Support Itinerant Teachers

As the number of students in mainstream classrooms increases, students will need ongoing support from itinerant teachers to succeed in a mainstream setting. AG Bell recently conducted a roundtable discussion on the impact of itinerant teaching and how to increase support for this critical service. Read what two teachers, a parent and a high school student had to say about itinerant teaching. Visit our Facebook page to start a discussion.

Biographies and References

Describe either your experience with itinerant teachers or your experience as an itinerant teacher? What are the positives and negatives of that experience?

Trisha Repetski: I just feel that, as a parent, the itinerant teacher gave me a connection between the teacher and the child. If the child doesn’t want to communicate with you, you can communicate with the itinerant teacher. It was very helpful to me just having peace of mind knowing how my daughter, Taylor, was doing on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Just knowing how the general education teacher was handling the situation of having a student who is deaf in the classroom was helpful...I feel itinerant teachers are essential in that aspect. 

Taylor Repetski: The hearing support teachers, that’s my term, have helped me so much. I had a hearing support teacher from the very beginning in kindergarten all the way through high school. Any time I was confused, they would help me...They always make things clear. And they also helped me to prepare for a test or quiz or even projects…for example, one of my hearing support teachers helped me ace a test and I got straight A’s for the mark. That’s the best way I can explain. I am pretty happy I have all the support. 

Trish, was it hard for you to get that support for Taylor? Or was it something that was just automatically offered?

Trisha: The Buck County Intermediate Unit was a wonderful support. We live in the Bucks County school district, and Taylor’s therapist and teachers from the beginning have just been wonderful. They have taught me what I need to know to get the services we need. To just be prepared with a little folder in your hand to go in and say, this is what I need for my daughter to be successful in this classroom. It was easy for me, I have to say. And I am very lucky.

Kelly Kodadek O’Connell: My role is to be a liaison between the student, the parent and the school team. I work to make sure that everyone is on the same page. I communicate regularly with the town and parents. For those students that are receiving direct services, we strongly encourage consultation as well. We meet with the team usually 30 minutes a week – classroom teacher, case manager, speech-language pathologist – to talk about how the child is doing, and I collect information on what I could be working on during my lessons to support the student. I think that’s a really important part of the itinerant teaching service.

My goal with the general education teachers is to educate them about accommodations on the IEP [Individualized Education Program]…I also encourage the student to take on that role. From very early on we work on advocacy skills where the students need to create presentations to give to their teachers. We do a lot of peer workshops where they are educating their peers about hearing loss and accommodations. For example, what is an FM system and how to use it. We really work with the student from a young age to have them advocate for their needs related to their hearing loss.

KevinKevin Miller: I would highlight that with my teachers, we devote a lot of time to direct service for consultation. We try it decide where on that continuum we are with the student, and, typically, when the students are younger, we tend to provide more direct service and as they get older…typically the skills we have been working on, like self-advocacy skills, they are learning and they can do more on their own.

Occasionally I will say to the teachers that our job is to put ourselves out of a job. Give the students the skills they need to be successful on their own. Somehow, someway, we are involved with them, but it might not be direct service. My teachers devote a lot of time to building self-advocacy. I think, administratively, my role is to support the teachers as best I can. They have a couple of challenges. One, they are going from building to building. It is very hard to develop relationships. You are surrounded by teachers and staff, but you are not in a building very long. So it can sometimes take months, if not years, to become a part of a building. And some are aware of that and I am always careful not to move them because they spend so much time developing those relationships. And, ultimately, that’s what is going to make or break their job…relationships. The relationships they develop with other teachers, other staff and with parents are extremely important. 

Kelly: If we have a student making a transition from elementary to middle school or middle to high school, we will try to with that student during the transition. But I completely agree with Kevin that the building of relationships is the most important piece of this job. And it takes time or a lot of effort to build those relationships because you are going into someone else’s school and you are a guest in that school. So we spend a lot of time relationship building and gaining trust.

Kevin: It can also be kind of a lonely job because you are frequently the only teacher of the deaf in that district. So I try to make sure that we meet often enough as a group of teachers of the deaf to develop camaraderie.

Kelly: We are usually the only teacher of the hearing impaired at a school and Soundbridge works hard to bring the team of consulting teachers together regularly. We usually meet twice a month, and there are a number of other opportunities to get together, whether it is an AG Bell meeting or Hear Hear Hartford, a group with the Hearing Loss Association of America. Fortunately my organization is extremely supportive and realizes that communication and support are an important piece of the job. 

Trish or Taylor, has this idea of relationship building been evident to you? That the itinerant teacher has been able to work easily with the general education teachers?

Trisha: I think it is mixed. There are so many teachers involved. Some are easy, some are difficult.

Taylor: My hearing support teacher and general education teachers work well together. My hearing support teacher gets notes from the teachers sometimes. So we can get the aggregate information because sometimes I might miss a couple of things. They get along well.

What kind of strategies do you use if you are going in to a new school to try and build some of those relationships with the teachers and the administration?

Taylor: For me, my idea is to have the hearing support teacher not get involved way too much, but just let the general education teachers do their work and let them help the student. Trish: I think she has gotten better with being an advocate with the teachers in the classroom. She will ask them to repeat things, or…what else do you do?

Taylor: I raise my hand. I get things repeated again. In the groups, I ask the general teacher if we can go to the hallway where it is quieter.

Kelly: Building relationships starts really early on in the school year. We start with a workshop, which actually happens before the students come in to school. We meet with the school team and we teach them about the equipment, how to manage it, so they are comfortable the first day and so the student is comfortable as well, because there is nothing worse than the teacher with an FM system not knowing how to use it and the student sitting there feeling uncomfortable.

We work hard to first get to know the key players on the team. I also connect with the secretaries, which is huge because a lot of times if I hit traffic and will be five minutes late, I can call and I am often talking with the secretary. Getting to know the IT person to help out with things like direct audio input with the FM system if there is going to be an assembly. I get to know the janitor because sometimes our students will misplace their FM or hearing equipment.

I also try to attend my students’ sporting events, or if there is a birthday for one of the school staff members, I will bring a card or flowers - just little things to let them know that we are thankful for them.

Kevin: I have to smile a little bit…one of the first things that professors taught us was to get to know the secretaries and the janitors. I have always remembered that and it has always paid off, and my teachers do that.

And even a simple thing like signing in at the building…you have to do that anyway…but sometimes I am surprised. I will be in a school building and ask for a certain teacher of the deaf, and the secretary will look at me like she doesn’t know who I am talking about. And so I think, uh-oh, this person did not do a good job of developing relationships. That’s a telltale sign for me that they need to do a better job.

Another challenge seems that as students get older, middle school and high school, it gets harder and harder to meet with teachers because they are changing classes and have more teachers, and their schedules don’t exactly match with the itinerant teacher’s schedule. To collaborate and consult is predicated with meeting with teachers, and it is very hard to do the older the students are. Email has been a blessing in that my teachers will do a lot via email with teachers. 

Trisha: Kevin, in regards to the comment that you made about putting the itinerant teacher out of a job…we didn’t have that situation and I don’t know if that was ever brought up to me that we were to have less and less. I mean it was just kind of the same every year.

Kevin: Overall when I talked about the job of a teacher of the deaf is to put herself out of a job, ideally that’s what you hope for in the sense that you are giving these children skills they need to be independent. On the other hand, it is pretty rare that we dismiss a student. Over time the service usually changes to some degree going from direct to more what I call indirect.

And, as Taylor said, she didn’t want the itinerant being too involved. Usually the students will let you know they don’t want this person hovering. And so I find that again it depends on the student. With Taylor there may have been reasons why the service stayed the same over the time. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. She is successful in school and that’s what you want to look at first, and then look, okay, maybe we don’t need to serve her quite to the same degree. But the IEP team makes that decision.

This maybe a little bit of a loaded question, but has there ever been an occasion or an experience that you had where you felt the itinerant teacher was not being utilized effectively or needed, and how was that situation handled?

Kevin: I have had those situations. Sometimes it is personality, which is hard to quantify. But sometimes it is just not a good match, for example, between a teacher and a student. And sometimes it’s the teacher’s background.

For example, when I first took this job, we had several self-contained classrooms for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, but over the years those have declined…the need for self-contained classroom has become less and less. I have found that with teachers of the deaf who were classroom teachers or self-contained teachers, it is hard for them to switch to itinerant teaching. Because they are so used to being in control, and when you are an itinerant you are going into somebody else’s room and, as Kelly said, you are a guest. And you don’t have a lot of control. That’s really predicated on the relationships you develop, but I find those teachers struggle. They ultimately can figure the job out, but that’s where I have seen struggles…when you are used to one role and then have to change into a different role, which calls on different skill sets that may have become dormant.

You do see less self-contained classrooms and more services being provided to students in the mainstream. Do you think that that is creating a challenge for mainstream teachers?

Kelly: I don’t see having support teachers as a problem for classroom teachers as it is part of the solution to having additional students with disabilities in their classrooms.  They are familiar with the support people…specialists coming in and out of the classroom. I think mainstream teachers are having to learn more about various types of disabilities in working with different types of children. That is the trend of what’s going on in education as a whole as far as differentiated instruction and planning for those students’ needs. 

So you think that mainstream teachers are becoming more open to the extra support services their students need because there are so many of them in the classroom?

Kelly: Absolutely. And because there is a greater awareness to provide quality education to every single student in their classroom. Differentiation is an important piece in education right now where teachers have to meet the needs of all students in their classroom, regardless of disability.

Kevin: I think there is also a high percentage of students who are deaf or hard of hearing in a public school setting or mainstreamed, and I think that for those students to be successful an itinerant teacher is incredibly important. And speaking from my own experience, I can’t say that every student we serve is successful in the mainstream. But many of them are. And it is the itinerant teacher that has helped them to make it.

I worry a little bit that self-contained classrooms are disappearing. For some students that’s exactly what they need. But overall I have always been pleasantly surprised…I will have a student that we are thinking about mainstreaming more and I will think oh, my gosh I don’t know how the student is going to do. And then they surprise me and do really well. So I think sometimes we underestimate the student’s ability to be successful in the mainstream.

Just one final comment…sometimes I think our students, because of how well they do, become their own worst enemy in a mainstream setting, especially if they have very intelligible speech and fairly good language skills. I find, for example, special education directors will think, gee, this child doesn’t need any support. No, you may understand them really well and their language skills may appear to be age-appropriate, but they don’t realize that these students have many gaps in terms of vocabulary, their knowledge of idioms and concept, and sometimes that’s my battle to fight with administrators in a regular school setting…these students still need support. I always have to kind of educate the administrators as well as other regular education teachers that depending what grade the students are in, the vocabulary demands keep increasing…so kind of warn them that yes, things are fine now but we need to be looking down the road. 

Trisha: What kind of problems are there involving itinerant teachers? When would it be a hindrance to a student to have an itinerant teacher? I know that Kevin said personality conflict… yes, I can see that. But where else could it pose a problem?

Kelly: I think it is important to explain your role as an itinerant teacher early on to the team as well as the parent to make sure everyone understands that you are a certified teacher. You are there to teach specific skills. I think that’s really important from the school’s perspective.

I usually start early…if it is a new parent I will explain my background. What degrees I have. What experience I have, just to make sure they feel more comfortable. I think it comes down to communication and making sure that everyone is on the same page. When there are problems, it is usually due to lack of communication. So we really work hard, the teachers I work with, to communicate regularly and be open and honest with everyone. 

Kevin: I think Kelly is right. If you are unable to explain your role…that is going to lead to problems because I think teachers and administrators want to be supportive. At the same time, they want to do what you want them to do. It is unclear to them. I tell my teachers that, well, for example, some special education administrator will say, why do we need a hearing support teacher? Why can’t a learning support teacher or why can’t a teacher of multiple disabilities do this job? And I have always said to my teachers, you have got to be able to explain your role and what you do. And you have to be able to answer those questions. Because if you cannot answer those questions, well, they have every right to be asking someone else to do that job. You have to be able to explain what you do and be able to make that clear to them. At the same time, consult, collaborate, try to help the general education teachers gain the confidence to work with these students and to work with the equipment. It is an ongoing relationship. 

Trisha: Is there a need for more itinerant teachers since the children are being mainstreamed in their public schools? Do we have a shortage? Do they need more? Kelly: I do feel that, in our service, we are getting more and more students that are needing itinerant support. So, yes, I see a trend…because of hearing screening and the technology, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids, and No Child Left Behind, there is a trend that we are going to see more and more students in the mainstream. Each year it seems like we are adding a teacher or two to our itinerant program. 

Kevin: The long term trend would be more and more students are going to be mainstreamed. Meaning there is going to be a need for more and more itinerant teachers of the deaf. And also retirements are starting to happen. Several teachers on my staff they are hitting that age where they are retiring. That’s going to result in increased need for itinerant teachers. 

Taylor, how do you feel about going to college without an itinerant teacher there to help you along the way?

Taylor: For me, going to college without any hearing support teachers, over the years I have learned strategy and all the things to become independent and I want all those things…services, well, RIT has a special services, like C-print and a notetaker and CI services. I can use them in class.

Trisha: She will be the No. 1 advocate for herself once she gets there because once she is 18 they really don’t want to talk to the parent. So any services that are available to her she has to, you know, make sure she finds them and she is aware of them, and I think she will do a pretty good job at that. She will speak up. 

So are you excited?

Taylor: Yes.

Trisha: All she talks about is being six hours away from her mom.

Source: Volta Voices, July/August 2012