It’s often said that the most important role anyone can have is that of a teacher. This maxim was undoubtedly true of Alexander Graham Bell, who dedicated his life to teaching the deaf and hard of hearing how to communicate more efficiently.
His work as a teacher not only helped countless students participate as equals in society but also led to some of his most important discoveries and inventions.
Let’s explore the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell as an educator and discuss how his work in the field of deaf education came to be his lifelong passion.
Early Life as an Educator
Though he is most remembered for his work as an inventor, Alexander Graham Bell began his career as a teacher. At only 16, he started his first teaching job as a student teacher in Edinburgh, tutoring school-aged boys in music and elocution in exchange for a small stipend, board, and Latin and Greek lessons.
It was only natural that Alexander taught elocution. His father and grandfather were “elocution experts,” or what is known today as speech pathologists. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, invented a “visible alphabet,” an early phonetic alphabet that used symbols to represent every sound humans can make.
After Alexander completed his tenure at the boarding school, he and his father toured Great Britain, meeting with linguistic experts to share the visible speech alphabet and advertise its utility.
In learning the visible alphabet, the deaf and hard of hearing could learn how to articulate sounds without necessarily being able to hear them. This was a cause close to his heart, as Alexander’s mother had been born deaf.
Alexander spent his early adulthood studying under his father’s tutelage. He used visible speech and his understanding of human physiology – as well as his knowledge of the struggles faced by the deaf – to inform his teaching methods.
Teacher of the Deaf
Alexander Graham Bell put those methods to the test in London, where he taught deaf students at a private school in Kensington. Alexander loved his job, and his passion for teaching evolved into fervent advocacy for deaf education.
As an educator of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell was at the forefront of oral education, a philosophy that suggests the deaf can and should learn to speak rather than relying on sign language.
He often found himself at odds with other experts in the field. In the nineteenth century, and even today, the subject of “oralism” versus “manualism” was a subject of hot debate.
Alexander Graham Bell believed that the deaf would have an easier time integrating into society with lip-reading and speaking skills rather than relying on sign language. However, manualists maintained that sign language, fingerspelling, and written language were the path forward.
Alexander Graham Bell firmly believed that lip-reading and speaking skills could allow the deaf to live without discrimination. He believed that by relying on sign language, the deaf and hard of hearing were forced to depend on others, and they were isolated from the rest of society by their inability to speak.
So when Bell moved to Boston, he continued his vocation at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes and the Clarke Institution for Deaf Mutes at Northampton. He used his knowledge of human physiology and visible speech to teach students valuable oral skills. He resolved to help the hearing impaired assimilate into society and interact meaningfully through speech and lip-reading.
A Lifetime of Advocacy
It was in Boston that Alexander Graham Bell’s career as an inventor took off. However, much of his work in sound and recording was inspired by his desire to help the deaf and hard of hearing.
For example, one of his inventions was called the “ear phonautograph,” intended to allow the deaf to “see” different aspects of spoken language. As visible speech was a tool for pronunciation, the ear phonautograph could help students learn to adjust pitch and intonation.
Over time, Bell’s endeavors with the telephone consumed more and more of his energy and became a distraction from his true calling – advocating for oral education. Bell was known to lament the fact that his status as an inventor overshadowed his career as an educator.
Fortunately, however, Bell amassed a considerable fortune from the telephone and the subsequent success of his telecommunications firm, The Bell Company.
This success allowed him to spread the message of oral education far and wide. His fame helped him reach pupils and their families across the nation.
One such pupil was a blind and deaf young girl named Helen Keller. Her family had heard of Bell and his system of visible speech, and in 1886, they brought Hellen Keller to Boston to meet with Bell.
Bell put the Kellers in touch with her teacher Annie Sullivan, and Helen flourished. Alexander continued to be a source of support and encouragement for Helen Keller. Though he didn’t personally teach her, Helen’s progress was a tribute to the power of education for the hearing impaired.
Helen Keller’s story was so inspiring that Bell used it to help raise awareness for deaf education – and to great success. In 1890, he founded the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a non-profit organization that aimed to advance the cause of deaf education.
Today, his organization continues to champion advances in accessibility, awareness, technology, and education for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Alexander Graham Bell’s remarkable life is, in many ways, the story of a teacher whose boundless persistence and ingenuity benefitted not just his students but the entire world.
His depth of knowledge – gained during his pursuit of deaf education – was instrumental in developing the telephone, graphophone, and other notable inventions of the time.
In devoting his life to understanding how humans hear and produce sound, he was able to give the hearing impaired the skills necessary to exist in a world that had not yet evolved to understand the importance of equity and accessibility.
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