COVID-19: Training to be a Teacher of the Deaf during a global pandemic

Konnie Fenwick-Rasche could never have envisaged her first year of Msc Deaf Education going this way, but who could have? The move to online learning has been a challenge that every course has had to overcome, but how has such a practical course such as Deaf Education dealt with the change? Konnie reveals all below…

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Three weeks prior to lockdown, my course-mates and I had been in a difficult position.  We were completing our teaching placements when schools across the country were threatened to be closed indefinitely for the first time in living memory. While this was obviously not ideal, it was unavoidable. Fortunately, any concerns that I had about how this might affect my progression on the course were quickly eased by the course leader, Helen Chilton, who put plans in place to ensure that we wouldn’t be penalised by something that was out of our control.

Once placement had been sorted, the focus began to shift towards lectures. As a first year on-campus student, I am used to attending lectures, but in lockdown this wasn’t going to be possible, so what would happen? As the course rep for our group, I had lots of conversations with students who were worried that we would have to transfer to the distance-learning programme mid-way through the year, and I personally had concerns about this too.

Although I know the distance-learning programme at Manchester is very strong, it wasn’t how I was used to learning and I wasn’t confident that I knew how to access and follow the online teaching materials, as I’d never needed to previously. I reached out to Helen to explain the group’s concerns, which she understood immediately and explained that while we wouldn’t be able to come onto campus for the foreseeable future, this didn’t mean that we were going to be shunted onto the distance-learning programme, and that instead they were going to conduct our weekly sessions via Zoom.

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I don’t think anyone was really sure what to expect when we all logged on for our first zoom lecture, and while there were a few teething issues as there always is with technology, we made it work. As we’ve gone along we’ve figured out ways to make it easier to contribute to discussions, ask questions or check our understanding either by raising our hands, using the reactions feature, or typing in the chat. Is it exactly the same as sitting together in the Ewing Seminar room? No, of course it’s not, but is it a viable alternative? Definitely.

As a deaf student I was particularly worried about how I would cope with Zoom, as processed sound isn’t as clear as normal speech and you can’t lipread as easily via a webcam. When I raised these concerns with Helen and Lindsey, I wasn’t surprised to find that this had already occurred to them and they had suggestions ready to help. They send me the powerpoints ahead of the session so that I have an idea of what will be discussed and have context to help me work out if I have misheard something.

I’ve also been allowed a member of my family to sit in on lectures as a note-taker which has been really helpful and all sessions are recorded with subtitles so I can watch back any parts that I’m not sure about. Likewise, if Helen recognises that I’ve misheard something she will send me a private message using the chat feature or will start using Sign Supported English alongside speech to clarify what’s been said. This way I don’t feel like I’m missing out on important information, and feel confident to ask for clarification if I don’t think I’ve heard correctly.

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As well as continuing to supporting us academically, Helen and Lindsey have been very keen to safeguard our mental health and keep us feeling connected as a group despite being miles apart. They both have weekly Zoom drop-ins that any student can join, but they also recognise that sometimes people feel more comfortable chatting to their course mates without a lecturer listening in!

The on-campus students also have a WhatsApp group, which has been really useful, but we now also have a social Zoom on a Monday evening that students can drop into for a chat. We’ve even tried practicing our BSL skills over Zoom with mixed results! Staying in touch this way has been really helpful, both from a course perspective but also from a well-being perspective.

The best thing about studying Deaf Ed at Manchester is that they really invest in you, both as a professional and as a person and Lindsey always says that once you’re part of the “Manchester Family” you never really leave! You’re taught by lecturers who are experts in their field with a wealth of experience that they’re ready to share, and are committed to raising the standard of education that deaf children receive. Don’t get me wrong – Deaf Ed at Manchester isn’t something you can just breeze through, and nor should it be.

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Deaf children deserve the best education possible, and that’s only going to happen if they have highly-skilled Teachers of the Deaf, something that Helen and Lindsey are committed to helping you become and moving online certainly hasn’t changed that commitment. At Manchester, the qualification isn’t just another box to be ticked before you start earning SEN payments, it’s a real professional journey that builds on the skills you already have as a mainstream teacher, and helps to mould you into a specialist Teacher of the Deaf.

COVID-19 has affected our lives in so many different ways, with all of us having to adapt to “the new normal”, but the one thing that has remained consistent for me throughout is the support that Helen and Lindsey have continued to provide and I know this will still be the case next academic year.

To read more from our students about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their studies click here


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