Education17th February 2015

Young Deaf BSL Teacher Zayne Thomson Brings Energy To The Classroom

Passionate about British Sign Language, this young teacher is student centric

by Sarah Lawrence

Learning BSL is popular. Looking at the number of college courses available as well as the offer of tuition by private businesses, there are lots of opportunities to learn. However, whilst the demand for BSL teaching is consistently high, the road to becoming a Deaf teacher of BSL is far from easy with too few Deaf youngsters coming through to become quality teachers.

At last years BSL teacher’s conference, I had the opportunity to chat to Zayne Thomson from Essex, one of, if not the youngest qualified Deaf teachers in the UK. 21 at the time, Zayne is fresh faced, but he is already teaching BSL, having taken his own Level 1 Class for the first time aged just 19.

Born in South Africa, Zayne moved to Essex when he was 5. He was found to have sensori-neural bi-lateral deafness, which has since become profound. Zayne’s parents are both hearing but his sister is also Deaf. For Zayne, ‘signing’ has always been a part of his life. “When I lived in South Africa I used SSE,” he explained. “However, when I moved to England, ‘experts’ recommended to my parents that they put me in an oral school. I endured two horrible years of not learning and understanding anything. Luckily, my parents noticed that I was not doing well, and eventually moved me to Mildmay Junior School in Chelmsford, which had a total communication approach.”

“I spent most of my time there in the Deaf Unit with other Deaf children and teachers of the Deaf, (some hearing, some Deaf) and my knowledge, understanding and confidence just boomed through the roof! Why? Because we were using sign language. Professionals again insisted that I go to the closest secondary school with a deaf unit, where students went into the mainstream class with a communicator for all lessons. We knew this wouldn't work for me, but my parents did not want me to board, so, after a battle with the Local Education Authority, I went to Heathlands School for the Deaf. This was within a fair travelling time, so I was able to commute.....I loved it.”

Deciding at a young age that he wanted to teach, Zayne always found the time when young to help hearing children learn some sign. However, aged 16, at the GCSE stage, he had to make a big decision in respect of his future direction. Choosing a vocational course, Zayne went to the Cambridge Regional College to do an Electrician’s course. “I believe these were two wasted years for me,” Zayne said with sadness. “Although my GCSE grades were of a good enough standard to go straight onto the Level 2 course, the college decided I had to start at Level 1.”

“I can only assume this was due to my Deafness, that somehow they didnt think I had the necessary skills. So, I had to start on the Level 1. I did well with the course, gaining distinctions but because I was spending 2 years in a class full of hearing students, blabbing, laughing and sniggering, all of which went completely over my head, I made 2 very good friends, my CSWs (the only ones I could have any meaningful communication with). By then, I realised I firmly belong in the Deaf World and I have to surround myself with Deaf people and hearing ones who can sign to make me feel like I am at home.”

Recognising he had made the wrong choice, Zayne changed his focus and started pursuing his teaching ambitions. Shadowing Deaf BSL teachers at college, he gained valuable experience getting involved in Level 1 and 2 classes. Achieving his Level 6 aged 17, Zayne moved swiftly to complete his initial teacher training qualification – Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector, or PTTLS for short, when he was 18. Applying for BSL teaching straight afterwards, Zayne began taking his very own Level 1 BSL course at Upminster, still at the tender age of 18. Entering the class, Zayne remembers that the other people thought he was a student, so when he went to the front and started the class, their jaws just dropped in surprise.

Age aside, Zayne made an impact on that class. “Interaction is vital!”, he told me forcefully. “The students need to be excited to be on the course! I always spend many extra hours preparing my lessons to make it spotless, structured, easy and fun to learn. When my students notice I have worked hard, they work hard as well. Is it easy? No. But rewarding? Yes. Also, doing that helps my students to overlook that I am very young as it is clear I am competent at my job.”

Having already developed strong feelings about the teaching of BSL, the curriculum and the assessments, Zayne is looking for across the board improvements to make the course fairer to each of the students with the current arrangements leaving too much on the opinion of one assessor. Seeking to find out Zayne's motivations to pursue this career, with zest and energy he said, “I want to a BSL tutor, one, because I feel at home whenever I am using my language. Two, because BSL saved my life, so I want to preserve it. Three, BSL is a beautiful language, so I want to share it.”

Passionate about BSL and its traditions, Zayne’s teaching is already underpinned by the linguistic rules of the language. He would like to see BSL made compulsory for all Deaf GCSE students, so that they can communicate within their own community, in the same way that hearing children learn to speak English, “I believe this will help Deaf people pass on their heritage and for BSL to prosper,” he emphasised.

Looking to the future, Zayne hopes to achieve his Diploma and to go on to teach Deaf children. Still new into teaching, Zayne is also keen to see more support for BSL teachers, with improved continuous development programmes, mentoring and training. Ultimately, he believes this will lead to a better and more consistent teaching of BSL across the country.

Asked to explain why he thought BSL was important to the Deaf community, Zayne thoughtfully replied, "Whilst blindness cuts people from things, deafness cuts people from people". That is why Deaf people need Sign Language to access the world.”

Summing up, I asked Zayne what three things he would change in respect of Deaf people and society, and also to give three key messages to deaf youngsters. “1 – Deaf people would go to Deaf schools and be taught in BSL so they won't be isolated,” he replied. “2 – Educational text books and revision guides need to be interpreted in BSL to aid students to study and understand their coursework properly, as well as students being allowed to do their exams in BSL, as this is fair and equal access. 3 – UK Deaf people need to be less critical of hearing people who are trying to support them.”

His key messages, “1 – Don’t expect things to be given to you on a golden platter because you are Deaf. Work hard to get what you want. 2 – Find out what your rights are. 3 – Life is not fair, but your attitude plays a huge role. You can either complain about it or do something about it!”

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Education

17th February 2015