VDEI sat down with Christine Cunningham, Visiting Teacher in the new North Western Victoria region.
Hi Christine. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us! Can you share with us a little bit about your job?
I now work in the new North Western Victoria Region (an amalgamation of what was the Northern Metropolitan Region and the Loddon Mallee Regions).
This year, I have 25 students, from prep to year 11, in 13 different schools (including consultancy students) and work over 3 days per week. Generally I fit in four visits a day to four different schools. Sometimes, you are fortunate to have 2 or 3 kids in one school, but that doesn’t happen all that often.
The job is multi-layered and complex - working with students, teachers and parents.
Well-developed interpersonal skills are vital. As a VT, you are an invited visitor into another teacher’s classroom – it’s a privileged place to be. The classroom teacher needs to feel that you are not there to criticise what they are doing, but rather to look for ways to support them and the student. You are also interacting with principals, assistant principals and other teachers, parents etc. in the wider school community. It’s very easy to step on people’s toes, but what is paramount is getting the best outcome for the students, and that means people need to be working together.
We draw upon a broad base of knowledge and understanding of hearing impairment and its implications, experience and knowledge of schools and how they operate. I need to be up to date with current teaching and learning strategies in classrooms, have good interpersonal skills, be flexible and to be skilled in problem solving. An example of this is to assist students with hearing aids and how they work with other technologies in the classroom to help them follow the teacher and not miss any content.
In primary schools, the class teacher is generally the one who has the most contact with that child and is largely responsible for their development. By developing a good working relationship, information sharing occurs both ways. For a VT, knowing what is happening in the classroom helps you provide better support for the student. The strategies that we model and suggest for students with hearing loss also support the learning of all students, such as the use of soundfield systems and more. Teachers are far more willing to take on board new ideas and pedagogy, if you have a genuine partnership and demonstrate how what you are able to contribute as a VT can assist them as well as support the whole class.
In secondary school, things are generally more complex as there are multiple teachers involved with the student. Often too, the student’s desire to fit in with others and not be identified as different, can be more important to them than wearing their hearing aids. Our challenge in those situations is to find a delicate balance of supporting their social and emotional needs with their educational needs.
For some students you need to input some “invisible support”. That means providing some professional development to teachers and support staff, to simulate the hearing loss with examples of teaching and learning practice to help build awareness and empathy of learning of situations where listening skills are traditionally relied on. Additionally, like other VTs, I advocate for captions to be automatically turned on when visual texts or other audio-visual media are used in the classroom. This helps many other students, not just those with a hearing impairment.
Experience and knowledge is essential to the effectiveness of the role. Knowing the variety of settings and resources available to support parents in their decision-making is part of that. The Visiting Teacher needs to be comfortable working independently and have experience and knowledge to draw on. Parents and schools look to you for advice and support. That’s a strong reason why Visiting Teachers have been required to have teaching experience in settings where they could develop their skills, with mentoring provided by experienced teachers of the deaf.
A flexible approach is paramount. I can arrive at school with a particular lesson prepared for my session with the student. However these plans often have to be postponed or changed as the teacher informs me that the student has been grappling with an unknown concept in class, or the student may say, “Can I talk to you?”. You need to be able to understand and address these immediate academic needs to maintain their participation in the class, or support their social and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes the kids just want to talk to someone who understands - share their worries and fears. They need our support.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
I absolutely love the kids! They are so happy to see you when you arrive - their faces light up. The kids know that you’re helping them. They don’t have to pretend with you. You are someone that understands them, and they share their learning difficulties, secrets and struggles with you.
What do you find most challenging about your job?
Challenges of the role?
The lack of connectivity with IT systems. As VTs we often can’t hook into internet at schools we visit and we are not provided with cellular access to the internet as we move from location to location during the day.
It’s especially difficult when you’re working with a student and they don’t understand a particular word. It would be so easy to simply show them a picture from the internet, but instead we have to go over to the library and find it in a book or draw it (and my drawing’s not that good!) That creates many barriers to being efficient. It would be fantastic to have iPads with internet access. Some VTs buy their own iPads and wi-fi access. It’s becoming essential for all of us to be effective.
VTs often use their own cars and personal mobile phones too. We need to be readily contactable when students are absent, or class routines have had to be changed. Parents, teachers and kids contact us frequently. Some of our parents are hearing impaired themselves and text their teachers.
I am concerned about the increasing numbers of students and the challenge of being able to keep up a quality education service. I believe the VTs over many years have demonstrated their value to students and the value of their support to mainstream teachers - with specialist insight and educational advice. Our roles are hard to quantify and lots of the work is in the co-ordination of information between school, home, Australian Hearing, specialists, TAFE, other settings, speech pathologists etc. Visiting Teachers work very hard and we, like all professionals, need to have feedback, to feel valued and appreciated in our roles.
I love my job. I love the kids and the parents. I work hard to create great relationships with the teachers. And I know that I’m adding value to what happens in the school.
Has the role of the VT changed over the years?
The role has become increasingly complex as we realise that to support the student, we also need to support the teacher, the family and the school.
The greatest change I think has been in the area of technology. It’s no longer just a question of a child’s hearing aids battery going flat. We now have bone conductors, cochlear implants, FM devices, soundfield systems and there have also been huge advances in the variety and types of hearing aids. Schools receive a small amount of training on soundfield systems, but if there is no VT supporting that school, the soundfield system can very easily become an unused piece of equipment. This is also true of FM systems. Unless different ways to use them are constantly modelled and encouraged, teachers don’t appreciate the incredible advantage that they give the hearing impaired student. Often I’ll hear, “Thank goodness you’re here, I’ve got a problem with…”. There are always technical issues to resolve.
One classroom teacher proudly said to me: ‘Look, I’ve got the FM system working.” The problem was she had the child’s individual FM sitting on the table in the corner (not plugged in to the soundfield system). The child was receiving an almost inaudible signal from the classroom speaker system. Now, how do you tell someone in the nicest possible way, that despite their good intentions the child is still not switched on and benefitting from this great technology? That’s part of the understanding you need and compassion required - the interpersonal skills of knowing when to pick your moment and provide expert professional advice that has a very direct positive impact on the child’s learning opportunities.
So how useful are professional development workshops to you as a VT?
Very important. We need to be constantly updating our knowledge in terms of current research and evidence in the area of hearing impairment, and current teaching and learning strategies. If I think about the suite of skills I need to do my job effectively, I think that PD should also include workshops and units of work where interpersonal skills, negotiation, understanding body language, assertiveness training, and conflict resolution skills are taught and developed.
I recently had the situation where a mother broke down crying in a Student Support group meeting, as she finally came to an acceptance of her daughter’s hearing loss. If parents are supported, their kids cope better. We need a skill set that can help us deal with a variety of situations, and know where and how to seek expert advice.
I know many VTs find that it’s difficult to get to VDEI for short courses, with time and travel constraints. VTs are often isolated in their work and opportunities to learn, case conference with others, share resources etc, are always a challenge. I would love VDEI to provide PD opportunities for cross regional clusters of VTs in satellite locations around Melbourne too. Collegiate support would be an added bonus of these PD opportunities.
Christine, thank you so much for your time today. We greatly appreciate it!