Deaf Teacher Gets the Equations Across

Isiah Reyes

“It is interesting to see that deaf people can function in the hearing world very well while hearing people cannot function well in a deaf world.” – Gil Eastman, Gallaudet Theater Arts Professor.

On an ordinary day, math professor John Phillips walks into his classroom and writes homework assignments on the whiteboard. There is nothing unusual about this procedure, except for the fact that his students do not speak directly to him, nor will he speak back to them.

He will continue preparing his lecture in solitude until his fifth sense walks in the room. His translator for the day, Jose Palacios, connects the class to Phillips.

Suddenly, the students begin to ask questions and make comments and the atmosphere is transformed into a typical classroom.

The Phoenix, Ariz. native has been deaf since birth and recalls growing up as a deaf student.

“I was in a fully deaf class,” Phillips said, with the assistance of translator Palacios.

“Many students had some partial residual hearing, but I was profoundly deaf so the oral method did not work for me.”

His teaching career at Glendale began in the fall of 2007 when he proposed teaching a class with a mixture of hearing and deaf students, because classes with deaf students require an interpreter anyway.

“They get the benefit of watching ASL [American Sign Language],” Phillips said. “So it’s more visual for students and it’s a different style for others.”

Before teaching at Glendale, Phillips was a tutor at Gallaudet University, a school in Washington D.C, which specializes in educating deaf or hard-of-hearing students.
It is the same place where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Later, he served as a tutor’s assistant for many years at Cal State Northridge where he received his master’s degree in mathematics.
The communication roadblock does not stop Phillips from giving his lecture for the day. As Palacios takes roll call, Phillips writes out the first problem on the board. The amount of noise is somewhat louder than in other classes.

“In regards to students talking during exams, I have the interpreter – he is my ears,” Phillips said.

But otherwise, his teaching methods are no different than those of other professors.
“I always give them partial credit if they set it up right, but if there’s one silly little mistake I usually subtract a few points and that’s it,” Phillips said. “It’s not a zero for the whole problem. I don’t believe in that.”

There are two deaf students enrolled in Phillips’s Math 119 class. He talks to them directly if they need help.

“If they ask questions, they usually signal directly to me. Some people ask a lot of questions so I don’t always have time to address all of their questions,” Phillips said.

As the class gets underway, Phillips is busy teaching binomials and polynomials to a class of half capacity. Even then, Palacios has his hands full as he translates incoming questions from different students.

The lecture progresses promptly and the hour-long class is finished 20 minutes early because of a short chapter section. As most students walk out, some stay behind and ask Phillips questions from the previous night’s homework. Many students benefit from Phillips’s style of teaching.

“I like the way he teaches and how he answers my questions,” said Damoun Nikouie, 27, a business administration major. “Before that, I was not that good in math but now I’m getting an A. That’s great — thumbs up.”

“Deaf people can do anything, except hear.” – Dr. Frederick Schreiber, President of the National Association of the Deaf.

Growing up, Phillips recalled the struggle and the obstacles that he had to face in life. He became skilled in math, and unlike most deaf students who struggled with English because it is not their native language, Phillips also has good English skills. Trying to learn by means of the oral method proved to be too much of a challenge for him.

The two opposing philosophies regarding the education of deaf people include “oralism” and “manualism.” Oralism focuses on using speech, lip reading and observing mouth movements. Manualism focuses on using sign language.

There is an ongoing philosophical dispute with people divided into roughly two main camps over a wide spectrum. They argue over which method to implement when teaching deaf students how to communicate.

“Mainly, the oralism camp excludes any form of signing in favor of intensive speech therapy, now commonly paired with cochlear implants,” Phillips said. “The manualism camp is very diverse, with many different theories like bilingualism, total communication, English-coded sign systems, and so on.”

Phillips said that he grew up with the manual method after a short time with the oral approach. That’s when he became more accomplished in English, which in turn helped him in other subjects as well.

“Because I grew up reading books, it helped me with my English studying,” Phillips said. “As a deaf student, I had to depend on myself a lot, and I became a big bookworm.”
Both of Phillip’s parents were positive role models. His dad read the newspaper often and his mom read plenty of books – mostly romance novels.

“I wouldn’t read that stuff,” Phillips clarified.

After starting off with the oral program, Phillips transitioned toward sign language. His father was happy to try a different method, which always isn’t the case. Parents often stick to one method because they want to be able to communicate with their kids and they want to be able to hear their voice.

“My dad already knew I had a high IQ and was willing to see if other methods could help me communicate and learn better,” Phillips said.

After a month of being taught sign language, Phillips could sign in full, complete sentences. He attributes his success to his parents’ persistence.

When asked if he thought deafness was a disability, Phillips said, “Not really, because disabilities are more physical things. Like if I wanted to play football, I would play football. If I want to drive a car, I’ll drive a car. I can get a ticket too.”

“The problem is not that the deaf students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen.” – Jesse L. Jackson.

According to Phillips, many people suppose that deaf people are not bright or educated because of their lack of speaking skills. He explained how this common stereotype is far from the truth.

“The main thing is that most Americans develop assumptions about another person based on how well they speak English, especially the level of intelligence for that person,” Phillips said. “Since I don’t speak at all, the usual assumption is that I have a low level of intelligence, which is hardly the case.”

When Phillips and his family go out and people see them signing, they tend to look at them because their language is very visual.

“Now the population is more conscious of sign language, so you meet a lot of people who know sign, so it’s not a stigma like it was before,” Phillips said.

Outside of the classroom, Phillips enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter. He will celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary next month. His wife, who is also deaf, grew up with the oral method, and then changed to signing.

They met through a mutual friend but their relationship did not start right away, as they were both focusing on their own jobs at the time.

Their daughter, 16 months old, was born with normal hearing. Phillips said she knows a few basic signs but also babbles a lot. She enjoys hearing songs and watching signing and she goes to a day care that is operated by a deaf woman, so deaf culture is present.

“I use DVDs with both signing and singing for my daughter,” Phillips said. He remembered watching Sesame Street as a child which had a character who was deaf and used sign language as well.

As Phillips continues to teach as a part-time instructor at the college, he reflected back on how he managed to arrive at his current position.

“I think you could do anything you put your mind to, but the point is, you have to put work into it,” Phillips said.