Rory McDonnell has spent 30 years working as a Teacher of the Deaf after completing his degree at Manchester in 1991. He is currently the Team Leader for the Royal Greenwich Sensory Service, co-chair of the NATSIP Reference Group, and Chair of the Sensory Teachers Apprenticeship Trailblazer. Here, he tells us about his career and the changes he has seen in the sector during this time.
My journey into deaf education
I graduated from The University of Manchester in 1991 after completing a four-year joint degree in Audiology and Education of the Deaf.
Before university, I had been doing a lot of voluntary work with children with special needs at a local special school across the road from my sixth form. I was really enjoying it, but I also had a fixed idea in my head… I was going to Manchester to study Economics and then I was going to work in the city of London!
One day, one of the teachers at the special school asked me if I had thought of becoming a teacher and the penny just dropped. I didn’t want to work in the city at all, and that set me down a path of becoming a teacher. I switched from the Economics course to the teacher of the deaf course at Manchester as soon as I arrived.
Studying deaf education
The teacher of the deaf course opened me up to a whole new world. I had no idea about audiology or about the way a child develops language at the beginning; I didn’t know about BSL or natural aural approaches.
The study of language development fascinated me, and still does. I ended up writing a dissertation about the language addressed to children, focused on the use of phatics to elicit conversation.
The other students and I were lucky, too, as we had some inspirational lecturers and tutors. I still use Mary Hostler’s best advice about audiology and I remember being in awe of Mike Nolan, one of the foremost in the field of educational audiology who we all learned so much from.
The staff had high expectations of what can be achieved for a child if the audiological provision is strong, and they instilled it in us.
Working in primary schools
As I left, I went straight into working in a primary provision for deaf children in east London with juniors. It was a time where I developed my skills as a young teacher.
The school used total communication and I started to learn BSL. The children were all very interesting; some needed intensive language support, while others were learning and advancing so rapidly they left us early to go to secondary school.
One boy had one of the first ever bone-anchored hearing aids. He was very happy with it, and it really helped him to listen and learn more effectively. A year after that, we supported our first deaf child with a cochlear implant. It may seem almost ordinary to see a child with implants today, but back then it was very new and exciting.
I also learned a great deal from the more experienced mainstream teachers and the teachers of the deaf. They were all mentors and role models to me, and the value of what I learned from them hasn’t left me.
I value both formal support from others that we receive in training and informal support from colleagues too. I joined the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD) whilst I was still fresh from Manchester and I have stayed with BATOD ever since.
Beyond the peers I have locally, BATOD has provided me and countless others with a national network of support, and it has given us all so much in terms of professional support and keeping us as up-to-date as when we left Manchester.
After four happy years in east London, I moved to Laycock Primary School in Islington. Laycock, many of you will know, is a large oral provision in a mainstream school.
Again I taught deaf juniors for a year; they were a great class of nine children, and as part of our science work we raised 30 tadpoples … 24 survived and became frogs. On one of my best school trips ever, we took the frogs in a bucket of water with a tea towel lid on the red bus to an ecology centre at the back of Arsenal stadium and released them into the pond there.
The next school year, my manager, Sue Brownson, asked me to teach infants. I was filled with dread and told her I couldn’t do it, as I had never taught that age before. Sue is a wonderful teacher of the deaf, and she must have seen something in me that I didn’t, so she ignored me and said that I would be fine. She was right.
I had a mixed class of Year 1 and 2 children, and it was the making of me as a teacher of the deaf. I stayed in that classroom with that age group for three years. The children were all still developing early language skills. I was becoming much more confident in helping them develop their skills through lessons and language activities, and the best audiological support that could be offered.
I worked in strong partnership with the other staff; we had speech and language therapy on site and worked with our groups every week. There was also joint planning of lessons with mainstream teachers and many visiting professionals such as teachers of the deaf from implant teams, educational psychologists, social workers and charity outreach staff.
It was at this time that I also started to attend training days and conferences organised by BATOD and others. It was a very good way to network with others and continue to learn about best practice.
At this time, I also took on the role of teacher of the deaf responsible for audiology within the provision. This meant supporting the lead teacher with testing and checking of aids, ensuring parents and hospitals kept up with repairs, and ensuring ToDs had the most up-to-date information from audiology clinics.
It also meant ensuring we had a good stock of radio aids for all of the children, and at one stage we had, I think, 17 microphones in use, as some of the children integrated into mainstream while others remained with their ToDs for more intensive language work, or went to see the speech and language therapists for one-to-one or group activities.
I had already learned from Mary Hostler to take a zero-tolerance approach to providing hearing aids and radio aids (or ALDs as we like to call them now). It was clear to me that for the deaf children to succeed, they needed the best audiological support possible from well-trained and well-informed staff, rigorous daily checks and the highest-quality technology that can be realistically offered.
Becoming an Advisory Teacher of the Deaf
After I left Laycock, I worked as an Advisory Teacher in Bexley. I worked with a very experienced Advisory ToD called Mo Moore, and also with two excellent Family Liaison Officers, Gill Gamblin and Shelagh Norman. They all had an infectious passion for deaf education.
My daily working schedule was much like any other peripatetic ToD. I was advising in nurseries, primaries and secondaries, and going into local special schools, as well as on home visits to babies and toddlers.
It was very rewarding work. I really enjoyed working with toddlers and their families, and helping them make their first steps into listening and language. I have always felt that, if we do it right, it’s a privilege to support children and families at such a crucial time, and that the support from well-trained ToDs and outreach staff makes an enormous and very positive difference to deaf children’s language outcomes.
I was fortunate too to build excellent working relationships with the local specialist speech and language therapist for HI and with the educational psychologists.
Mo wanted me to develop my Advisory skills further. She sent me to quite a few conferences and demonstrated the importance of developing networks with colleagues locally and nationally. This led to both of us planning and running staff conferences with colleagues across south London, from neighbouring boroughs like Greenwich and Lewisham and sometimes further afield like Southwark and Lambeth.
Mo and I also started to get involved in the work of the regional SEN partnerships that existed at the time, especially SERSEN, which had a sensory focus. We started to get involved in the preparations for newborn screening and began attending our first CHSWGS.
From 2005, I led the Advisory Support for Deaf children in Bexley and, shortly afterwards, St George’s Audiology opened a satellite clinic in our borough where all of our children had testing and aid fittings locally.
For our children and families, this was a good move; many had been travelling to central London clinics before that. To have a third-tier specialist service on their doorstep was a wonderful thing. It meant for me and other local professionals that we could go into clinic regularly and work in true partnership with the audiovestibular physicians and the audiologists. I have no doubt that it vastly increased the quality of the support offered.
Over the next ten years, I became more involved in national conferences and national issues, as I believe that so much can be learned that is then taken back to further develop and improve our local practice. It might sound twee to say stronger together, but it’s true that we all learn so much from each other.
This led to me working on a group that planned and ran a conference for Head Teachers of Schools for the Deaf and Heads of Services for Deaf Children. I learned a lot from the other members of the planning team.
I also often needed guidance from others. For quite a time after Mo retired, I was the only Advisory ToD in my borough so links with BATOD, with NATSIP and others became increasingly important for me. There are some amazing leaders in our field and I am grateful to them because they so very often will answer an email, chat on the phone and advise us when we need it most.
In particular, I can’t write this blog without mentioning Paul Simpson from BATOD and Lindsey Rousseau at NATSIP. Their passion for developing our sector is fantastic and has certainly rubbed off on me.
Managing a sensory service and supporting national development
In 2015, I left Bexley to lead the team in Royal Greenwich. Again, I have been fortunate to work with wonderful staff who all care deeply that we provide an outstanding service to sensory impaired children. Every day is different, and I am always learning something new.
I continue to stay passionate about the national picture in sensory, and this has led me to attend many NATSIP working days and, more recently, the NATSIP Steering Group. It’s through this link that I am now working with a team of staff from sensory services, the Institute of Apprenticeships, charity partners and the University MQ providers to develop an apprenticeship model for training to become QTOD/QTVI or QTMSI.
It has led me, in a way, to come full circle back to The University of Manchester, as both the course leader and course lecturer in deaf education have given a great deal of time to the project.
I had no idea 30 years ago that I would still be in deaf education, and that it would be such a rewarding career choice. Family members and friends often accuse me of loving my job. They are not wrong.
Learn more about studying deaf education at Manchester.