Editor’s Note: HearingHealthMatters.org is pleased to feature two related articles by teacher Bonnie Stone this week. In the Better Hearing Consumer, she discusses how a devastating sudden hearing loss and subsequent cochlear implantation have affected her career as an elementary school teacher. When you are finished this article, visit Hearing Views, where she questions the rationale of advising CI candidates to keep expectations low for the success of their implants.
By Bonnie Stone
I am a teacher.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve taught all grades in the elementary school, as well as serving my large, urban district as a literacy coach. Currently, my classroom is full of fresh-faced first graders.
I am deaf.
Three years ago, I lost my hearing in what my otologist deemed to be idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL). It was quite a blow. Having been a “normal” hearing person until that moment, experiencing a sudden and dramatic hearing loss was overwhelming. Indeed, my first thoughts were of my students. When my doctor delivered the bad news, I cried out that I had 28 students coming to my room the next day—the first day of school.
I’m not going to lie. It took every ounce of resolve I had to walk into my classroom that morning knowing that I was virtually deaf. The SSHL had rendered my left ear deaf and stolen more than 60 decibels from my right ear. My middle and high frequencies suffered the greatest loss—and I knew those little voices fell within those frequencies. It would take several weeks before I could get a hearing aid. Today, I am bimodal—sporting a hearing aid in my right ear and a cochlear implant in my left.
Schools are very noisy places and being able to hear children is very important. With the help of my school district’s audiologist, I found a multitude of technological devices to help me in my classroom, from amplification and FM devices to strobes in my classroom to alert me when alarms are sounded. Though there are still challenges I face each day, I found that losing my hearing did not mean losing my career.
Children are very forgiving and understanding of their teachers’ shortcomings. I begin each year explaining what that little thing behind my ear is. I have a plastic model of a cochlear implant and I let each of my students touch it, try it on, and ask me questions. I teach them how to speak loud and clear when addressing me. “Look right at me,” I remind them. And I teach them to work quietly – especially when I am working with small groups. They know that my hearing devices pick up every noise they make, and background noise is the enemy!
I admit that I don’t understand a great deal of what they tell me. I can hear pretty much everything they say. It’s the understanding that remains the biggest problem. The redeeming thing is that first graders just like to tell stories. Often I can simply say, “Thank you for telling me that” and they walk away happy and smiling. Inside, I am hoping they aren’t telling me something like “Your hair is on fire.”
I am the only teacher in my school district with a cochlear implant, so I am somewhat of a novelty. People are always curious and sometimes they have misconceptions. A parent once complained that “the teacher with the Bluetooth” needed to pay attention to the crosswalk instead of talking on her phone! My principal politely explained that it wasn’t a phone!
I’ve also become a hearing advocate. Because I wear my cochlear implant prominently, I field many questions and hearing concerns from others. Nearly all of my students receive the voluntary hearing screening our school provides because their parents can hear and see my testimony.
Since I lost my hearing, I’ve had three students with hearing loss. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. One student had been mistakenly identified as an English Language Learner and was slipping between the cracks. I noticed he could not hear and he was eventually diagnosed with a profound hearing loss and placed in our district’s deaf education classroom. Some people said I saved that boy’s life. I was just doing my job.
That same year, another student was fitted with a hearing aid. His mom told me that he was excited to be wearing it. “I look like Mrs. Stone,” he said. Indeed, it was rather prestigious for him to wear it in class! Even though he’s not in my class this year, he still waves as he passes me in the hall, pointing at his ear and smiling sheepishly.
Teaching is hard. Being a deaf/hard of hearing teacher is hard, too. But it’s not impossible, as I once feared. There are blessings to be found.
Bonnie Stone is a wife, mother, and teacher. She blogs about her experience as she lives with hearing loss, finding humor, strength, and resiliency along the way.