some way in my career.. Thanks Amy 🙂

    1. Thank you, Asifa! Letters have a variety of applications for sure, and with your interest in politics and public well-being, I’m sure you will find a great way to use them.

  8. Every day we have opening ceremonies where we do pledges, discuss things, sing, etc… But without a doubt, the moment of favor are when I tell college stories… Now granted, many of my stories I wouldn’t tell in ANY school, let alone a Christian one… lol. BUT, I’m continually amazed at the humanizing effect it has on their opinion of me, and the staff in general. And I generally talk pretty openly about things like my depression, whether I might have had a bad day yesterday, etc. The fact that we as teachers literally represent “learning”, and in particular our “subject”, is a little overwhelming to them and us. I really like the letter idea. My mother, the original administrator of the school, tends to frighten some of the kids, as she’s pretty intense…until they learn that she was the youngest of 5 kids in a moonshine-making and running family in North Carolina, and that she spent two years of high school in Canada after an aunt adopted them out of that incredibly poor and dangerous life. I’m not sure why we get this incredible wall/pedestal between us and them where they believe us to be the enemy, untouchable, non-human, etc. but anything we can do to bridge that gap is good. Great article!

    1. I think kids have a lot of baggage with teachers… Some can be very mean and dispiriting. We also represent “authority”, and it’s the kids’ job to fight against it. So, you’re right on in that the more human we are, the more understanding they are. Your mom sounds like quite a lady!

  9. My elementary and middle schoolers always get letters, but not the high school and I think it is a fabulous idea! Of course my 17 year old NEVER brings anything home for me. Your students are lucky to have you and thank you for creating some empathy in our future generations

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