Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement interviewed Jhani Amabile ’04, who is now an elementary school teacher for the deaf, a career path she didn’t initially see for herself when venturing off to college.
You graduated from Marin Academy in 2004. What did you do next?
I packed my bags and moved across the country to Burlington, VT. I spent the next four years studying English and Anthropology at UVM. Burlington is a magical little place and my college years were some of the best years of my life.
When did you decide teaching deaf students was what you wanted to do in life?
With years of babysitting, nannying, and a general love of kids under my belt, I had been told for ages that I should become a teacher but it never really clicked for me. I had big dreams of working for a book publishing company in New York City. Then, during my junior year of college, I found an elective course called “Understanding Deaf Culture,” and immediately signed up. I had identified as hard-of-hearing my whole life and thought this class would be “cool.” I had no idea it would open the door to a whole world that I had never been a part of or knew anything about despite my hearing loss. I decided to start taking ASL classes my senior year and consequently, just fell more and more in love with deaf culture and the new identity I was developing for myself. There was a day when I was driving around with my boyfriend (now husband), wondering how I could stay connected to sign language and deaf culture even after school was over. He mentioned the idea of teaching deaf children, and I couldn’t let it go. It finally clicked. I applied for grad school programs in Deaf Education a few months later and never looked back.
Over your years of teaching, what has been the most challenging and what has been the most rewarding?
One of the biggest challenges (probably THE biggest challenge) in the deaf education field is language deprivation. Children are either not diagnosed with hearing loss early enough and/or not given access to language—either because their family doesn’t properly learn sign language or because they hope a hearing aid/cochlear implant will do the trick. Children who do not have proper access to language before the age of five will struggle for years when it comes to developing literacy skills which is the gateway for being able to succeed in all other academic areas as well (yes, math too!). I could talk about the topic of language deprivation for hours, but the bottom line is that the most rewarding part of my job is instilling a love of literacy in students who are otherwise set up to fail at it.
As a teacher for the deaf, I imagine teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges, especially because of masking and being virtual. Tell me about what this last year has been like for you and your students?
Sign language and deaf culture is full of body language, facial expressions, and social norms. When my school reverted to virtual learning in the spring of 2020, we lost a lot of the advantages and tools that come with being in a classroom together. When we returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2020, masks felt like they were going to be a major hindrance. I have to say though—if I’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s how resilient children are. Yes, the masks aren’t great for us, but everybody has adjusted and made it work.
Everyday you are making a huge impact on children. Who or what inspired you to become a teacher and take on this very important role in life?
In the years before I decided to become a teacher, writing was the thing I loved and the field in which I wanted to somehow find work. When I reflect on my educational experiences as a child, I can name a teacher for almost every single grade level who somehow made me a better writer, made me feel seen by acknowledging my love for writing, or planted seeds in my head about what I could do with my future (My poetry teacher at MA, Alison Park, once commented on a poem of mine that simply said, “Have you ever thought about writing children’s literature?” and I’ve never forgotten it!). I obviously took a different course in life and while it wasn’t a teacher who helped me decide to become a teacher, it was a long lifetime of many teachers along the way who have shown me how to view and treat my own students.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the MA community?
I wish to share that even though I wasn’t a straight-A student or enrolled in all the AP classes during my time at MA, I still had a valuable educational experience with so many different teachers which still has an impact on me today. It’s a nice reminder in my own line of work that the exchanges between student and teacher are not (and should not be) centered around proficiency. Rather, those relationships that stood out the most to me were characterized by encouragement, understanding, patience, positive rapport, and so many other little human exchanges that are so critical during the passage from high school to becoming an adult. I’m very grateful for the time I had at MA.
Thank you, Jhani, for sharing your beautiful journey with us. Teachers are everyday heroes because of their dedication and perseverance to make teaching and learning possible for all children. We applaud you, Jhani, for your tireless work helping students feel inspired to think, learn, achieve and care.
What are you up to? If you’re a MA alum and would like to be interviewed, please reach out to Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement, at email@example.com.