A talent for teaching is a terrible thing to waste

By David H. Kirkwood

All of us can look back to our childhood and remember teachers who made a positive and permanent difference in our lives.  I was fortunate to have quite a few, including Miss Lamb, my first grade teacher, who not only taught me to read, but also showed me how much fun it was. In high school, Mr. Warren’s lively and thought-provoking course in American history helped inspire me to major in history in college.

As it turned out, I left history for journalism. For that, I must give some credit (or blame) to Mrs. Call, who was my English teacher in eighth and ninth grades. She was not flamboyant, not one of those colorful characters who are the stuff of school legend. Rather she was serious, low-key, and deeply caring. Above all, she was determined, against all odds, to teach a class of 13- and 14-year-olds to become more discerning readers and more effective writers.

I recall an exercise that Mrs. Call sometimes assigned us.  She would hand out an article of 750 words or so on some random topic. Our job was to winnow it down to maybe half its original length, but without losing its essential content. It was an enjoyable challenge at the time. But it was not until 15 years later, when I became editor of a weekly newspaper, that I fully realized the value of Mrs. Call’s lesson. The ability to take a draft or a press release, remove all the excess verbiage, and turn it into a clear, concise article is at the very heart of what editors do.



I was reminded, sadly, of Mrs. Call a couple of years ago when I was visiting my mother, who still lives in Ithaca, NY, where I grew up.  My mother customarily cuts out and saves items from the local paper for me. On this occasion, she showed me an obituary for Mrs. Call.

While I was sorry to learn of the death of a favorite teacher, what I found especially distressing was the obituary’s report that Mrs. Call had been forced to retire from teaching in middle age because of a serious hearing loss.  I felt bad for her, having to cut short a successful career that she must have loved.

I also thought of the many hundreds of young people who missed out on having Mrs. Call nurture their appreciation of good books and hone their writing skills. And I also felt angry about what happened because, chances are, it didn’t have to.

Granted, I don’t know the particulars of my former teacher’s hearing problems, nor do I know what the state of the art in hearing aids and classroom assistive technology was when she gave up her career. Maybe 30 years ago she had no good options.

In 2011, we have much more advanced solutions to hearing loss. We also have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, among other purposes, is designed to help employees with disabilities succeed in the workplace. So now, at least in theory, talented teachers should not be forced out of the classroom by hearing loss—or other disabilities that can be accommodated.

However, I can’t help suspecting that hearing loss is still needlessly drawing the curtain on careers in teaching and other professions where society can ill afford to lose good people. One problem about hearing loss is that its insidious nature makes it easy to deny until it becomes advanced and more difficult to treat successfully. Moreover, people with untreated hearing loss are often perceived as becoming less competent, no longer fully with it. When the situation reaches this point, the teacher and the school may lack confidence that the person can regain his or her former excellence.



What’s the take-home message? Basically, it’s that everyone involved in schools should be mindful of the growing incidence of hearing impairment with age and take steps to address (or prevent) it before it’s too late. For teachers and principals, that means being alert to signs of impaired hearing in themselves and in their colleagues. School districts could help by offering free hearing tests to faculty.

Classroom acoustics are notoriously bad. Anything that can be done to improve audibility, especially in elementary schools where the kids are loud and ear infections are common, would help even normal-hearing teachers and students.  Lowering the noise level would also protect teachers’ hearing.

I could go on, but I’m up to 759 words. If Mrs. Call were reading this, she’d tell me to wrap it up. So here is a final thought:

If hearing loss is damaging a teacher’s performance, it is in everyone’s interests to address the situation promptly. Education is too important for us ever to allow a teacher’s talents to be squandered.

Published originally April, 2011 at HHTM with new Feature Image courtesy of Cochlear

1 Comment

  1. Great post and just as relevant today. Teachers are not always the first person we think of when we talk about hearing loss in the classroom. Their ability to hear and understand can affect learning outcomes for students.

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