Chris Arenth, a preschool teacher for the deaf at Lake Sybelia Elementary School in Maitland, Florida, has the unique job of teaching sign language and basic communication to preschool-age children. But the difficulty of her job is compounded by an even more complex problem: the majority of her students’ parents are unable to sign and, therefore, unable to communicate with their own children.
Arenth’s number one goal for 2017 is to get parents involved, get them to learn sign language, and help them to bolster confidence in their children.
Arenth says there are many different reasons why some parents don’t learn to speak sign language; some parents are in denial and believe that their child will spontaneously begin to speak one day, while others are just lax and rely on school educators to teach their child to communicate.
The first few years of a child’s life are certainly impressionable, as this is the time when children learn foundational communication skills. “The majority of my students arrive at school with little to no language,” says Arenth.
Arenth’s students have to work harder than most preschool-age children. Not only do her students have to learn basic academic skills as well as how to follow the preschool curriculum, they also have to learn how to communicate in sign language, almost as if learning language altogether for the very first time.
Complicating things even more is the requirement that all students in Florida, the deaf and the hearing, begin taking the Florida Standards Assessment test in third grade. This puts in place the same academic standards for all Florida children, but it doesn’t take into account how much harder deaf students have to work to learn language which hearing children have already learned by the time they enter the school system.
As this year’s Orange County Teacher of the Year, Arenth is using her position to bring awareness to the communication barriers that sometimes exist for deaf children in the home.