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?