Heather Ursano ’06, M.S. ’09, is a deaf education teacher at Narrows Elementary/Middle School in Giles County.
How did you discover you wanted to be a deaf education teacher?
Well, it was actually a bit of a journey. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know I wanted to work in special education until I was in high school and participated in a “teacher cadet” program. It was a wonderful experience where you got to not only interact with the students, but also see the lesson planning and all the other aspects that go into being a teacher. I was paired with a group of children with special needs and fell in love. After I graduated high school, I began taking classes at my local community college and enrolled in an American Sign Language class. I became fascinated with this new language, and that’s when it hit me: I could marry the two and become an educator for the deaf and hard of hearing. It was like the proverbial light bulb going off, and I knew I had found my calling. I just had to get there.
How did you find your way to Radford University?
While I was still at community college, I went to the guidance counselor and said, “I want to teach deaf children. How do I do that?” I was told there were no universities in the state that offered that degree program; the best I could hope for was to be an interpreter. That didn’t sound quite right to me. Plus, there was no way I was giving up that easily! I called the Virginia Department of Education and made my pitch to them. “Radford University!” they said without hesitation. So I applied to RU and accepted my admission sight unseen. However, it is the best decision I ever made. Ever. I remember traveling down with my mom for Transfer Quest and gasping the moment we came down Tyler Avenue and I saw campus. It was perfect. Later, when we were standing in front of the fountain, I turned to my mom and said, “This is where I am supposed to be.” I was right.
Who was your favorite professor at Radford?
This is really, really hard. I can’t just pick one! Leslie Daniel and Kenna Colley are definitely among them. They were fantastic teachers. Ellen Austin is phenomenal. She lives and breathes deaf education, and she instills that passion in all of her students. She became like a foster mother to all of us, guiding us, mentoring us through what could be very stressful times. She and all of the education faculty gave us the tools we needed to be successful. The entire department is very hands on. You do not just sit in class. You are actively engaged with your professors and your peers. It truly is a learning community.
Are you happy in your career?
Absolutely! Are there days I come home frustrated about not being able to reach a certain child or upset that a lesson didn’t go exactly as I had planned? Of course! But even on my worst day, I have never once regretted the path I have chosen. My frustration just drives me to try again the next day—and to try harder. What I think is so important for people to remember is that oftentimes students with hearing impairments learn differently than others. Explaining things in ASL isn’t necessarily the same thing as explaining them in spoken language. There are times when I might have to repeat the same concept over and over for weeks at a time to one of my students, but then it happens: They get it. They finally get it. I had one student whom I worked with for three years on multiplication tables, but that light bulb finally went off. And that moment, that moment my student and I worked so hard for, made everything worth it. Just as I said at Transfer Quest many years ago, I am where I am supposed to be, and I am grateful to my alma mater for helping me get there.