Bringing in the Right People

It never fails. “Who’s the new teacher?” is a main topic among parents, teachers, staff and students every spring and summer. With new teachers being hired every year, it’s understandably a topic of interest for stakeholders.

This is even truer for state schools for deaf students, given the cohesive Deaf community—and how many people worry about new hires’ language fluency, qualifications, respect for the community and culture, and experience.

Too many state schools for deaf students struggle to stay open because of misguided legislators and administrators who are, yes, hearing. Time after time, we are forced to explain to boards, administrators and governing bodies why it is so crucial that teachers and administrators not be only knowledgeable, but also have a firsthand understanding of what working in the Deaf community requires. Then our words are twisted and mangled beyond recognition in the media (“not deaf enough,” anyone?), and the community at large scoffs at our repeated pleas to be heard, calling us demanding, militant, and unrealistic.

The Minnesota State Academies (MSA)—comprised of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) and Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, two separate campuses a mile or two apart—board hired a new superintendent. As the parent of four students who attend MSAD and as the wife of a MSAD teacher, I had a keen, vested interest in the process.

The most surprising part of the search wasn’t the selection. Many stakeholders had come together prepared to rally for the best candidate, especially if there were no finalists familiar with the Deaf community. Rather,  the surprise came at the very beginning: not one deaf and/or blind candidate sent in an application.

After talking to multiple parties at various levels, it became apparent why this happened. Aside from the common reasons—not wanting to work in Minnesota because of the weather, pay issues, and so on—the prevalent reason was that there simply weren’t enough qualified candidates.

Although we’ve had an influx of people with doctoral degrees and even administrative experience, not very many are qualified to run both deaf and blind schools. And this is where the catch-22 begins. We obviously want someone Deaf to run MSAD, but most Deaf administrators start out specializing in Deaf education because special education fields generally have too heavy of an emphasis on the disability aspect rather than the language and cultural aspects we need in Deaf education. And therein lies the problem: MSAD and MSAB have very different needs, despite legislators’ typically misguided belief that having one administrator run both schools would be more efficient and cost less.

Even so, there had to be more to this surprise lack of Deaf applicants. After all, MSAD is predominantly filled with Deaf teachers. There are no hearing teachers in the high school; the middle school only has two hearing teachers; the elementary school has two hearing teachers—one of whom is the mother of two deaf children and married to a deaf person. There are deaf employees everywhere throughout the school, although the top two administrators are hearing. The school’s early childhood education program has also exploded in the past few years, going from only a handful to at least 30—and many are not even one year old. Families are moving to Faribault with their deaf children because of this awesome deaf-centric atmosphere.

After a group of parents came together to keep tabs on the interview process, it became clear that one of the reasons was the lack of community-specific outreach. MSA hired BKB Associates, a school executive search firm led by two former school administrators. Although BKB was quite transparent and very responsive to the parent group’s questions and concerns, there was still something missing. Led by two hearing white males who have no knowledge or expertise in Deaf (or blind) education, BKB posted the job posting on 42 websites, including the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD). They also held meetings with different stakeholders, including a two-hour meeting with the parents. Even so, they ultimately were accountable only to the school board—which has only one Deaf voting member.

This got me thinking: there needs to be a search or headhunting firm specializing in Deaf professionals and administrators. There are so many positions in the nation for administrators not only at state schools, but also at non-profit agencies, businesses, and even government agencies. Such job postings often result in a very, very limited pool of qualified applicants.

To have a Deaf-led search firm would strengthen the transparency that is so crucial to the Deaf community, expand the pool of potential candidates, since the firm would know exactly where to look, and ensure an intricate, firsthand understanding of the linguistic and cultural requirements of any such job within the community. Additionally, such a firm could create trainings, guidelines, and so forth for Deaf individuals wanting a career in education or business administration.

This specialized search firm would also be useful for state schools or deaf education programs recruiting high-quality, knowledgeable applicants. Corporations, agencies and schools could turn to this firm to ensure that their hiring processes and employment procedures are not biased towards hearing people, and provide full transparency to the communities they serve—especially the Deaf community.

Maybe, at long last, we’ll stop being overlooked and ignored in our quest for equality.

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