By Jacques St. Jean
The task at hand: you are asked to teach math, writing, social studies, and science to seven smiling students ranging from five to eight years old. The twist? They’re all deaf. Despite the tremendous challenge, this feat is accomplished five days a week by Springfield College adjunct faculty member Ellen “Betsy” Grenier.
Grenier grew up in Chicopee, Mass. in a large, Irish-Catholic family with an older sister, three older brothers, and a younger sister. While most of her brothers and sisters went off to do other things such as working at Smith and Wesson and other labor jobs, Grenier chose a path that differed from her family’s default choice.
Grenier was the first of her family to go to college right out of high school and finish in four years. She attended Elms College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and then attended graduate school at Smith College where she received a master’s degree in deaf education. In 1995, she ended up teaching elementary at the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow, Mass., and not so long ago in 2015, she came to Springfield College to teach Manual Communications/Issues of Deaf Culture, or RHDS 378, as we know it.
Growing up, Grenier says that she was sensitive, and “the crier” of the family. Despite this, she was still “a good student, (and) towed the line.” However, she also explains that as a kid she was always seeking approval, permission, and was a “nail-biting worry-wart” that kept her head down and “didn’t want to get punished” which ultimately led her to lean towards education as her occupation.
It “felt like a no-brainer” said Grenier when asked about why she chose to be a teacher; “I had this really sweet teacher, but she was super disorganized… I used to volunteer to stay after school and help her organize her desk… I loved looking at all the teacher’s stuff… I was a little obsessed I think,” Grenier said. She also had “zero control” going to Catholic school as a kid, so she jokingly suspects that she “liked the feeling of control” as a teacher. In all seriousness, Grenier thought she was “sick of sitting on the other side” and wanted to be teaching instead of being taught.
At Elms College, Grenier took two ASL classes, which is where she got hooked. In her second ASL level class, her professor was deaf. “We were interacting in class and that’s it,” Grenier stated, “(I) feel like I didn’t get to know her well.” After this experience she was invested, and for a part of her time in college she visited different deaf schools in the area, looking at and comparing the teaching methods in each school. This is where she found the Willie Ross School for the Deaf, and ultimately ended up teaching full-time elementary there.
One of her students at WRSD, who is 6 years old and will be referred to as D, travels nearly an hour from a neighboring state outside of Massachusetts to be taught by Betsy.
“I like [her] teaching me good things,” D exclaims, “She’s really good at skills” such as math which is one of his favorite subjects. D, who has big dreams of becoming “a brain doctor… and a police officer” suffers from profound hearing loss, which means he cannot hear anything. “If I have my implant off, it feels, deep down… when I have my implant on I feel like I’m hearing,” D states.
Like D, just about all of Grenier’s students have a cochlear implant or a hearing aid in order to assist them in the learning process so that when they learn sign language, they know the speech that correlates with it. Most of these kids are able to speak and sign, making them almost more advanced than regular kids in public schools. But it’s the process of learning that takes more time for them, which is why a class like Grenier’s has so few students, and one or two teacher’s assistants to help these students catch up.
At some points in the class the buzzing and ringing of the hearing aids and implants can be heard. At one point, Grenier adjusted one of her student’s ear molds so that they could hear her better. That’s such a small thing she does as a teacher, but from a different eye, it could be seen as motherly. Grenier really has a connection with these kids in her deaf school.
One of Grenier’s first students, 33-year-old Kaelyn Korbut, has been back in Grenier’s class at WRSD for over a year now, working as a teacher’s assistant in her class.
“It’s a good school,” Korbut signs and speaks to me, “A lot of good, clear communication. It’s good interacting with other people.” Korbut was born with no ears, so she is just one of many students at WRSD to be profoundly deaf. Even snapping or clapping right to her head creates no sound for her. But when she puts her implant on, she is able to hear crystal clear.
“I came a long way,” Korbut says. At the time Korbut was a student of Grenier’s, there was no such thing as an implant or advanced audio technology, so Korbut was “a shy one” presumably because she “(wasn’t) understanding the environment.” However, through Grenier’s help, today she is speaking, signing, and enjoying her life. She is a huge Boston Bruins fan, and loves going on road trips with her mother.
Korbut was growing up at a time where audial technology was in the process of advancing, and it wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that she got her implant, and began to hear.
Like Korbut starting to learn English more easily her freshman year, Grenier says that her mastery in ASL comes from being immersed in it. “You don’t have full knowledge of it until you’re absolutely immersed in it,” Grenier explains. ASL is like a second language for her. She has gained a cultural sensitivity to the deaf community. “Sign everything you say, or take turns, don’t talk over each other,” she says, and maintain eye contact. “You feel comfortable with people that get you,” she says. She has created a new respect that she gives to others not only in the deaf community, but in her normal daily life as well.
This has impacted one of her former students at Springfield, senior and Rehabilitation and Disability Studies major Katie Adams, to follow in Grenier’s footsteps in deaf education.
Adams took Grenier’s class the spring semester of freshman year, and “fell in love with it.”
“I was terrified,” Adams explains, “but she made it really enjoyable, and just told us from the get-go to not be uncomfortable because we’re learning a new language… (she) has that experience with younger kids so I think she’s just a little more patient with the college student.” Adams, who has been doing service hours in Grenier’s class at WRSD since September, was amazed to see what she does when she’s not at Springfield or playing her role as a mother of two and a wife.
“I think it’s really difficult, but I don’t think she really thinks twice about it. She loves what she does,” Adams expresses. “I think the kids love her, she makes it so much fun, and she reciprocates it back. She loves her students.”
Solely after taking Grenier’s ASL class, Adams was hooked, and is now applying to online schools to pursue a master’s in deaf education. Adams will be going through the same process Grenier went through in grad school, where she will go from deaf school to deaf school in the local area and compare the teaching methods at each school.
Grenier sees the kids she teaches at WRSD just like any other kindergartener or second grader. “Their interests are the same,” she says, “they want to tell me about their loose teeth, they want to tell me about their pets… and the fact that maybe other places they don’t feel free enough, they can’t communicate it, but here they can… that makes being at school here a different kind of connection.” Grenier states that “(They) reach a level of intimacy with (the students) where we’re like family with them.”
Grenier acts like a second mother to these kids five times a week. Her students are able to be at a level of comfort where they can and want to tell her anything and everything. In situations like these, it might be a little more acceptable when a student has a Freudian slip and calls her teacher mom.
Featured photo courtesy Ellen Grenier