Educational priorities in America’s schools, public and private, are rarely based on definitive long-range goals to meet the complete needs of students. There are certainly many fine educational examples, but too often those are limited in scope and not district-wide. Many occur by happenstance, or are brought about by a few excellent teachers, many of whom often provide instruction in unapproved ways; using unapproved materials; unsupported by administration.
It is rare, indeed, to find an educational program that is a purposeful, top-down, concerted effort to provide children with superb teachers, skilled instruction, effective methods and fine materials — while ignoring political correctness; administrative bias; district kick-backs; union policies; and other unsavory reasons that might be behind the organization and misdirection of educational priorities.
I have seen one such school — planned; consistent; focused on needs; providing the best education possible for its students. Unfortunately, that school is not in America.
In 1977, while at Manchester University, England, reading towards a master’s degree in “Administration and Supervision of Programs for the Deaf,” we repeatedly noticed that our professors referred to, as an example of excellence, The Institute of the Deaf, in Sint-Michielsgestel, The Netherlands. Finally, a group of us wanted to see for ourselves, so we arranged to attend visitation week at the school and traveled to Holland.
That week was one of the most memorable of my life, but it was also one of the most frustrating, for I soon realized that American education was very lacking.
It is difficult to appreciate the toll that deafness takes on an individual’s life because deafness is an invisible handicap. In truth, being deprived of that most human need — communication — is devastating. Deaf children cannot, unless born to a deaf parent, even communicate with their mothers! No mother tongue! Additionally, if deaf children are to learn how to use their voices, they must be skillfully and patiently taught to speak. Many may have had experience with husky, guttural, semi-distorted deaf speech.
Reading is also a very difficult skill to learn, and the average deaf child born to hearing parents will not read much above the third grade level, even at graduation from high school. Without the ability to auditorily store words in their brains, phonics are useless to deaf readers. This is similar to the problem that so many in America face, and sight word readers too often top out at a third grade reading level. Our prisons are full of third grade readers, as are our welfare rolls.
The Institute of the Deaf at Sint-Michielsgestel was at that time under the direction of Father van Uden, a remarkable man who had taught and worked at the school for over thirty years. He had written a very informative book, A World of Language for Deaf Children, described as “A maternal reflective method.”
We were soon to meet the wonderful Father van Uden and his remarkable staff; to observe, first hand, the results of capable leadership based on comprehensive scholarship and thoroughness in execution. We spent five long days at the school, and still wanted to see and learn more. From top to bottom, the planning and orchestration of a total educational program that would educate deaf children was breathtaking.
Parents with deaf infants were frequent visitors at the school, where they stayed in special family apartments in order to learn from therapists as those professionals taught the babies. Father van Uden explained that since human speech is so rhythmic, the first thing one should do with deaf babies is to hold them while dancing, moving, singing; to help them develop rhythm.
As the children grew, they attended classes in a large room ringed with long wooden boxes that held huge speakers. The boxes were exactly the right height for children to use as seats. On the day of our visit, the young children were playing a musical chairs/funny hats game during which they sat on the speakers, waiting to detect sound or vibrations. Immediately they would leap to their feet and laughingly dance around the circle, wearing a goofy hat, listening carefully for the sound to stop…at which time they would quickly sit on the nearest speaker.
Every child had individual speech instruction from an extremely skilled speech therapist twice a day! Little ones sat on the laps of the therapists, looking into the adult’s mouth to see the making of sounds. Academic classrooms had video cameras. When a child began to speak, the teacher swung the camera to focus on the child. When the communication was complete…the teacher rewound the tape and directed the child’s attention to the monitor where they would watch for speech errors and work to correct them.
In America, deaf children are lucky if they see the speech clinician twice a week! Too often those speech classes contain students other than deaf children so the therapist leads games in pronouncing /s/, or say “Good Morning,” or other pat phrases. It is no wonder that our deaf people, young and old, never fully develop their voices; that they have voice qualities that continue to reveal their hearing losses. Speech is obviously not a priority in American education.
Speech, language, academics, testing, support — at Sint-Michielsgestel, all aspects of education were planned specifically to develop every child’s potential.
When Father van Uden suggested that I go chat with the children, I pointed out that I did not speak Dutch. He laughed, as he explained that the children spoke English and German, as well. (Three languages?) Since Dutch colleges used a wide range of textbooks, the deaf children were also taught to read all three languages! The school’s priorities were to prepare deaf children for the same opportunities in life as hearing children. As I recall, the deaf children, by graduation, read Dutch at age level; German at grade level; and English at ninth grade or higher. (Remember that third grade reading level in only English is the norm for most American deaf children.)
While we were visiting the school, deaf children served as our guides. They spoke beautifully accented English. Their voices were nothing like the deaf voices in America.
Those children knew much about English, and I was shocked to hear this exchange spoken in English by junior high children:
1st Student: “The policemen is here.”
2nd Student: “You can’t say that! ‘Policemen’ is a plural word and so you need to use the verb ‘are’.”
1st Student” “No. ‘Policemen’ is a group; a group is a single thing, so it should need ‘is’.”
2nd Student: “Your thinking is right, but English is a strange language. You need to say, ‘The policemen are here’.”
A dance instructor was teaching upper elementary students a modern dance routine to the song “Alley Cat.” I took pictures that day, and in my mind I hear the song and see the rhythmic movements each time I look at the slides.
A chemistry teacher was as deeply involved in teaching high school students.
Father van Uden, himself, was testing students for learning disabilities, and planning specific interventions.
At Sint-Michielsgestel, the deaf seemed more like hearing individuals for they learned; they spoke; they danced; they sang; they achieved! Everything at the school was focused on those outcomes….as it should be.
I was enthralled so I approached Father van Uden to ask if there was any chance that I might work at the school. I stated my willingness to learn Dutch and German. He asked me what I had majored in at university, then gave me a sympathetic smile when I responded, “Education of the Deaf.”
I was so disappointed then — but I fully understand now — when he explained that they never hired education majors…for their preparation and studies were too broad; too shallow; too limited. When the school needed a chemistry teacher, they hired a chemist then taught the person how to work with deaf children. The school hired biologists, dance masters, linguists, artists, speech masters, etc. They paid competitive wages in order to hire the best in the various fields, then those specialists were taught how to teach deaf children.
Of course! It was a wonderful educational plan, and it was expected that the children learn to speak clearly; read well; attend university; meet with success in life. The plan was wisely designed; fully comprehensive; began at birth. Its goal was to fully prepare deaf children for Life. The school was clearly designed to serve the best interests of the children.
American educational leaders fail to view and orchestrate schooling with anything close to that commitment; focus; relevance, importance; determination; goals; foresight. Instead of schools educating children to be fully capable, knowledgeable, and self-reliant, schools too often cripple natural abilities; make weaknesses worse; waste time and lives.
It need not be that way. There are fine models that America could replicate, in public and in private schools; in day schools and in residential. One model would be the educational whole-child philosophies and whole-life focus of The Institute of the Deaf, Sint-Michielsgestel, The Netherlands.