Teaching in silence

By John Paul Ecarma Maunes, VERA Files

Cebu City— It is a typical morning rush in a community publicschool in Barangay Bulacao, Pardo in Cebu City. Students lugging heavy schoolbags head towards their classrooms in a hurry, some with parents in tow.

In one particular classroom, the scene is even more chaotic: 15 students, aged 14 years and below, speak animatedly with one another, frantically waving their hands around, some teasing their classmates and others running around tables and chairs.

In the center of it all, the teacher, not much taller than her students, looks unperturbed. She is busy preparing for the day, arranging her things on a table in front of the class. Behind her, a poster of illustrated alphabet hands hangs above the blackboard.

The clock turns 8, the school bell rings. No one in class hears the bell. The students go about their animated conversations, oblivious of the shrill ring of the bell.

It is a typical scene at the Bulacao Community SPED Center, where Michelle Gabisan, 30, teaches a multi-grade class of Deaf students. Like all her students, Michelle is also Deaf.

The first child of a bartender father and a stay-at-home mother, Michelle was not born deaf. But when she was four years old, she contracted meningitis and an over dosage of antibiotics cost her her sense of hearing.

When Michelle started school, her parents sent her to a mainstream private school, not knowing she could no longer hear. Her parents and her four siblings thought she was amang, a Cebuano term for mute. As a result, Michelle completed her entire elementary education in a hearing class where she was the only Deaf person.

It was not easy. Michelle had to learn her lessons through lip reading. “Reading the lips of my teachers, it was really difficult for me to get what they were trying to say whenever they cover their mouth or during lectures,” Michelle said using Filipino sign language or FSL.

When the teachers spoke and turned their backs to write on the blackboard, for example, Michelle felt shut out from the class.

Though she struggled, Michelle did well. “I can still remember my classmates in elementary copying my notes and asking for answers every time we have a quiz in class.”

When she reached high school, she transferred to the First High School for the Hearing Impaired, a public high school in Basak, Cebu City. For the first few days, she felt disoriented because the school used a different language. There was no talking, just hand gestures and facial and bodyexpressions to communicate.

With neither knowledge nor experience in sign language, Michelle felt lost. “I was afraid and confused during my first few days in the Deaf school. I really didn’t know yet about sign language and my Deaf cultural identity,” she said.

As days passed, she learned to use sign language, and slowly understood that she was Deaf, a person who belongs to a different culture and language apart from those who can hear.

This realization was a breakthrough for Michelle and her family, who until then, was in denial that she was different.

Graduating one of the top students in her high school, she decided to enroll at the University of Southern Philippines (USP) in Cebu for her tertiary education because of its programs for Deaf students wanting to become teachers.

A scholarship and financial assistance from a Deaf friend got her through a difficult period and she managed to graduate in 2006 with a degree in Elementary Education, major in English.

“I did not allow poverty, money or any other reason to be a barrier to stop me from finishing college,” Michelle said. “Even when I was still in elementary, I considered myself equal to my hearing classmates. There was never a time that I had self-pity because I was Deaf.”

In 2009, Michelle took the Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET) but failed. She tried again three years later and passed. She was the only Deaf to pass the exam in 2012.

Relating her experience, she said it is not easy for Deaf examinees to pass the LET. For one, there is no examination matrix tailored for them and no sign language interpreter during review class for LET.

During the examination itself, sign language interpreters are not allowed to accompany and assist the Deaf examinees, who are left out every time instructions are given.

“We struggled with the jargon,” Michelle said. “We felt discriminated against and felt that the entire system wanted us to fail. I felt sorry for my other deaf batch mates and it breaks my heart knowing that it is their dream to teach and help other deaf students.”

Now Michelle serves as a volunteer teacher in Bulacao. She does not draw a salary, though she was promised that she would eventually be hired when the Cebu City Division of the Department of Education opens a new job item or when someone retires.

Unfortunately, she has to compete with other teacher aspirants, even though she has a unique set of skills valuable to Deaf students.

As a Deaf teacher who knows FSL, Michelle is able to naturally connect with her Deaf pupils, who respond actively to her, which is not the case for a class under a hearing teacher who constantly asks students for confirmation that she is being understood.

According to Michelle, most teachers in charge of Deaf kids do not know sign language well, causing a gap between them and their students who then become either inattentive or bored. They end up performing poorly in class under a hearing teacher.

Compared to other countries, the Philippines has no system in place or curriculum for teaching the Deaf. It is among only a few countries in the world that do not recognize the natural language of the Deaf, failing to integrate it in the educational system.

Michelle knows the struggles of a Deaf student; she was one, after all. And she is determined to be personally involved in providing new approaches to the old practice and system of teaching. “We don’t want the Deaf children to encounter the bad experiences we had when we were students.”

Even though she does not get a single centavo for her efforts and even has to spend from her own pocket just to be able to teach, Michelle is determined to press ahead. “I’d rather volunteer in this school and not have anything in return than get a paying job somewhere else but knowing that the Deaf kids are left with no quality education.”

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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