Restoring Teachable Moments

By Neyeah Watson

Effective listening is fundamental to being a teacher. Terry Harris, who lives with a severe-profound sensorineural hearing loss, teaches special education in Glenview, IL. His life and profession changed dramatically when he experienced three months of total deafness — prompting him at age 40 to undergo cochlear implant (CI) surgery to restore his access to sound.  

Harris was diagnosed at age 4 with a profound hearing loss in his left ear and a severe-profound loss in his right. He suffered chronic ear infections and was believed to have contracted the mumps, and, at the time, his doctors believed this caused his hearing loss. Harris’s current ENT suspects the cause is genetic, as his great aunt was deaf and his son recently developed a mild hearing loss.

Terry Harris leads a presentation. Credit: Brian O'Mahoney, Pioneer Press

Terry Harris leads a presentation. Credit: Brian O'Mahoney, Pioneer Press

Despite his bilateral loss, Harrris was fitted with a hearing aid in his right ear only after his diagnosis. He attended an oral program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students until third grade before transitioning to mainstream education. In both schools, he used speech-language pathology and lipreading to supplement the amplification he received from his hearing aid. His individualized education plan (IEP) primarily focused on vocabulary development, speech-language development, developing compensatory skills, and utilizing accommodations. 

Though his IEP continued through his high school graduation, Harris struggled to follow noisy discussions in the classroom. Academics were challenging, but he received average marks or better thanks to his phenomenal teachers and hearing intererent (aide). Meanwhile, Harris developed a love for sports, which became more of a focus and priority for him in high school. 

Harris brought his passion for football and baseball with him to Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, IL, where he studied Special Education. Although Harris opted not to receive a 504 plan — an agenda to ensure a student with a disability has access to accommodations that will secure their success — his academic experience at Elmhurst was positive and accessible. He appreciated, for example, that he was able to take American Sign Language courses to fulfill his foreign language requirement. 

In 1999, Harris became a special education teacher, fulfilling a dream he’d had since eighth grade. Harris’s love for teaching derives from the support he received from his own educators. “I teach because of the teachers and coaches who influenced my childhood,” he explains. “I attribute my success to them. They never let me use my hearing loss as an excuse for failure or an excuse not to try something.”

Terry Harris writes on the whiteboard in social studies class. Credit: Brian O'Mahoney, Pioneer Press

Terry Harris writes on the whiteboard in social studies class. Credit: Brian O'Mahoney, Pioneer Press

Harris did not consider CIs until 2014, when he experienced sudden loss of the remaining hearing in his right ear. He lost his hearing completely. “I struggled knowing if I had missed any teachable moments as a result of not hearing everything,” Harris recalls. 

CI surgery had not been considered for Harris during his childhood, when the procedure was still viewed skeptically. But when he experienced total deafness, he viewed CIs as his only option. While aware of the intense aural rehabilitation that would follow, Harris was fully committed to the process of getting the hearing he needed and deserved.

Before the procedure, Harris taught for an entire month while completely deaf. He relied solely on lipreading and the assistance of a few teacher’s assistants. These three months served as a time for Harris to understand just how much CIs could better his quality of life. During this time he remained excited about restored access to sound. 

Harris took a four-month medical leave of absence for rehabilitation after the surgery. Although he did not want to be away from his students long, he was aware that the time was necessary in order to invest in developing to be the teacher he believed his students deserved. Now for the first time in his life, Harris is able to hear in the normal range, as well as localize sound.

Not getting the surgery sooner was Harris’s only regret. Now for the first time in his life, Harris is able to hear in the normal range, as well as localize sound.“I am much more confident in the classroom and other areas of the school building. The cafeteria, the auditorium, or even the gymnasium are no longer ‘problem’" areas for me.”  

Harris makes it a priority to incorporate his hearing loss story into his lessons, and begins each school year with a presentation about how CIs work. Given that Harris teaches children with special needs—including three students with hearing loss to date—he believes these lessons inspire self-determination, compensatory skills, and self-advocacy. He is proud to share his own experiences to let his students know they can achieve fulfillment living with a hearing loss or other perceived limitations.

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