For most teenagers, a summer spent as a lifeguard and swim instructor is as close to a dream job as you can get.
Molly Herman ’05, ’07 (Early Intervention Certificate), M.S.E. ’09 was looking to earn a little money for college and relax in a bathing suit with friends when she took her summer job at a pool. But a chance encounter with one very special child would set her sights on a “forever-job” in education.
Herman recalls being in the pool’s main office one day and overhearing a conversation between her boss and a mother who wanted to enroll her young son in swimming lessons. The boy, standing at his mother’s side with hopeful eyes, waited patiently as she explained that her son would need a little extra help in the pool because he used only sign language to communicate.
They were about to be turned away, but Herman chimed in, “I’ll do it!” The next thing she knew, she was sitting at a picnic table with the mom learning basic swimming signs, like “kick” and “turn.”
From that day forward, Herman knew her “forever-job” would involve sign language and teaching.
Testing the waters
After the summer swimming lessons had ended, Herman set out to learn as much as she could about the field of deaf education. Once her high school was back in session, Herman met with her guidance counselor. She knew there were teachers in the district who used sign language in their classes, and she wanted to learn as much as she could from them.
Herman worked out a nontraditional schedule with her school. By taking early bird physical education at 6:10 a.m. and giving up music, study hall, and lunch with her friends, she could go to a nearby elementary school and spend time in one of two deaf education classrooms.
It was a sacrifice for the high school senior, but one she believed would pay off in the end.
“I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day as I drove to the elementary school, except on Fridays when I would treat myself to Wendy’s,” said Herman. “And, I fell in love (with the profession).”
As the year went on, Herman was invited to attend workshops with the deaf education teachers and she accompanied the classes on several field trips.
“The kids in the classroom were learning to read and write, and I was learning sign language so we could communicate,” said Herman.
Getting her feet wet
After doing her research, Herman found out that in the late 1990s, Illinois State was the only public university in Illinois that had a deaf and hard of hearing program. She was accepted and received a special education scholarship from the State of Illinois.
Herman admits Illinois State was not her first choice. She viewed it as too close to home and a too familiar setting, as most of her family were alums.
“Nothing against ISU, but my mother went there, my grandmother went there, my dad went there—everybody went to ISU,” said Herman.
Though a “forced-choice” at the time, Herman says the diverse experiences in Illinois State’s deaf and hard of hearing program were integral to her success as a deaf educator. She came to Illinois State with high expectations and was willing to go above and beyond what was required to be the best.
Through scholarship money from the College of Education, she enrolled in summer classes at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., with thousands of deaf and hard of hearing students as her classmates. Herman was one of the few hearing students on campus, but she and a fellow hearing student from California soon made friends with a group of deaf students from Gallaudet.
“They ended up showing us Washington, D.C., through the deaf culture,” said Herman. “They (the Gallaudet students) loved to go to techno dance clubs because most of the places were so loud you couldn’t hear anyone, anyway. It was either sink or swim.”
When she left Gallaudet, she was confident her sign skills could pass the muster in a real classroom.
“If you want to learn Spanish, go to Spain to study,” said Herman. “And if you want to learn sign language, go to Gallaudet.”
The kiddie pool
Herman says that before she had even graduated, she received a job offer at a junior high school in her hometown of Peoria. While Herman always envisioned herself working with younger children, she decided that she could not pass up this opportunity.
She dove right into the junior high curriculum and began the preparations for her new job. Then, two weeks before school was scheduled to begin, she got a call from the district saying that they needed her for a preschool deaf and hard of hearing classroom instead. Despite the late notice, Herman stepped forward to do it.
The shift in assignments left her scrambling to learn a new curriculum and put her classroom together.
“I go into the classroom, and there’s absolutely nothing there. Apparently, that teacher (the former preschool teacher) had bought everything for her room and took it with her,” said Herman.
In her first year of teaching, she quickly learned the students and their families needed more support to be ready for preschool. Some of her 3- and 4-year-olds did not have a basic level of communication skill, and their parents felt lost and unsupported.
Herman reached out to her former professor of special education, Maribeth Lartz, for suggestions about what she could do. Lartz told her that she might want to return to school and earn her certification in early intervention.
As it happened, Illinois State had just received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support the training and certification of early interventionists to work with young deaf and hard of hearing children and their families. Herman volunteered to be a part of the first group to participate in the program.
Returning to Illinois State was her choice, and one she made without reservations this time.
Diving in head first
Herman says she sees her work with the young children and their families at home through state-funded early intervention services as an investment that will pay off once the children enter her preschool class full-time. She has found this especially true for young children who have received cochlear implants, a hearing device used with people who have profound hearing loss originating in the cochlea, or inner ear.
Infants as young as 12 months old may receive the implant. As part of the implant team, Herman helps families who are going through this process.
“A lot times just having the background knowledge of what the implant process is, where they are in the steps of it, and how the surgery works can help the family feel supported,” said Herman.
Herman says she is there with the family from start to finish, even if that means a long day in the hospital waiting room while the child is in surgery. Following surgery, Herman works with the children and families in the home. The sooner she starts working with these children and their families, the better. Many of these children enter Herman’s full-time preschool class when they are 3- and 4-years old.
Since families are such an important part of the treatment for young children with hearing loss, Herman says she also developed sign classes for the parents of her preschool and early intervention children. The classes have become both instructionally and socially supportive for many of the parents.
“They need someone who understands what they’re going through, who they can relate to, and who can bring them hope,” said Herman.
Kick, turn, float
Herman’s commitment to children and families, like her very first student at the pool, keeps her paddling fast to stay afloat.
This is her “forever-job,” and she has never regretted her decision to become a deaf educator. And she is certainly not the only one who is reaping the rewards of her passion. Though Herman is still early in her career, she regularly has students and parents come back to visit her classroom.
“The connections you make with the families, when you’re that first person that gives them some help and some hope, you are their person,” said Herman. “They go back to you because you were the one they trusted to know what was going on with their child.”
Herman has never been one to watch the action from the pool deck. When a kid needs her help, the words, “I’ll do it!” are quick to follow.