CHAMPAIGN — Read an audiogram or ocular report. Tinker with an uncooperative hearing aid. Translate a worksheet into Braille and then back to ink print again.
For teachers of the deaf, hard of hearing, blind or vision-impaired, it's all in a day's work.
But how much training these teachers need before they join either field is now a subject of debate following an amendment proposed by the Illinois State Board of Education.
As the state seeks to address a teacher shortage that left nearly 3,000 positions unfilled at the end of the 2018 school year, plans for loosening licensure requirements have been pitched as possible solutions.
They range from a bill that would suspend taking a basic skills test prior to getting a license (currently awaiting a signature from Gov. J.B. Pritzker) to the amendment that would give already-licensed general education teachers an "endorsement" for deaf, hard-of-hearing or vision-impaired teaching after completing 18 hours of college coursework in four general areas. There's also the option just to pass a multiple-choice content test specific to the student population such teachers aim to serve.
That's a change from the current standard, which requires educators to both complete an approved program and pass the test. The current model helps ensure students won't get left behind, teachers statewide argue.
Unit 4's Dana Lamkin is among them.
She has spent 27 years as an itinerant teacher in Champaign, splitting half of the district's caseload of deaf or hard-of-hearing students with one other teacher. That means traveling between buildings to provide services that range from changing hearing-aid batteries to helping a student interpret a room's acoustics.
"When people think about hearing loss, they think about deafness, but it's a spectrum," she said. "We have fluctuation with hearing levels — it goes from mild, moderate, severe, profound, and we have to know how that impacts them educationally.
"You have to understand the hearing loss. You have to understand the kind of troubles hearing loss causes. Then you have to know how to put accommodations in place to remediate that. You have to understand hearing science and sounds."
Without comprehensive training, she said, it could be easy to miss a student's needs, which can be hidden "in plain sight." If a teacher couldn't translate the graphs on an audiogram correctly, a student's hearing loss could be misrepresented or not caught at all. And parents might never associate behavior — like loud speaking or aggressive control of the conversation — with a hearing issue, she said.
"Ninety to 95 percent of kids with hearing loss are born to parents with normal hearing, and they have no experience with it," Lamkin said. "They are waylaid with hearing loss information, and they're like, 'What do we do now?'"
For the "one to two kids in a building" at Unit 4 who need her, Lamkin and her counterpart become "the expert" for the students, families and staff involved.
"The parents rely on me. The teachers rely on me. The administrators rely on me to know my stuff," she said. "If you have people with only 18 hours (of experience), they can mean well, but they're not going to know how to assess or plan an educational program. They won't know how to level the playing field in the classroom.
"Hearing loss is all about access — you can be a genius, but if you don't have access to instruction, you won't reach your full potential."
'Scary to me'
The intent of the proposed amendment, for which public comment will stay open until May 27, is to increase educational access, said agency spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.
"These endorsement options were developed in response to the teacher shortage and feedback that ISBE has received from districts regarding being able to find qualified educators for their classrooms," she wrote in an email.
More than a year ago, ISBE surveyed the professional network that local vision and hearing specialist Pam Duda co-chairs to help it "figure out how to address the teacher shortage." Like those educating students with hearing loss, Duda said she and the Illinois Vision Leadership Council have expressed concern that this amendment is the wrong approach.
"As an administrator, I'm struggling to fill my positions," said Duda, vision and hearing coordinator for Central Affiliation for Special Education Audiology, which serves Champaign and Ford counties.
"But coming from ... a practitioner side, I don't want to fill those positions with people who don't know their stuff," said Duda, whose organization provides hearing evaluations for children, from birth through high school graduation, at no charge to families.
In its 18-hour proposal, ISBE identified four general areas of knowledge that teachers must study prior to getting the endorsement.
What concerned Duda and others in the vision field was the lack of any requirements regarding Braille.
The vision council was able to come up with "18 hours we would be OK with," Duda said, but only if they were more specialized than the general requirements proposed by ISBE. "None of those four areas included ... anatomy of the eye ... some of the key things that are specialized in the field."
Teachers in these fields must have a wide breadth of knowledge, Duda said, because there might only be one of them within an entire region — literally.
"We do all grade levels (from ages) 3 to 21," she said. "If you send someone who doesn't have the skill set and (students) have that teacher from 3 to 21, that's scary to me if they're not prepared.
"Obviously, they learn things on the job — we all do. But we want to have very high expectations for our professionals out in the field."
Eighteen hours of college coursework can't prepare a teacher for the types of scenarios Duda dealt with recently.
"In one of my areas, we have a student just entering high school, and he lost his vision over three months," she said. "All of a sudden, he has to lose his driving permit. He was in marching band and soccer, and now he can't read print.
"The whole psychosocial piece for students who lose vision later on — the impact of that component is huge, just like with hearing."
That's one reason why whole college-level programs require more than four times the coursework that ISBE is proposing for students training to become hearing and vision specialists.
Maribeth Lartz, a 36-year deaf-education veteran at Illinois State University, said advancements in the field have mandated that the department expand its requirement for majors to beyond 80 credit hours.
"By decreasing the requirements for teachers, she said, "it's going to be even more difficult to meet the needs of students.
"Many parents are ... trusting that the state has given and studied the plan and decided this is what a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing needs to meet your child's specialized needs, but I don't think it provides an adequate model or plan. There is no practicum requirement — I'm worried that you could put your own schedule together and never work with a student with hearing loss, but show up and have a job in that area the day after you finish 18 hours, and it would be the first time you sat across the table from a child with hearing loss."
This isn't the way to increase the state's special-ed teaching pool, Lartz said.
ISBE's plan is "a short-term solution that is negatively going to impact these students for decades," she said. "You cannot make up what is going to be lost."
'Big exodus' ahead
Lamkin plans to retire from Champaign schools in nine years. It should be a happy reflection of a journey that she says has been more mission than career, but she now worries about the field she'll leave behind.
"A lot of my kids will still be receiving services in nine years," she said. "I don't want to leave and have someone take over that doesn't know."
Duda worries, too — many of those she works with are also approaching retirement age, with fewer fully qualified replacements in the pipeline.
"A big exodus" is coming, she said. "I even look at the council I'm on, and in the last couple of years and the next few to come, a big chunk of our experience is going to be gone."
There are efforts underway to stem the shortage — like state-level recruiting efforts — but others remain more "grassroots," Duda said, like her organization proposing a master's program.
Something needs to change, Lamkin said. But not the way ISBE has proposed.
"It's about children's lives and whether they can get employment and go to college and be successful," she said. "These kids are the neatest — they are really great kids, and they deserve the chance to reach their full potential. You have to have a teacher who can meet those needs."