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Theresa Copple: The Council for Exceptional Children’s
2024 National Special Education Teacher of the Year

Instilling Self-Advocacy in Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

When Theresa Copple was in fifth grade, she had a friend whose parents were Deaf. Theresa’s friend taught her the alphabet in American Sign Language (ASL), and that bit of knowledge left her hungry to learn more than just the ABCs, so she and her best friend headed to the school library to take out a book about sign language.

That moment lit a fire; Theresa was determined to become fluent in sign language, but few resources were available. She and her best friend petitioned their middle school counselor to introduce ASL classes as an elective, and they succeeded.

With sign language classes underway, young Theresa soaked up ASL like a sponge. Two of the interpreters eventually took her under their wing, and she went along with them to other courses.

“As soon as I could drive, I was taking myself to my night school to learn ASL,” she said.

Her mother always said she’d be a teacher, but Theresa had her sights set on something a little different: becoming an interpreter. And today, she serves as both.

Theresa grew up in Kentucky, went to school in Kentucky and Ohio, and worked in Cincinnati, teaching at Saint Rita School for the Deaf, Ohio’s first accredited high school for the Deaf. She’s now in California, working as a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Itinerant Teacher for Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE). Her work is widely recognized and celebrated both locally and nationally. The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has named her the 2024 National Special Education Teacher of the Year.

“As a teacher-without-a-room, aka itinerant teacher, one of her biggest challenges is not having a place to teach,” the CEC said on their website. “She has taught at picnic tables outside, inside closets, borrowed principal offices, teachers’ lounge, and in the best place, the RSP room. She says collaborating with onsite RSP teachers is critical.”

RSP is an acronym for Resource Specialist Program. RSP teachers work with students who have IEPs and need personalized support, often through the Director of Special Education, and work with classroom teachers to make sure each student’s needs are met.

Many of Theresa’s students, who attend schools across Alvord Unified School District, rely on technology to experience truly accessible and equitable learning. Theresa moves from school to school, ensuring that each child’s hearing aids are functioning, collaborating with speech therapists, classroom teachers and school support staff, as well as attending IEP meetings.

She’s great at what she does. A skilled educator, of course, but also an adept connector and community maker, both inside classrooms and throughout buildings. Much of her focus is on making sure her students understand their hearing loss, can advocate for themselves, and feel confident in their abilities. And some facets of this work require a bit of help from their peers.

“I think one of my favorite types of classrooms to go into would be with the elementary school and—after reviewing with the student on how their technology works—going in and doing a presentation to the entire class.”

Theresa then hones in on hearing and does an exercise to demonstrate the value of the technology that the Deaf or hard of hearing student is wearing. “So I’ll say, ‘Repeat after me what you hear,’ and I will say, ‘Orange’ and then everybody will say, ‘Orange.’ And then I’ll go to the corner of the room and whisper in different words—until I’m literally outside of the door—and the only one who can hear me is the student with the technology.”

Theresa will then walk around the classroom with the receiver, giving students the opportunity to hear through it and fully grasp what it does and how it helps students with hearing loss. This work is so effective, her students’ academic performance can be at par with that of the general population. And the technology empowers them to go about each school day the way anyone else would.

“Many of the other students don’t even know our students have hearing loss,” she said. “Especially if we have the tower already in the classroom. The teacher is wearing the microphone; the classroom is already amplified.”

Theresa also delivers professional development to help teachers set students up for success. Aside from formal coursework and the monthly “tips and tricks” that they receive in their inboxes, Theresa meets with educators individually and observes  lessons being taught with modifications and accommodations incorporated—and that is what helps classroom teachers fine-tune their instructional strategies.

“Mostly it’s that one-on-one time and working with the teacher,” she said. “If I can sneak in on their lunch break or come in on their prep time or be involved with the lesson, I can help increase best practices such as, ‘You know, you might want to bring that microphone up a little bit,’ or ‘Hey, great job. He’s seated right where he needs to be so that he can see and hear you the best.’”

Where should a Deaf or hard of hearing student sit? It varies, of course, but making sure the student is on the correct side of the classroom makes a world of difference, she said. “When in doubt, put them in the middle, if that’s where you’re teaching from, but sometimes even putting a little sticker on their desk or a sticker on your board—wherever it is—that can give you a visual to remind you, oh, it’s the right ear.”

Self-advocacy is central to everything Theresa teaches these students, and that begins with the basics. “If a child comes in pre-K or kindergarten, we start right off—right away—on how to operate their equipment. They become the biggest advocate and the biggest troubleshooter when it comes to their equipment,” she said.

And that sets a foundation for solid self-advocacy work. Even the youngest students learn about parts of the ear so they understand how the ear works. They learn how to describe their hearing to a friend or a teacher. It also makes it easier for them to talk to audiologists and other medical professionals. If there are any issues with listening comprehension, she also works with them on things like comprehension goals and vocabulary.

One of her favorite things about her job (and one that most teachers do not experience) is that, when a student comes into the program at a young age, Theresa gets to go through all the grade levels with that particular learner. After so many years of working together, she becomes close to her students and even to their families—and those relationships often become lifelong connections that she values dearly.

“All my kids have my cell phone; all my parents have my cell phone number,” she said. “I’m not following you to college, but you can give me a call, because once you’re one of my students, you’re always one of my students.”


 

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Maia Appleby is the Editorial Director of the American Consortium for Equity in Education. She’s also a communications manager and an advocate who has been writing and editing in the education space since 2010. Connect with her on LinkedIn at Linkedin.com/in/maialee.

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