Danielle O’Connell has been a Hearing Education Services teacher for eight years, the last seven in a self-contained classroom of 12 children in grades 3-5 at P4 at PS 109 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.
How did you become a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing?
It actually started when I was 10 years old. I joined a sign language club at my public library in Centereach, Long Island. We met once a week and learned to sign stories and music. I stayed with it through high school and became a mentor to younger children in the club. I took Spanish in high school and discovered I’m not an auditory learner. Language was hard for me. I’m a visual learner and a kinesthetic learner — meaning hands-on. That led me to undergraduate work at St. Bonaventure in upstate New York and the discovery that being a teacher of the deaf was an option. I did my graduate work at Canisius College in Buffalo, which is affiliated with St. Mary’s School for the Deaf. It was a full immersion program.
What do you wish people understood about your students?
The majority of our students take standardized tests and regular classes with modification and adaptation. These are normal children with normal interests, but they are lacking in language because a lot of times parents don’t realize how hearing loss hinders development. They’re in my classroom because it’s a total communication environment.
What does that mean?
We use any means necessary to communicate — auditory, verbal, sign language and visual supports — to get information to them. I have a microphone that feeds directly into their auditory system, whether they use hearing aids or a cochlear implant. That minimizes environmental sound and gives them direct access to the teacher’s voice.
What are some of the challenges you face?
You can’t make up lost time quickly, but you can gradually. Students make great strides. My heart breaks because you want them to take state tests and more rigorous courses. That’s the joy in my life, when you see the light in their eyes. They’re grasping language and understanding more of what’s going on around them every day.
How do you teach three grades in one classroom?
You have to be creative. There’s a lot of small group instruction and managing materials. As far as reading and English language arts go, we stick to themes in the curriculum that are aligned with the Common Core standards, so we discuss sentence structure, for example. Sometimes there’s an overlap, and I can pair 3rd-grade ELA with a topic in 5th-grade social studies. We work everything in together. I make sure we’re building a solid educational foundation for them.
What is your day like?
It can be chaotic! My classroom is loud; my students like to express themselves. Monday is our water-cooler day — everyone wants to discuss what they did over the weekend. Those are great moments for incidental learning. So we’ll say to a student, “I think you’re trying to tell me your brother included you.” The crux of my classroom is that it becomes a language-rich environment for the children. There’s such camaraderie in the classroom. If the students can’t get it out verbally, they’ll sign it. I also encourage them to develop a sense of humor because they miss tone of voice and sarcasm.
It sounds like there’s a lot going on in your classroom.
I get tapped on the shoulder a thousand times a day. My name is bellowed across the room a thousand times a day. The children want your attention and approval. They want your thumbs-up for a job well done. There are a lot of IEPs to manage, and that adds a bit of stress. But when you’re with the students, you don’t think of that. Everything is celebrated. We work on children celebrating each other as well. We try to have a positive environment that they want to be in. One little boy didn’t want to do homework. I usually give them two homework assignments a night. I told him, “You’re getting older and smarter, you have to keep learning.” He gave us a hard time for the first two weeks of school. When he finally did his homework, we showed everyone and gave him high fives. I really strive for my students to have a positive morale. Children feel your mood. I can have a smile on my face and not feel well. They’ll come over to me and ask, “Are you feeling OK?” or say, “Maybe take medicine when you go home.” They’re really intuitive. They’re really on to you. You turn your energy level up to 10, and try to keep it up there all day.
— as told to reporter Linda Ocasio