by Daniel Rickett
Ana Silvia got the shock of her life. After five years of teaching the deaf, the young school principal almost lost hope when she discovered her students had made little progress.
Ana Silvia got the shock of her life. After five years of teaching the deaf, the young school principal almost lost hope when she discovered her students had made little progress. Children were signing words but not sentences. Their silent words had no grammatical structure. The school was giving the children a bigger vocabulary but not the language skills that would enable them to read and write—the basics for further education and eventual employment.
Down but not out, Ana Silvia Valencia, founder and principal of the Christian School for the Deaf in San Salvador, did the one thing leaders often find hard to do: she swallowed her pride and became a learner.
Today the Christian School for the Deaf is a shining example of extraordinary achievement. Not only has the school achieved high levels of educational quality, it has the distinction of pioneering Christian education for the deaf in Central America. The school’s curriculum and approach to teaching may be a model for Christians throughout the Spanish speaking world.
But it hasn’t always been like that. Six years ago Sharilyn Knaus, a short-term missionary, made the unhappy discovery that the children were not speaking in complete sentences. That is, they were not signing in complete sentences. Devastating as this was, the real blow came when they realized that the children were merely mimicking their teachers. The problem wasn’t that the children weren’t learning, but that the teachers weren’t teaching.
For years Valencia and her co-workers had poured their lives into dozens of children only to discover they had left out vital components necessary to learn to read and write.
“It never occurred to us this was happening,” said Valencia. “At first, we were all confused and deeply disappointed. Some of the teachers felt guilty, others wanted someone to blame.” Worse, she said, “I didn’t have a clue about how to correct the problem.” Fortunately, she had three things going for her: a teachable spirit, a clear goal and a wise co-worker.
Typically a leader has four options. She can deny a mistake was made. This does nothing to correct the problem. To those who are aware of the mistake, denial makes the leader appear prideful, unaware or afraid of change.
For leaders to admit a mistake is equivalent to admitting weakness. It suggests your leadership may be flawed. That is precisely the kind of thinking that leads to failure. Denial isolates the leader from important feedback and reinforces the myth that good leaders don’t make mistakes. Mistakes are not the problem. Failing to learn from them is the real danger.
A second response is to refuse to acknowledge the mistake publicly. This too can erode the leader’s credibility and teach employees that it’s okay to hide mistakes.
A third response is to admit the mistake and place blame. Valencia might have blamed the teachers and absolved herself of any responsibility. Finding fault results in humiliation for those who made the mistake and increases the likelihood that future mistakes will be covered up rather than acknowledged.
The best response is to acknowledge the mistake and try to learn from it; exactly what Valencia did. She made no excuses and no attempts to place blame.
A few other responses were available to her. She could have accused the missionary of imposing standards that their small, struggling school could not meet. She could have denounced her college education for not teaching her more about curriculum development for the deaf. She could have delegated the problem to the teachers, excusing herself from the learning process. Instead, she took responsibility and began learning how to correct the problem.
Valencia’s willingness to learn was guided by a clear goal. She knew what the school had to achieve—enable deaf children to successfully transfer into regular schools. A complete education would give them a fighting chance to be gainfully employed in a hearing society. When she discovered that her teaching methods would not achieve that goal, she changed them.
A clear picture of what she wanted to accomplish served Valencia in four ways. One, a clear goal provides a point of measurement. A goal is only a goal when it is measurable enough that you know it when you see it and when you don’t. “The moment I realized the children were not communicating in complete sentences,” she said, “I knew they were not ready to enter regular school.”
Two, a clear goal forces deviations into the open. It was obvious to everyone that they either had to change the goal or correct the mistake. A fuzzy goal or a changing vision might have made it easy to ignore the mistake and go on with business as usual.
Three, a clear goal keeps the focus on core values. Their goal focused on the children, not on how the teachers felt, not on Valencia’s authority or sense of importance, and not on institutional traditions or policies.
Four, a clear goal makes it easy to communicate and own. Because all the teachers understood the goal, failure to achieve it galvanized them into action. Figuring out how to design a whole new curriculum wasn’t easy, but they knew what they had to accomplish.
The goal shared by Valencia and her co-workers was nourished by a bigger dream—deaf children coming to know Christ and living healthy productive lives. The big dream gave the goal its meaning and provided a continuous need to learn and grow. In the final analysis, it’s the dream that enabled Valencia and the teachers to face the situation and undertake the difficult task of learning.
The problem with learning from your mistakes, Valencia said, is figuring out how to proceed. “When Sharilyn tried to explain what was going wrong, no one knew what she was talking about. We were all in the dark.” How they moved successfully from there to where they are today is a direct result of Sharilyn’s approach to solving the problem.
One of the first steps in problem solving is to involve the right people. Earlier, Knaus had videotaped the students and teachers in action. Analyzing the videotapes brought the problem to everyone’s attention.
Knaus’s original job was to provide teacher training in reading development. She had made the tapes to assess how the students were performing. “You have to understand,” she explained, “teaching reading to the deaf is very difficult. People with normal hearing learn language skills very early in life. For example, hearing people learn the parts of speech by listening. The deaf have to be taught the proper word order.” Videotaping, she says, is the best way to study communication with the deaf.
Because Knaus had invited the teachers to help her analyze the tapes, they discovered for themselves what was going wrong. It also allowed them to reach their own conclusions that change was needed.
When everyone was aware of the problem and committed to change, they were ready to take the next step to understand the problem. For weeks they stared at the videotapes, taking meticulous notes of every conversation. In the process the teachers began to see the absence of the speech parts that are almost intuitive in spoken language.
To complicate matters, they also discovered that they were signing in English rather than Spanish. Contrary to popular opinion, Knaus says, signing is not a universal language. “It’s just as culture bound as any spoken language. Word order, for instance, is different from one language to another. In order to teach the deaf how to read and write in their native language, you have to use the rules of that language.”
That gave the teachers their first clue toward a solution. If the children were going to learn to read and write in Spanish, they would have to learn to sign in Spanish. That meant the teachers would have to come up with sign language rules based on the Spanish language.
Under Knaus’s skillful guidance the teachers chiseled out rules for signing in Spanish. With each new rule, Knaus developed teaching techniques for the classroom. In time, they had a collection of teaching strategies and techniques. When the teachers saw that the students were progressing, they asked for help to apply the teaching strategies to other subjects.
The final step was to convert the national public school curriculum for use in deaf education. It took five years and the participation of every teacher. Today the school has six years worth of deaf education curriculum, from preschool to sixth grade. They finished the way they started: everybody owned the problem and everybody created the solution.
The teachers at the Christian School for the Deaf in San Salvador saw their dream come true. That year the first group of deaf students was mainstreamed into regular schools. Not only were the children ready to learn in regular schools, some surpassed hearing students in academic achievement. One child achieved the second highest ranking among all the students tested.
“We are amazed at how well the children are adjusting,” reported Valencia. “One of the boys is the captain of a hearing soccer team. Others have joined youth groups and Bible studies of the hearing.”
The best part is, not only are the children able to “hear” the gospel of Jesus Christ, they have become his ambassadors to those who live in silence.
Daniel Rickett is the director of research at Geneva Global Inc. (www.genevaglobal.com), a professional services firm dedicated to moving funds to life-changing projects in the hard places of the world. His e-mail address is: .
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 368-371. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.