Suzanne DeMallie’s son was in kindergarten when she realized he was having trouble hearing his teacher at school. To solve this problem, Suzanne enlisted doctors and speech therapists, special education teams, and supervisors. But after facing resistance from her son’s school, she ultimately took to the national stage to advocate for her son and for students around the country to get the resources they need to learn.
Later, Suzanne became a teacher herself and grappled with the constraints of an education system that didn’t always align with her students’ needs. She details these experiences and the hard-learned lessons she learned from them in her new book, Can You Hear Me Now?
Join the conversation to make public education a better choice.
Emily Gindlesparger: I’m in conversation today with Suzanne DeMallie, about her book, Can You Hear Me Now? And Suzanne, especially as a former English teacher myself, your book is for teachers and parents and I am so excited to sit down with you and talk about not only what you recommend for starting a conversation around improving public education, but also your own experiences in the system, and knowing that we’re not alone when we have struggles with helping our children learn.
Suzanne DeMallie: Thank you, I’m really excited to be here.
Emily Gindlesparger: Let’s start by giving our listeners an idea of your personal background?
Suzanne DeMallie: My most recent experience has been as a math teacher for the Baltimore County Public School System. Prior to that, I had a non-profit organization that I founded and directed, whose purpose was to advocate for auditory reform in our classrooms, and before that time, I was a CPA. It’s really been a broad range of experience.
Emily Gindlesparger: You write in the book about your own experience as a parent with your own child and really helping to navigate solutions for him.
Suzanne DeMallie: Yes, that’s really what led me to the world of education. I have three children and my middle child, Christopher, was diagnosed in kindergarten with an auditory processing deficit. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, so I did a lot of research and uncovered that all children in a typical classroom were not given the proper auditory environment to support their immature auditory needs.
What this means is that young children in a classroom can miss out on up to a third of what the teacher is saying. During the course of this research, I uncovered a solution to it as well, a solution that had been researched by many people and was being used by some school districts.
I wondered, why don’t parents know about this? Why don’t teachers all know about this? Why don’t we have this in our school system? That’s when I really decided to start educating as many people as I could about the issue–first locally and then expanded to a national level.
I made that my mission, to get the education out there that children have very unique hearing needs that are not currently being supported. I really try to advocate for schools to integrate this technology into their classrooms.
I did that for about four years and made a lot of progress. I gained the support of the national PTA, authored a resolution in that regard, got some politicians to support it, presented it to the National School Board Association.
After four years, I felt like, I had done as much as I could at that point, and I had really developed this passion for education that I wanted to pursue further. But I decided to take it to a more individual level and that’s when I decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree so that I could become a teacher.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s incredible. Of all these experiences, at what moment did you realize, “I need to write a book about this.”
Suzanne DeMallie: I think my family realized it before I did. I would come home and tell them stories at the dinner table about my day and about the students that I was working with and some of the problems that I had encountered with the bureaucracy in the school system. Every time I would be telling my family something, they’d say, “You really need to write this down, you really need to write a book.”
I heard that for a few years before I actually decided, “You know, maybe I should.” There was one experience in particular that really stood out for me where I said, “Something is wrong here and people really need to know about it and to speak up about the problems that they see.”
I had a student who was really struggling in school, he was well below grade level, far below grade level. I taught 4th grade math and I had gone to my administration at some point and said, “You know, I don’t really think we should pass this child on to the 5th grade. What do you recommend I do?” They said, “Well, start that conversation with the parent, make sure that they are fully aware of your concerns, and get them on board with it.”
I did all of that from the very beginning. At the same time, I was also trying to implement research-based interventions with the child to see if we could remedy some of the problems and fill in those gaps.
I wasn’t seeing a lot of progress on the interventions that I was using. I was seeing this child’s self-esteem really decline and the parent was seeing the same things at home and totally agreed with me.
The parent agreed with my recommendation to not pass the child on to fifth grade but to instead, have him repeat a year. I took this to a student support meeting where we were discussing, what was being done to try to fill in these gaps for the particular child and I shared my recommendation. The assistant principal that ran the meeting said, “No,” he was going to need to move on to fifth grade.
Even though, again, he was far below grade level in both reading and math and the parent shared my concerns. I just looked at her like, “How can this be, how can we do this to this child?” And her response was that there were just too many other children in the school with needs even greater than his, and that would be promoted on to fifth grade.
We couldn’t hold him back if we were going to pass them on. That decision really made me physically ill. Afterward, I got a phone call from the parent because she wasn’t able to attend the meeting and she asked me, “What happened? What’s the final result on where he will be placed next year?”
I told her, “Well, the team made the decision to promote him on to fifth grade.” She immediately got quiet and I could tell that she was upset by that decision. I actually questioned her on it, I said, “Are you disappointed with the decision?” She said, “Well, you’re the expert.”
It really disturbed me because I thought, “I am the expert on this because I worked with this child every day and you know, I probably know this child better than anyone else that was in that meeting, and yet, I’m not able to make this decision.” It was just one example of where the teacher is really powerless in being able to make decisions and help students the way she or he feels they need to be helped.
Emily Gindlesparger: How frustrating too that you’re not able to hold the standards that your profession asks you to hold in terms of what children should be able to do in your classroom in order to move on?
Suzanne DeMallie: Exactly. This wasn’t an isolated incident, I was encountering this sort of situation every single year that I was teaching, I heard other teachers talk about the same kind of issues when I would go to professional development classes.
Basically, we’re passing these children along from one grade to the next without having met the standards. When we’re doing that, we’re giving the parents a very false sense of what their child really knows and how prepared they are for that next grade level.
Of course, every time children are passed along without having met the grade-level standards, that academic gap is growing. It makes it harder and harder for the teacher at each successive grade level to really fill in that gap. Now, what does this do to the child? To their self-esteem when they’re constantly getting grades back that are showing that they’re failing or they’re not meeting those grade-level standards?
I really feel like this is one area where something needs to be said about it and we need to make a change.
Emily Gindlesparger: What were some of the first moments that you began to speak up within your school about these kinds of needs, these kinds of issues with the status quo?
Suzanne DeMallie: I spoke up sometimes during an individual, one-on-one with an administrator, or sometimes, I would speak up or really question something during a staff meeting. I never really argued something other than at this one particular student support team meeting where I really felt very strongly that we were not helping this child by passing him along.
But to be honest with you, I think I represent other teachers that are scared to speak up because we feel very powerless, “What can be done by raising my voice, other than maybe having my job in jeopardy or maybe having an administrator think less of me or give me a poor evaluation on an observation?”
I think the more you gather support from other teachers and from other parents who feel the same way as you do, it helps you to develop that courage, it makes it harder for people to not listen when there’s more than one voice that’s speaking up.
That’s the purpose of this book, to let teachers and parents know, “You’re not alone, I have felt that way, there are other teachers and parents that have felt the way you do, and we really need to support each other, and we really need to speak out on the issues that concern us the most.”
Emily Gindlesparger: In addition to this pressure of like, “What’s at stake if I speak up?” I’m speaking from my own experience as a teacher, there are a million other things to be attending to in the classroom, right?
Suzanne DeMallie: Yeah, absolutely.
Emily Gindlesparger: It takes so much energy every day. There’s this need to pick and choose the battles and sometimes if the battles are too hard, it’s like, “Okay, well, I’m going to focus on something I can be effective at.”
Suzanne DeMallie: Exactly. Teachers are so overwhelmed with responsibilities now. I talk about that in the book a lot. I feel like that’s part of the problem with education today is that there are a lot of problems in society today and we’re expecting the teacher and the administrators in that school to solve all of them.
That’s putting an excessive burden on them, especially not having the resources and that they don’t have the time for it. It is taking time away from instruction as well, which I believe is contributing to, low test scores because teachers are losing more instructional time by trying to manage behaviors and teach social skills and deal with issues that I’m not sure teachers had to deal with 30 years ago.
You’re absolutely right, teachers are just overwhelmed.
Emily Gindlesparger: In the middle of the book, you write particularly about the recent history of education, things like, how the common core standards came to be, and you talk about this trajectory of all these different influences that have come together to create the picture of education today.
What surprised you in that history? Either learning it when you were a teacher or learning it to do the research for this book?
Suzanne DeMallie: One thing that really surprised me is a lot of new initiatives in education don’t seem like they’re tested out before we start implementing them. Common core is a great example of that. Those standards were initiated in 2009. By June 2010, they were final and being introduced.
They were being introduced into school systems without having really tested them out on student populations to see how do the different populations, like the English language learners, the below level academic kids, how do they handle these new standards?
Curriculums haven’t been properly developed to reflect those new standards, assessments hadn’t been developed. There’s a lot that we’re quick to push something out there and try it and it hasn’t necessarily been thoroughly tested–especially again, amongst the very diverse populations that are in our school system.
That was really surprising to me. I saw that in my own school district in regards to technology when Baltimore County had come up with this great plan to give every student a one-to-one device, and we didn’t have the infrastructure to support it initially, and because of that, we were encountering a lot of problems.
I was surprised to see that on a national level that was the case as well.
Emily Gindlesparger: Speaking on that fast implementation, I became a teacher the year before common core standards were required to be aligned with curriculum, and I was a brand new teacher and then immediately part of a team trying to revamp all the curriculum to fit these core standards and it was like, “At what point do I actually learn to master what it is that I’m trying to educate my students on?”
Suzanne DeMallie: Exactly. You know, we had a similar experience in regards to grading practices in my school district where, there was one, at the beginning of an academic year when Baltimore county said, “We’re going to revamp the whole grading system and implement this, a minimum score of 50% and we’re going to change what materials, assessments and tasks contribute to that overall grade.” They made this broad change, but the teachers didn’t really understand it. They hadn’t been informed about it, the parents didn’t understand it, so parents were getting frustrated with teachers, which is understandable.
Teachers are frustrated because they don’t have the answers themselves and they’re not getting the answers. That is a case where we really need to be making sure that everything is thought through and tested and ready to go before we start implementing these kinds of very extreme changes in our school system. Kids have one chance at each grade level, hopefully, and we have to have it right the first time because if we don’t, I don’t know if they are fully prepared then to go onto that next grade level.
I feel like there needs to be more care and consideration in all of the policies and practices that are developed.
Emily Gindlesparger: Pivoting to your experience as a parent, at what point did you realize that this issue you are seeing in your son being able to connect within the classroom, wouldn’t be solved by teachers and administration alone and that you would need to get involved?
Suzanne DeMallie: I saw it early on because at the time that Christopher was diagnosed, he was in kindergarten and he was in a private kindergarten. It was part of the nursery school that was part of my church, and so I wasn’t dealing with the public system immediately. But in anticipation that he would be moving on to a public school for first grade, I reached out to his elementary school and set up a meeting.
I realized early on, first of all, I had to go through this whole process just to have anybody recognize that he had a problem, let alone to put in any sort of accommodations for him. Whereas in the private school that he was in, as soon as he got his diagnosis, which came with some recommendations from an audiologist and from the psychologist that had done the psychoeducational evaluation on him, I handed those over to his teacher and the director of that private school and immediately the next day they moved his seat.
They changed things around, I feel like they did their best to really try to meet his needs at that point. Then I found out, well in the public system, it doesn’t work that way. I can’t just talk directly with the teacher and ask that he sit in the front row. I can’t just ask that they maybe repeat a question to him or make sure that he understood what he heard.
I had to go through this whole process of having a meeting, proving that he had some sort of need that was impairing his educational ability. I turned over all of the private testing that I had done, which was a lot of information. And during the meeting, and this is the meeting with the public school system, they kept focusing on all of the scores that were really good for him and he had a lot of really good scores. He was very visual and there were a lot of different tests that had been done where they indicated no problem at all but there were a lot of tests that did indicate a problem, which led to his diagnosis.
They just seemed to either skim over those or ignore them. I don’t know if they were trying to say he didn’t have a problem because once a public school, identifies that a child has a particular need and they give that child an IEP or a 504, they have a legal obligation then to meet those needs.
I don’t know what the reason was, but I felt like it was more of a battle that no parent should really have. I was just trying to help my child. I really wasn’t asking for anything significant, some speech therapy and preferential seating, those kinds of things. But he wasn’t given any of those opportunities
At one point, I had also obtained a portable sound system which was like a little portable speaker and then a lanyard with a microphone on it that the teacher could wear so that children could hear the teacher’s voice better. I asked if the school would use it and they would not use it for him. I thought you’re always hearing from school systems that parents need to become more involved and here I am giving them something that my child needs that I’ve had several people, through private testing, tell me that my child needs, and they wouldn’t use it. So that was just very frustrating.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, what did you learn about what it takes to make the changes that you needed from that experience?
Suzanne DeMallie: I learned that it takes persistence and patience and not accepting “no” for an answer. If you hear no, then find out why and then try to work around that and ask someone different. Because I realized what a battle it is to make a change in the public system, but you have to do it. A parent is really the child’s only true advocate and parents have to speak up for their children.
That’s another thing I am asking my readers to do–whether you’re a parent or a teacher, we have to speak up for these children. They can’t always speak up for themselves.
Emily Gindlesparger: One of the really powerful pieces of your experience as a parent is not only how you solved this problem with Christopher, but how that solution also had an impact on the national stage. At what point did you realize that this problem would affect more students than just your son?
Suzanne DeMallie: It was when I first started doing the research really to understand Christopher’s particular problem. You know, when he was diagnosed with an auditory processing deficit, I didn’t know anything about that. To me, if you had a hearing problem it just meant there was something that was not working within your ears. I never really thought about the neurological component of hearing and in my research, I kept learning how all children don’t have the full neurological ability to process what they hear until they’re in their teens.
What this means is that they really need a better acoustical environment than an adult would need, with normal hearing, to be able to understand everything they’re hearing. It’s not just about detecting sounds, it is being able to identify and comprehend those sounds. I started learning about this and at the same time, I was learning about other children in the school system with even greater hearing needs, like our English language learners, children with attention deficit disorders, children with learning disorders, children with permanent hearing impairments, or a lot of kids will have a temporary hearing impairment from ear infections especially in the elementary schools. I kept learning that kids aren’t getting what they needed in the classroom in terms of being able to hear their teacher and I realized that this is not just a problem that’s going to impact my son when he goes into a classroom.
This is something that all kids are really dealing with every day. Some kids can compensate in one way or another and they get by, but there was no doubt in my mind through the research that some kids are not getting what they need and it is impacting their academics and their self-esteem. I really began to feel that this is a much bigger problem than Christopher.
First, I started with his school but then, I took it to the Baltimore County school board, and luckily, I had a school board member who was really fascinated with the research and agreed with the information I was sharing, and he became very supportive. I kept going back and trying to go to all the budget meetings and get the school board to put something in the budget for this technology.
Then I realized I really needed some more people on my side. I joined forces with, initially, the local PTA, which led to gaining the support of the national PTA and that really helped me to take it to a national level.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s so incredible. How much of your time would you say, that involvement with this issue, is taking in your daily life?
Suzanne DeMallie: It was almost like a full-time job. I spent so much time between the research, and then I created a non-profit organization, so just trying to get the non-profit organization off the ground financially and building that reputation. I started developing surrogates that would be in different states. I had a teacher in California that ended up helping me and another teacher in Oklahoma, and that really helped out because I didn’t have the funds to travel all over very easily and give these kinds of presentations. It was really a lot of time. I considered it a full-time job at that point.
Emily Gindlesparger: You write in the introduction of your book that, “This book is the beginning of a conversation that I invite you to join.” What’s your vision for how that conversation might grow and what impact it might have?
Suzanne DeMallie: Well, I’m hoping that the impact is, if more than one person is speaking up, the chances of being heard are greater. I’m really hoping that this book gets the attention of the media by parents sharing it, and teachers sharing it, and talking about some of the policies and practices that I describe. Then they start talking about other things that they are experiencing that they think should be changed as well.
I do see it as the beginning. It is not the end and we have a long way to go to improve education and there are a lot of changes that need to be made. I don’t expect that the reader is going to say, “Well I want to do exactly what Suzanne did and I want to spend four years full-time to advocate for something.” I don’t expect that.
In the second half of the book, I really lay out the steps that I took to accomplish what I did. You can take it on step one to five if you want or you could really say, “Nope, I’m really in this for the long haul. I want to go all the way to step 10.” Also, it depends on what issue is important to you that you want to promote. Some issues are easier to get some action on sooner than others. I think that I am hoping that people will read it and say, “Yeah, I am tired of assuming that this is the way it is because, it is the public system,” and just accepting it for the way it is, and that they start questioning, “Why are we doing it this way and why can’t we maybe do something different?” And speaking up and moving that progress along.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well Suzanne, congratulations on completing this book, which I know is both the current pinnacle and the beginning of this wonderful journey you have been taking to improve things for your son, for your students, and now for parents across the world.
Suzanne DeMallie: Thank you.
Emily Gindlesparger: If you wanted people to take away one or two things from the book, what would they be?
Suzanne DeMallie: That change is possible. It is easy to feel like, “You know, this is the way it is and it’s not going to get better.” And if you’re a parent, it is easy to think that, “I just have to give up on the public system and pull my child out, look for a private school, maybe try to get a scholarship.” It is easy for teachers especially–teachers are so overloaded with responsibilities. It is very easy to not feel good about your job and to really question your career and think that you can’t make a difference in the system.
But you can, you really, really can. I’ve done it. I am hoping that the book is a guide for you on how to go about initiating change. I hope it is a good balance of information and inspiration. We need to do this. Our education system is a reflection on our society. It is the great equalizer of society. It can give a child who is coming from all kinds of disadvantages, an opportunity for a really good life, and we owe it to these 50 million children that are in the public system to make it better.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you and I’m so excited about the impact this book can have, and your continued work will have on education. The book is called, “Can You Hear Me Now?” And besides checking out the book, where can people find you?
Suzanne DeMallie: They can find me at suzannedemallie.com.
Emily Gindlesparger: DeMallie is D-e-m-a-l-l-i-e. I appreciate you taking the time to talk today.
Suzanne DeMallie: Thank you. I like it, it’s the beginning of a great conversation.