Becoming a Sign Language Teacher: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a sign language teacher career? Get real job descriptions, salary info and career prospects to see if becoming a sign language teacher is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Sign Language Teacher Career

Sign language teachers instruct both deaf and hearing students in American Sign Language (ASL). Check out these pros and cons to see if this career could be your best choice:

Pros of a Sign Language Teacher Career
Above-average salary ($59,490 median salary for postsecondary language teachers as of 2014)*
Summer and winter vacations*
Possibility of job security through earned tenure*
Rewarding experience of helping students learn a new way to communicate*

Cons of a Sign Language Teacher Career
State teaching license required in public schools*
Master's degree required to teach at the postsecondary level*
May spend evenings or weekends grading assignments*
Often expected to take on additional responsibilities such as learning online class management systems, participating in college faculty committees and going to continued training workshops**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Multiple online job postings from May 2012

Essential Career Info

Job Description

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete visual language system that is separate from spoken English language. As a sign-language teacher, you would instruct students who are and who are not hearing-impaired. You could teach ASL to all ages, including small children just learning to communicate and/or university students who need to fulfill their foreign language requirement. You would design the lessons for each class, assign homework and administer exams.

Salary Info and Career Prospects

Because teachers' salaries vary by the level at which they teach and salary information for sign language teachers specifically is not available, the following snapshot of wages for teachers in general is provided. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2014 that elementary and middle school teachers earned a median annual salary of about $54,500, high school teachers earned about $56,000 and postsecondary language teachers, including ASL teachers, earned about $59,500.

The American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) reports that many states recognize ASL as a modern language and that many high schools, colleges and universities accept ASL classes to fulfill language requirements, so you may find opportunities to teach at schools across the nation. The BLS projected that, in general, employment for elementary school and middle school teachers would increase by 12%, while postsecondary language teachers would increase by 19% (all about as fast as average). The employment for high school teachers would increase by 6% (slower than average) in the 2012-2022 decade.

Education and Licensure Requirements

Requirements for teachers vary according to grade level. Generally, teachers of students through the high school level complete a bachelor's degree program focused on teaching for a specific age group, and sometimes for a specific subject. If you want to teach at the postsecondary level, you'll need at least a master's degree, but a PhD is commonly required. There are some degree programs specifically in ASL teaching, at the bachelor's and master's degree levels. Through these programs, you'll be trained to speak ASL fluently, understand cognition and learning theories, design effective curricula and understand the deaf community. Practical experiences and internships are often mandatory.

If you want to teach in a public school, you'll need to be licensed by the state. Though requirements vary, you usually need to have completed certain education requirements as well as have some experience in the classroom, often gained by student teaching during your undergraduate studies. Though most states don't require ASL teachers to be specifically licensed in sign language education, a few do require you to have a certification from the ASLTA or have completed certain ASL courses.

Other Essential Skills and Knowledge

Per the ASLTA, you must be able to proficiently express yourself in ASL; this means you must have a wide-ranging vocabulary to be descriptive, give opinions, hypothesize and discuss abstract concepts. Of course, being able to pay attention and understand what others are communicating is just as important. To fully capture what your students are expressing, you must understand the deaf culture. You should know about its history, politics, literature, art, beliefs and social traditions. This understanding will help you develop appropriate curricula to meet the needs of your students.

What Employers Are Looking For

Because ASL teachers work with students of all ages, requirements for employment vary by grade level. Employers often request that applicants be willing to work as advisors or participate in curriculum planning and development. Prior teaching experience is preferable. Read these summaries of job postings open in May 2012 to get an idea of what some employers are looking for in sign language teachers:

  • A community college in Virginia was looking to hire a part-time American Sign Language teacher with a graduate degree and experience teaching ASL. The candidate should have been able to teach day, evening and weekend classes both in-person and through distance learning.
  • An elementary school in Texas was searching for a deaf education teacher with a bachelor's degree, Texas teaching certificate, elementary deaf education certification and at least one year of experience. The job involved helping children learn age-appropriate subjects as well as fit into society.
  • A Utah school was looking for an ASL/English specialist to teach K-12 and provide ASL support to deaf students and their families. The candidate should have had a Utah teaching license, a hearing impairments endorsement and preferably a master's degree.

How to Stand Out in the Field

If certification isn't required for your job, you may still want to seek a professional designation in order to demonstrate your knowledge of and abilities in American Sign Language. The ASLTA offers three levels of certification: provisional, qualified and professional. In order to gain provisional status, you must submit a portfolio detailing at least five years of experience in using ASL, including video footage of your proficiency and documentation of your teaching experience.

After four years of holding your provisional certification, you can apply for the qualified designation. Another portfolio that verifies at least 240 hours of ASL teaching and an additional 150 hours of relevant ASL coursework, plus an associate's degree, is necessary. To be elevated to the professional level, you must complete another compilation of 240 hours teaching and 150 hours of learning, in addition to having a bachelor's degree.

Other Careers to Consider

Speech-Language Pathologist

If you're interested in working with people who have trouble communicating, but you'd like to have a more therapy-related role, you could also consider becoming a speech-language pathologist. Working with patients who can't speak for a variety of reasons, you would determine the communication issues (which could be caused by brain trauma, emotional disorders or hearing loss) and develop treatment plans. You could teach patients how to make certain sounds, use sign language and strengthen speaking muscles. To get a job, you'll typically need a master's degree in speech-language pathology and a license.

The BLS reported that in May 2011, speech-language pathologists made a median annual salary of about $69,000. Employment for this group is projected to increase by 23% (faster than average) in the decade 2010-2020.

Sign Language Interpreter

If you're interested in learning and using ASL, but you aren't sure that you want to teach it, consider a career as a sign language interpreter. You would work to relay spoken information to deaf or hearing-impaired people through ASL. You could work in a variety of settings such as schools, courtrooms and hospitals. Interpreters usually have a bachelor's degree, but your fluency in sign language is the most important factor for this work.

Per the BLS, interpreters and translators made a median annual salary of about $44,000 as of May 2011. The BLS also projected a 42% (much faster than average) employment increase for interpreters and translators from 2010 through 2020, mostly due to advancements in and increased use of video-relay services.

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