Virginia School for Deaf teacher learning the language

STAUNTON, Va. — Keith VanFossen was used to the clamor of 25 eighth-graders talking at the same time.

Now, the silence of his classroom at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind is jarring.

“In a public school there was constant noise,” VanFossen said. “Now I have six kids, and they’re chatting away like normal kids, but they’re signing so it’s a different feel.”

The silence, although the most noticeable difference for VanFossen, is just one of the many adjustments he’s faced this school year.

After teaching middle school math for 11 years VanFossen, looking for something different, applied to VSDB as the high school math teacher in the deaf department.

Although he picked up some sign language working with deaf students as a recreational therapist at the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center, it was not enough to teach high school math to deaf and hearing-impaired students.

“Now I’m immersed, and quite overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s like going into a foreign country and not knowing the language.”

Although many teachers at VSDB have formal deaf education and experience, or are deaf themselves, the school is looking to add more subject specialist teachers, said school Superintendent Nancy Armstrong.

VanFossen now teaches geometry, algebra I, algebra II and personal finance.

“Finding the teacher with the content knowledge works out best,” Armstrong said. “Then we can train them,” on how to translate their knowledge into signing.

VanFossen took a two-week intensive American Sign Language class at Gallaudet University before starting school this fall.

For six hours a day, Monday through Friday, he was immersed in sign language and deaf culture.

His instructor, who was deaf, assured the students there would be no speaking in his class, and if he saw moving lips they’d be kicked out.

“Being on campus helped me realize what the culture would be like,” he said. “In a lot of ways it was like any college campus. There were just different modes of communication.”

On the first day of school, however, “I felt like a fish out of water,” he said.

Although he had been teaching math for 11 years, teaching deaf and hearing-impaired students meant finding new ways of communicating ideas and strategies.

“It’s easy to get into a routine and comfort level,” he said. “A lot of it is putting math in a different perspective.”

VanFossen had to come up with signs for math concepts such as “intersect,” and collaborated with middle school math teachers to make sure signs were consistent.

He is still learning the vocabulary.

To help him as he becomes more familiar with ASL and teaching deaf students, VanFossen has an interpreter in his room to step in if he needs help.

“At the beginning, we decided that I would do the majority of the signing,” he said. “But if a student asks a question I want to be able to understand and answer. I don’t want to further confusion.”

A lot of his time is spent thinking about communication, both how he communicates his lessons and how he receives feedback.

“A lot of it is needing to ask the right questions,” he said.

Having smaller classes helps. VanFossen’s largest class has six students, and only two in his smallest. He said he is able to individualize teaching strategies based on how a student learns and communicates. It has helped him get to know his students as well.

“I’m amazed at the level of math skills they have,” he said. “I’m not having to spend a lot of time reviewing.”

Now that school has been in session for over a month, VanFossen said he is more comfortable in the classroom but is still learning the language and the structure.

“Now I know what I want to say and I can’t. I know enough to make myself really frustrated,” he said with a laugh.

Although he jokingly said he’s the biggest barrier to his students at the moment, they have been accepting of him.

“They’re very helpful and very accepting and tolerant,” he said. “They could easily turn a blind eye to me, literally they could look away. It would be easy to do.”

But they don’t, he said.

“They’re accepting of me as a hearing person.”

Armstrong said despite the challenges facing VanFossen, “he’s been doing a brilliant job.”

“You have to want to be motivated and want to be here and really engaged with the students,” she said.

Getting to know the students has been the most rewarding aspect of working at VSDB, VanFossen said.

“This positively will grow on me,” he said. “And my skills will in turn.”

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