It took only a moment. The 15 hearing-impaired students at Balboa Middle School looked up at their new teacher on orientation day and knew immediately that she was deaf. Frosty-haired, motherly Wendy Gordon looked back and smiled.
"They were just thrilled," Gordon recalled recently, signing through an interpreter. "It's hard to explain. I think it was my expression and my body language."
Yvonne Fischer's students at Elmhurst School had a more obvious clue--the hearing aid their new teacher wore in her right ear.
"They were pretty proud," Fischer said of the 19 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, "because I was like them."
Gordon and Fischer this fall became the Ventura Unified School District's first hearing-impaired teachers in memory. There are two other hearing-impaired public school teachers in other districts in the county, but only Gordon and Fischer stand each weekday before an audience of hearing-impaired students.
Gordon and Fischer say rising awareness in the hearing population and advances in education for the hearing-impaired make this an exhilarating time to be in the field. And school administrators agree that a hearing-impaired teacher can be an unmatchable role model for a hearing-impaired child.
"For the first time in their lives, they're seeing someone who is an adult, who is working with them, and is deaf," Elmhurst Principal Kenneth Coffey said. "Their world has never included a teacher who is deaf."
But for those deaf and hearing-impaired teachers, the challenges of the job are daunting. And some leaders in the deaf community remain skeptical of school administrators who say they can't find qualified hearing-impaired teachers to hire.
"There should be a lot more . . . but school districts are reluctant to hire deaf teachers," said Coleen Ashly, advocacy specialist in the Ventura office of the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness, better known as GLAD.
"It's good to have a teacher who's hearing-impaired to serve as a role model," said Rick Nargie, director of special education for the Ventura Unified School District. "But the bottom line is that you have to go with someone who is a good teacher first. Then you can worry if they're hearing."
As of last April, Ventura County's public schools were serving 139 hearing-impaired students, 48 more who were entirely deaf and eight who were deaf and blind. The students' ages began at less than a year old and ranged up to 19, according to figures compiled by Ventura County Special Education Local Plan Area, an arm of the county school system.
Depending on their location and age, those children are routed into programs run by the Ventura district, the Oxnard Union High School District, the Simi Valley Unified School District and the Ventura County superintendent of schools. In all, more than a dozen teachers in the county specialize in serving hearing-impaired students.
But among those teachers, only Gordon and Fischer are hearing-impaired themselves.
Gordon moved to Ventura from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Fischer came from Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard. They have met just once, when they both took front-row seats--the better to see the sign-language interpreter on stage--at district Superintendent Cesare Caldarelli's annual start-of-school speech at Ventura High School. But the challenge they share is formidable, and their reasons for facing it are largely the same.
Gordon, a cheerful woman in her 40s, perched on a desk in her classroom the other day and did a little cheerleading.
"I think deaf students have a bright future ahead--very bright," she said, communicating with the help of an interpreter. "There are so many resources available now."
Gordon, who grew up in Milwaukee, has been deaf since birth--her mother had German measles early in pregnancy--and communicates several ways at once. She reads lips, follows the signs of interpreters, gestures in sign language and quietly mouths the words as she signs them.
In class, she relies on an interpreter for help. If she needs to call a child's parents after school hours, she dials an 800 number, types her message into a home console and waits for a relay operator to complete the call, pass her message along and then key in the reply.
Gordon grew up without learning sign language--a disadvantage endured by many deaf children until the last decade. It has been only in recent years, Gordon and others note, that schools have reached a consensus that learning sign language should be a top priority for hearing-impaired students, and that lip reading and oral communication skills, as much as possible, should go along with it.
She began learning sign language in her teens and resolved to become a teacher to provide a role model for future generations of hearing-impaired students. She received her master's degree from Cal State Northridge in 1973 and joined the teaching profession.