Deaf teacher listens to inner calling

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Thirty Grade 5 students file into their classroom at St. Mary’s Elementary School in Prince George, cheeks ruddy and hair damp from gym class.

Idelle Beauchesne tells her students it’s time for their math lesson.

Then, she begins calling on students, one at a time, to work out problems on the blackboard at the front of the class.

There are just a few signs that something is different in this classroom.

“I do realize I talk differently than other people,” Beauchesne says. “And the way I look at it, I tell the kids it’s just like someone having another person coming to the classroom with an accent, who is from a different country, and it may take them a day to get used to the way they talk or how I talk,” she says.

Beauchesne, 26, is believed to be the first deaf teacher in the province to teach a regular class.

She began working at St. Mary’s last fall, as her first teaching job since obtaining her Bachelor of Education from the University of Northern B.C.

Beauchesne isn’t completely deaf, but she has a severe hearing loss. With her hearing aids, she can hear sounds but can’t always distinguish words, so she also has to read lips.

Although her hearing loss hasn’t affected her ability to teach, she says she’s had to make some adjustments to accommodate her disability.

When she first took over the class, Beauchesne talked to the students about her hearing impairment. She says they know they must put up their hands when they want to get her attention, and that they have to look directly at her when they’re speaking so she can read their lips.

Beauchesne says she often uses a projector screen to teach lessons, because she learned with visual aids growing up.

Her hearing dog, Eddie, keeps her company in the classroom, although he doesn’t have a working role at school. At home, the fox terrier alerts her to sounds like the doorbell or telephone.

“The kids just love Eddie, but they know he’s a working dog,” Beauchesne says.

Beauchesne says she knew at a young age she wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, she had some strong mentors who inspired her.

“I wanted to do the same thing for other children, to help them-—just to make a difference in someone’s life. Even though I am hard of hearing, I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from being a teacher and doing what I love most to do.”

However, her journey to the front of the class wasn’t easy.

Beauchesne lost her hearing when she was six months old, following a bout of German measles.

Worried about her daughter’s future, Beauchesne’s mother made sure her daughter learned to speak and read lips, instead of having to rely on sign language.

Still, Beauchesne says, as a child, she felt like an outsider at school.

The school district wanted to put her in a special class in Prince George, but her mother fought against it.

“I had some teachers tell me that I would never amount to anything, that I didn’t belong in the classroom,” she remembers today.

It was also difficult for her to make friends. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of public education about disabilities, and other children refused to look beyond her hearing loss.

Despite the challenges she faced at school, Beauchesne excelled in school without a teaching assistant or any special help. “I got here through my own hard work.”

Beauchesne says she hopes to set an example for her students by showing them that hard work and determination can help them overcome the most daunting obstacles.

“I’m just happy to be a role model for students and to let them know, as well as other deaf students, and their parents too, that they can do anything, no matter what people tell them.”

St. Mary’s principal, Brent Arsenault, agrees the kids are learning a valuable lesson—one you can’t find in any school textbook. “I think that kids see that this person can achieve anything—and I think the kids will feed off of that.”

But Arsenault acknowledges there was a concern, at first, about how well Beauchesne could communicate with students and parents.

After speaking with her and learning about her teaching methods, he says he was reassured. Beauchesne also communicates with parents through e-mail and the students’ day planners, he adds.

“We all agreed that Idelle was the best-suited candidate for Grade 5. She shows a lot of intellect and enthusiasm.”

Arsenault says the kids have embraced their new teacher, and don’t seem to have any particular problems learning in their new environment.

For the students, Beauchesne’s hearing impairment isn’t something they dwell on. Most say learning from her isn’t much different than learning from other teachers.

Some, like Aaron Kordyban, are excited they’re experiencing something unique. “She’s different and I think that’s cool, because she’s nice and she’s got a good personality,” he says.

Others have learned a different kind of lesson. “Just because she’s deaf you should treat her the same as everybody else,” Michael Higgs says.

But the children have also had to make adjustments. Jenna Norman says at first, she found it difficult to remember she had to look directly at her new teacher.

Jinny Sims, the president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, says she hopes this is just the beginning of a more diverse workforce in the province’s schools.

She says the teaching staff should reflect differences in the general population, including people with disabilities and those of different ethnic backgrounds. “Students can see that not everybody is the same. This is the way it is in the real world,” Sims says.

It’s not known how many teachers in B.C. schools happen to have a disability, because the federation doesn’t track such statistics.

Beauchesne says she believes her differences will help her become a better teacher. She’s able to bring a different perspective to students’ problems and help them learn from her own experiences, she says.

Although she hopes children can learn lessons about life and self-esteem from her situation, Beauchesne adamantly refuses to be defined by her hearing loss. “I don’t call myself deaf or identify with the deaf culture. I’m just a person who has a hearing loss.”

In Beauchesne’s classroom, the math lesson is over, the blackboard covered with chalk dust and calculations.

As another day at St. Mary’s school draws to a close, students pack their bags and eagerly wait for the buzzer to send them home, but it’s just the beginning of the road for Beauchesne.

Having fulfilled her dream of becoming a teacher, she wants to do even more.

She plans to get a master’s degree through a correspondence program at the University of B.C., and specialize in teaching deaf students.

“Of course you’re there to teach subjects, but it’s so much more than that. It’s more about making a difference, and I’m so passionate about that.”