Signs of the Times
As the number of programs for teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing decline, SJU’s online master’s degree is reaching across the country — and the world — to fulfill a growing need for educators.
By Maura Sullivan Hill
Zaineb Abdulla ’18 met six-year-old Jana in a refugee camp in Lebanon in 2017. The young girl’s hearing loss was so severe that even hearing aids couldn’t help, and she was unable to communicate with her mother and sister, with whom she had fled from the Syrian civil war. Abdulla, whose parents are from Iraq, was in Lebanon with Deaf Planet Soul, a nonprofit based in Chicago that offers programs, support and job training for the deaf. When she and a fellow aid worker started teaching Jana sign language, the child learned her name for the first time.
“Now this kid has a future, because she has a language,” says Abdulla, a student in the SJU online Master of Science in Education-Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing PK-12 Certification program. “She started laughing when she learned her name, and her mom was sobbing with joy.”
Abdulla, vice president of Deaf Planet Soul, was motivated to serve among the Deaf Community after her own progressive hearing loss started when she was in college. On annual aid missions to Lebanon, Deaf Planet Soul provides hearing evaluations and hearing aids and also teaches sign language, addressing widespread hearing loss caused by the war.
That’s why the online format of the SJU program works so well for Abdulla — she spent three weeks overseas without falling behind in her schoolwork.
The program has grown steadily in the four years since its launch in 2014, as others are closing because of a low number of graduate students and expensive operating costs. Only four completely online Deaf Education programs exist in the U.S., and Saint Joseph’s has the highest number of students.
“We’re making it possible for people to become certified in teaching the deaf and hard of hearing, whether they live on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, on Navajo reservations in Arizona or places where the nearest training program is 10 hours away,” says Samuel B. Slike, D.Ed., director of Special Education Online Programs at SJU.
The SJU master’s degree is part of the Michigan Consortium, a partnership among nine universities that provides certification for Michigan teachers to work with deaf and hard of hearing students, in response to a shortage of Deaf Educators in the state.
“The program’s exponential growth is a testament to its quality and the need for this specialization in our schools today,” says Special Education Chairperson Virginia Goulding Johnson, Ph.D.
Only four completely online Deaf Education programs exist in the United States. Saint Joseph’s has the highest number of students.
Jenny Stewart ’16 (M.S.) was working successfully as an American Sign Language (ASL) instructor, but she aspired to teach students about Deaf Culture and ASL at the college level. Her next step was to pursue a master’s degree in Deaf Education. The problem? No schools in her home state of Michigan offered graduate programs in the field.
Relocating to get her degree was not an option for Stewart. She was already managing a thriving family business, Signing Online, that offers ASL courses; juggling an adjunct teaching job at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan; and expecting a baby. Just when she thought she would to have to give up her dream of teaching at the college level, she found Saint Joseph’s online Master of Science program in education of the deaf and hard of hearing.
“I worked full time and had a baby, all while getting my degree,” says Stewart. Today, she is a professor at Henry Ford College, teaching American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.
The online format allows for a geographically diverse student population as well as a varied set of learning types. Some of the students in the program are deaf or hard of hearing themselves, while others are hearing students. Slike’s courses demonstrate the concept of Universal Design — a fully accessible and flexible environment for all learners including his deaf, hard of hearing and hearing students.
Because most Deaf Education programs focus on either ASL or oral teaching methods, SJU’s comprehensive approach is a selling point for prospective graduate students, who work in all facets of the field, from public or private schools to colleges and universities.
Held in the evening to accommodate students who work full-time, classes meet via a platform called Zoom, which has video, voice and text chat features, as well as screen-sharing.
When Slike asks the class a question from his office in Philadelphia, a deaf student in Chicago can respond using ASL, while a hearing student in Michigan may speak the answer. At the same time, the conversations are close-captioned at the bottom of the screen, and all the students, no matter where they are located, can view the interaction on their computers and participate if they choose to. An inset video on the computer screen captures respondents and allows Slike to call on them during discussions. All class sessions are archived for students to watch later.
“Our student teachers work with local-area cooperating teachers, who complete five assessments and act as mentors on a daily basis during the 14 weeks of mandatory full-time student teaching,” says Slike. “Our students are also required to teach two video lessons, which I access online to view and evaluate.”
This type of classroom experience, not limited by location, is why the Saint Joseph’s program is thriving and increasing enrollment, according to Slike, who has worked in Deaf Education for 40 years. “This is the classroom of the future,” he says.
This article is freelance writer and editor Maura Sullivan Hill’s first assignment for Saint Joseph’s University Magazine.