Skip to main content

All the signs of success

Pam Cooley visits a school for the deaf where the teacher's skills as a communicator more than make up for a lack of qualifications. It is very, cold - minus 70 degrees. Where is it?" asks Sue Madden before switching on the video of David Attenborough's Life in the Freezer. She says the words slowly and clearly, at the same time her fingers sign the question to the five children of Year 9 at Thorn Park School and Services for the Deaf in Bradford.

One boy, who has very little residual hearing and a disability which makes finger spelling difficult, looks up at the ceiling. "Good! That's right, it could be the North Pole. Where else could it be?" Other pupils sign the answer and every attempt is encouraged and praised. Then Sue switches on the video and emperor penguins waddle across the screen. The class are doing the "habitats" element of the science curriculum. They all wear radio hearing aids, and Sue wears a transmitter, so that those children who have some hearing can pick up her voice without environmental sounds interfering. Everyone is disappointed when the science period ends before the end of the video.

Sue Madden has no science qualifications, but her skill and enthusiasm in communicating science were qualities that made her one of the regional finalists in the secondary section of the 1995 TESASE Science Teacher of the Year Awards.

Trained to teach home economics, Sue applied for a job at Thorn Park seven years ago. "I was not a trained teacher of the deaf," she says, "but I think they thought would make a good communicator, which is an essential part of the work. I had no sign language at all so I went to night school and now I'm a Stage 2 signer." Stage 4 is professional interpreter level.

After two years at Thorn Park doing sixth-form pre-vocational and careers work, headteacher Malcolm Gordon seconded her for a year to Manchester University to study for a teacher of the deaf qualification: "I'd become so interested in the way the deaf child learns that to have a whole year to study was wonderful. "

Thorn Park has nursery, primary and secondary departments and 28 of the 74 children are secondary pupils aged between 11 and 17. It is a "signing school" and children start learning to sign aged two. Sue explains: "We are finding that children taught to sign from babyhood seem to acquire a better level of language, but you can never stay in a fixed position, you're always exploring alternative things because each child is different. We encourage total communication - speech and the use of sign language. But if we are having difficulty then we turn our voices off and use British Sign Language."

With the introduction of the national curriculum she was asked to take over secondary science. As science co-ordinator she works with the four primary teachers and is also form teacher of Year 7. The key stages and levels of the national curriculum from primary through to GCSE provide a continuity and progression, particularly important for a deaf child. The staff meet regularly to discuss how topics in different subjects can be related to each other. "It is a co-operative effort," says Sue. "The whole ethos of the school is to give the children a variety of experiences and develop language through them.

"The more visual you can make the work," she continues, "the easier the children assimilate and remember it." Complementing the usual apparatus of the science room, there are piles of illustrated books and sophisticated sensing equipment that displays on screen graphs to measure temperatures light and sound levels. "And CD-Rom is brilliant!" adds Sue. For the habitat project, the school's multimedia computer was brought into the science room and the class used Microsoft's CD-Rom Dangerous Animals.

British Sign Language, for all deaf children including those from multicultural backgrounds, is their first language. At home Urdu, or a northern Pakistan dialect, may be the language and lip pattern they are most exposed to. English is their third language and difficulties in learning to read and write it are further compounded by the quite different word order used in signing.

GCSE presents problems because, unlike SATs (standard assessment tests) which allow teachers to write down the answers signed back to them, for GCSE the pupils must prove that they can write the answers without help. "It's very frustrating," says Sue. "Often grades do not reflect the ability of the children." With Beryl Doyle, head of the secondary department, she is campaigning to get the exam rules modified. For those children who will not take GCSE Sue ensures that their work is recognised with a Bradford Recorded Achievements Certificate.

The four deaf adult support workers who assist in the classroom and in other areas of the school provide role model6 for the children, helping them to understand and be proud of deaf culture and heritage. With their help Sue and her colleagues are in the early stages of compiling and producing a dictionary of signs for use in teaching different subjects across the age range. A simple example is the abstract term "measure". Sue explains: "In a science investigation you want the children to do the thinking and you have to be careful because the natural signs for 'measure' or 'weigh' really tell them to make the measurement. So we've developed a neutral sign that doesn't give any clues."

At the end of the afternoon, standing at the door of this happy school, as the children scatter to the buses and cars that take them home, Sue Madden says: "You know, I can't really think of it as a job. I enjoy it too much!" Nominations for this year's TESASE Science Teacher of the Year Awards can be made by pupils, colleagues, parents and schools. Details and nomination forms from ASE, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA. Enclose A4 sae.

Winners receive Pounds 500 each and Pounds 700 for their schools

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you