• Destiny Yarbro

Absent Teachers: Poverty and the Deaf Classroom

In a general sense, poverty has one of the greatest impacts on education. It can lead to poor students having difficulty learning because of hunger, leaving school to work, falling behind quickly with their peers, and other issues that result in “poor children learn[ing] the least, which hurts them the most” (World Bank, 2018, p. 78).

24 Percent

The specific issue that resonated with me under the massive canopy of poverty issues was discussed in “The Many Faces of the Learning Crisis” (World Bank, 2018, 81). Too many teachers feel that being absent from the classroom is acceptable and do it frequently. In data collected on 1,300 villages in India, 24% of teachers were absent on any given day (Muralidharan, Jishnu, Holla, and Mohpal, 2017, pp. 116-135). 24 percent!

For wealthy students, absent teachers are much less harmful than for poor students. This is the case for many reasons. The parents of poor children are often working long hours or multiple jobs and cannot supplement in-class learning in the way wealthy parents (or their hired tutors) can. Poor students rely almost fully on their teachers for learning. While wealthy students, on average, hold to what they have learned over the summer vacation because they are given books to read, take educational trips, and retain tutors, poor students digress during these vacations putting them farther and farther behind their classmates each year (McCombs et al, 2011). Again, this makes the in-class instruction time even more vital for these students and teacher absenteeism even more crushing.

Absent Teachers and Deaf Education in Ghana

I have found this to be the case in my work with Deaf schools around the world. I remember one representative of a non-profit in Ghana telling me that they experienced challenge after challenge in training teachers in Deaf schools (most of whom do not sign and are assigned to these schools). After bringing in Deaf educators from around the world to hold professional development instruction for teachers in Ghana, they found that too often the home teachers would not show up to teach, feeling that everything was taken care of by the visiting teachers, and seeing no need to develop their sign language and teaching skills. I was sad to see that after seeing this pattern evident over years, this non-profit dissolved.

What is most destructive about teacher absenteeism is that not only are these Deaf students often from disadvantaged backgrounds and thus the poverty statistics listed in our readings apply to them, but they also come to school with no or little language as most families do not learn sign language in the home (Kluin & Gaustad, 1991). Thus, their sole source of language is at school...with teachers who do not show up. This isn’t just a harmful statistic to these students, this is life-alteringly devastating.

The Power of a Deaf Teacher

The transformative power of Deaf teachers of Deaf students is exemplified beautifully in this short video of Patrick Otema who grew up without language. It only takes a moment to watch and can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHfC6jqBhkk. While Patrick’s length of language deprivation (and his missing the critical language window) can unfortunately never fully be fully regained, the value of a fluent teacher for every Deaf student is clearly evident in Patrick’s journey (Humphries, Kushalnagar, Mathur, Napoli, Padden, Rathmann, and Smith, 2012).


Bogado, D. (Director). (2014, November 12). Patrick Speaks [Video]. Retrieved from


Humphries, T., Kushalnagar, P., Mathur, G., Napoli, D. J., Padden, C., Rathmann, C., & Smith, S. R. (2012). Language acquisition for deaf children: Reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches. Harm Reduction Journal, 9, 16. https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7517-9-16

Kluwin, T. N., & Gaustad, M. G. (1991). Predicting family communication choices. American annals of the deaf, 136(1), 28–34. https://doi.org/10.1353/aad.2012.0554

McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., Schwartz, H. L., Bodilly, S. J., McInnis, B., Lichter, D. S., and Cross, A. B. (2011). Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children's Learning. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA: 2011. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1120.html.

Muralidharan, Karthik, Jishnu Das, Alaka Holla, and Aakash Mohpal. 2017. “The Fiscal Cost of Weak Governance: Evidence from Teacher Absence in India.” Journal of Public Economics 145:116–35

World Bank. (2018). Ch 3: The many faces of the learning crisis. In The World Development Report 2018: LEARNING to Realize Education’s Promise. Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/28340/9781464810961_Ch03.pdf

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