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The Perils of Hearing Less in the Classroom

In another lifetime I was a middle-school teacher. It only lasted for two years, but at that time I thought it might be my career.

I didn’t wear hearing aids then. Of the many difficulties I faced teaching classes of teenagers, I think some of them did have their root in my hearing loss.

First of all, I couldn’t understand soft-spoken students, and often had to make them repeat themselves. Uncomfortable for me, and also for them, especially if they were shy. The accompanying snickers from the rest of the class were certainly not a positive thing for the class atmosphere or my relationship with them.

I also had trouble when students made low-voiced comments or “talked back” in such a way that everybody could hear but me. It does make it difficult to ensure classroom rules are followed when so much can go on under your threshold of perception.

At the time, I didn’t realise how “bad” my hearing was (I knew I had some hearing loss). I didn’t realise that my colleagues heard that much more, and therefore had more information at hand to help them manage the class. Not hearing well clearly was not my only shortcoming in teaching teenagers, but I probably blamed myself more than I should have for the difficulties rooted in “not hearing things”.

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You know how colds can block your ears a bit? In my case, as my hearing loss falls pretty much smack in the middle of the “speech banana”, temporary cold-related hearing loss often made me incapable of understanding anything that was said in the classroom.

We know how hard it is for adults to change the way they express themselves to compensate for somebody’s hearing loss, so imagine teenagers!

I now don’t teach teenagers anymore, and not so regularly. The social media classes I give today are either for undergraduate students (technically past their teens) or actively working adults. I wear hearing aids, but that doesn’t solve everything.

These last two years, I gave a course which took place in what I can only term an acoustically disastrous room. Echoey, of course, big, and to top it all, uncomfortably hot on a sunny day, with windows that opened on the noise of the city.

Students sitting in the front row are rarely a problem. I usually move around in the classroom when I’m talking to somebody, avoiding “across-the-room” conversations. So when the classroom is organised in solid rows of tables you cannot walk through, communicating with the students sitting in the back row can be a bit of a problem.

And, ever the same problem: the third time you ask somebody to repeat something in front of everybody because you haven’t understood what they’re saying, things start getting tense.

Of course, I always tell my students about my hearing loss. I explain that if I ask them to repeat something, it’s because I couldn’t hear them well enough to understand. I remind them to make a particular effort to speak loud enough, particularly if they are sitting in the back rows. I ask them to raise their hand or get my attention before speaking.

But it’s not enough. And these difficulties become a real problem when a student is being rude or challenging an idea I’ve brought to the classroom. I’ve been accused at times of shutting down conversations and not accepting debate, but how can you debate or have a conversation when you can’t understand what the other person is saying?

I also realise that depending on the teaching context, my hearing loss pushes me towards “teacher-speaking” and “work in groups” types of teaching, to the detriment of more “class interactive” formats, which I actually appreciate. I had the opportunity over the last year to give a series of short workshops to small groups of people (around 10), and all though I did end up speaking a lot of the time (hah!) I really did appreciate the group discussions we were able to have.

I had a chat with my audiologist about this particular acoustically disastrous classroom, and she told me that if this was somewhere I was often, we could create a programme especially for it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really worth it, as I would only end up teaching 2-4 days a year in that particular room.

Although I’m not a full-time teacher anymore, I would be really interested in hearing about the experiences¬†other teachers with hearing loss. Does your hearing loss limit you in the “teaching formats” you are able to use with your class? Do you find it puts you at a disadvantage to “manage” the class, particularly with young students? Do you have any compensating tips and tricks to share?

Let us know.

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Stephanie has been blogging since 2000, and is still at it. Sailing, skiing, judo-ing. Geek with social skills. Freelance consultant, speaker, trainer, thinker. Social media without the hype.
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Stephanie has been blogging since 2000, and is still at it. Sailing, skiing, judo-ing. Geek with social skills. Freelance consultant, speaker, trainer, thinker. Social media without the hype.