Deaf Person of the Month
Martin P. Keller, Jr.
I’d like to know more about your background.Are you from a Deaf family? Do you have any Deaf relatives?
I'm proud to be from an all-Deaf family of 10 and am the 7th in the family. I was born in Oak Park, Illinois—about 15 minutes west of Chicago—home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway. My parents met at Illinois School for the Deaf in the early 1940s and married in 1951. Sisters—Mary, Virginia, Theresa, Marian, and Christina. Brothers—Paul and Peter. My family is a tightly close-knit family—our annual vacations often include visiting our siblings. Our family is now spread across the nation coast to coast-—Paul is living in Fremont, California, and my youngest sister, Christina, is in Framingham, Massachusetts. The other sisters live in Milwaukee. My other brother, Peter, is in Cincinnati. All my nephews and niece live in California.
Mary, my oldest sibling, died in 2008-—she succumbed to brain cancer, and my father died in 1993 due to acute leukemia. My mother is 85 years young
My father had a younger Deaf brother, Sherwin, and he starred in football for the Illinois School for the Deaf. Sherwin died in 1996 from pancreatic cancer. Both first attended MSAD (Frank Turk was a classmate of my father’s) and transferred to ISD when their father (my grandfather) got a job in Chicago.
My mother had many Deaf siblings—and they attended ISD too (Illinois). She was the youngest child in her family.
My father was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism at age 19 and later became one of the first Deaf deacons. He was very heavily involved with CSSD then with ICDA. A strong grassroots leader. Both of my parents worked for the US Post Office in Chicago. Father could have gone to Gallaudet but didn’t have any money. He was the class valedictorian and Mom was the Homecoming Queen one year. Both parents worked hard to provide for the family—they worked 3rd [“graveyard”] shift and my older sisters practically raised us (the last 3 kids in the family). My parents always espoused the values of education and strong work ethic.
I'm especially proud of my nephew, Warren Keller, who is the PE teacher and the head coach of the varsity football team at Fremont. He has come a long way in just 3 years at Fremont. His team will be featured in ESPN’s 30 for 30 TV show sometime this fall.
Despite being from a large Deaf family of 10, I only have 2 nephews and 1 niece—all Deaf-—Warren, Scott, and Monica. My brother Paul is the only sibling who has children. My wife has been unable to bear any children, and we're looking into the possibility of adopting Deaf kids someday soon.
Your schooling, high school, college adventures?
I’m the product of both residential and mainstreamed programs. For the first 6 years of my education, I attended St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, which closed in 1982 due to insufficient financial support from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The campus and buildings were eventually sold to the local city (St. Francis) and it’s now known as Deer Creek Elementary school. The church has been converted into a library.
I'm especially grateful that I had so many wonderful and dedicated teachers at St. John’s-—Sr. Claude, Sr. Margaret Peter, and Evelyn Zola come to mind.
I feel very fortunate that I had so many Deaf role models growing up—Jack Gannon, Patrick Graybill, John and Helena Kaleta, Carrie Busby, Arvilla Rank, Frank Turk, and Fr. Tom Coughlin come to mind. I remember how enthralled and inspired I was when my parents bought the book, Deaf Heritage, when I was 10. I read the book endlessly-—cover to cover—so many times that the book literally fell apart and my father had to buy another copy. Jack Gannon was instantly my hero and I remember I was in awe of him when I first met him at a Deaf convention in St. Louis a few years later. Jack and I have kept in touch ever since—I even worked for him on his farm in western Maryland while I was in graduate school at McDaniel College. I saw how important a strong work ethic was while working for Jack.
All Deaf students need to learn and know the important facts of their Deaf Heritage. It'll instill a sense of identity and pride.
After St. John’s closed, my parents decided to enroll me, my sister Christina, and brother Peter, at our local public schools in Cudahy, Wisconsin. They didn’t want us to attend WSD (Wisconsin) as they were dissatisfied with their educational system at that time. They did consider sending us to Kendall/MSSD but couldn’t move to DC area due to their jobs. We were provided with interpreters. I was mainstreamed 7th grade through graduation. My older siblings graduated from ISD (Illinois) and St. John’s.
After debating whether to attend Gallaudet, I eventually decided to enroll at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and majored in History. I do not regret this decision as my father died only a few months before I was set to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree; I was the first in the family to do so. My father and I were extremely close and I considered him to be my best friend.
After UWM, I attended Western Maryland (now known as McDaniel) College, where I met my wife of 18 years, Donna McGee , during my last semester. I earned my first Master’s degree in Deaf Education from McDaniel.
I earned my second Master’ degree, in Educational Administration, from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, while I was working as principal at St. Rita School for the Deaf.
I was invited to enroll in Gallaudet’s Change Leadership program while I was principal at Scranton State School for the Deaf (now closed), and earned my Educational Specialist degree in 2008. It was where I met my mentor, Dr. Francis Duffy, who has taught at Gallaudet for more than 25 years and has authored many articles and books on transformational change leadership to create and sustain whole-system change in schools. This study will be instrumental in my new position as the Superintendent at WVSDB.
Last May, after 10+ years, I earned my doctoral degree in Deaf Education/Deaf Studies at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Dr. Jean Andrews is to be lauded for her efforts in promoting Deaf professionals. Past doctoral students include Eddy Laird, former ISD Superintendent, Nathie L. Marbury, Adonia K. Smith, Mark Myers, and Charles Katz. Jean worked at Lamar for many years as the coordinator of the doctoral Deaf Education/Deaf Studies program prior to retiring last June.
What inspired you to choose teaching and administration?
At first, I considered going into law or accounting (I easily trounced my hearing classmates in accounting competitions at my school) but settled on teaching because I wanted to share my strong passion in History with my students. I had been especially interested in the history of Holocaust (many of my father's relatives perished in the Holocaust). After a couple of years of teaching at SWCID, Dr. Ron Brasel, who was then the Provost at SWCID, mentioned that he thought I would make a good administrator someday based on my strong leadership skills and my excellent rapport with my students and colleagues. I first became principal at St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati at age 27.
What have been the biggest challenges of your job?
Dispelling the myth that I couldn't possibly master the English language well because I’m prelingually Deaf.
Making teachers understand the power of incidental learning—they need to sign at all times and their students will learn/understand.
And the importance of social, culture, cognitive, and linguistic development for academic success for Deaf children-—I'm a strong Dr. Lev Vygotsky disciple. The ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) is important in considering every child's academic/cognitive potential.1
What’s the most rewarding aspect?
Seeing students succeed and thrive beyond their perceived abilities by their parents and/or local educational agency representatives. It's always wonderful to see students succeeding well in their lives. Kevin Hall comes to mind—he attended St. Rita and has succeeded well in life after graduation—he went on to study journalism at Ohio State University and played golf—he was the team captain of the golf team and was the key in winning the Big Ten championship title in his senior year.
I always tell parents they must be willing to invest time and energy in their children's lives for the entire time—not just in elementary—if they want their children to succeed. I have not yet met or known any student who has succeed highly without his/her parent’” close involvement or support.
My resilience, patience, and strong work ethic have paid off. People need to understand that to succeed, you cannot try to find shortcuts. Persistence and determination are both important characteristics to develop.
I feel fortunate to have worked for two Deaf superintendents in my career-—Dr. Ron Stern when I was in the early years of my career as an administrator at New Mexico School for the Deaf. I try to emulate his leadership style. And Dr. David Geeslin at ISD, in which he is always open to innovative ideas and programs in order to promote high academic success for the students.
What have you liked best about ISD? What will you miss most?
Enjoyed my 3 years at ISD—enjoyed working with the large group of Deaf parents not found in many schools—many students were on grade level and succeeded highly on their graduation exams and college-entrance exams such as ACT. Enjoyed working with a large number of Deaf staff and administration team. We’ve won many athletic national championships in basketball, volleyball, wrestling, and baseball. More importantly, we’ve won the national Academic Bowl championship in my last year at ISD. I’ve always been interested in the Academic Bowl and it was very satisfying winning the championship after coming up soo close in the previous years. I will also miss the friends that I’ve grown to know and the camaraderie that we shared.
What changes do you hope to implement at WVSD?
I would like to see some critical programs to students’ social, academic, communication, and leadership development to be implemented at WVSDB—the character-education programs, the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Agriculture, and Math) program, the Robotics program, the Fast Forward dual-credit program with NTID/RIT, the 5th-year transition program, expanded Career and Technical Education program, service-learning projects, student-leadership program—Jr. NAD and the National Honor Society, the dramatic-arts program, student-merit programs, expanded extra-curricular programs, and strongly emphasizing the 4th R in education—building and teaching reasoning (creative and critical thinking) skills in classes. I will also ensure that we’ll be involved with Gallaudet’s annual Academic Bowl and Battle of the Books programs.2
I’m very much a student- centered and a forward-thinking leader—we need to think outside of the box in creating innovative programs for Deaf and blind students that they will benefit. The working world/job force has changed dramatically in the last 10 years and we need to ensure that we have classes and programs in place that will prepare our students well for their chosen careers.
What do you enjoy doing “out of office”?
Biking is my passion. I've biked often to ISD from where I lived—about 15 miles )one hour) each way.
I enjoy collecting Deaf artists’ work.
My wife and I enjoy hiking and we love going to Colorado in the summertime. We’ll probably live in Colorado when we are retired 20 years from today.
I enjoy working out too.
We try to do volunteer work when we have time. I’ve been invited to join Aspen Camp board and I'd like to be involved with Camp Mark 7 too as a board member. I worked at CM7 right after I graduated from HS as a counselor and that was a rewarding experience.
My diversions include playing Scrabble in my limited spare time and following the Green Bay Packers. I’m a die-hard fan. I believe we have a legitimate chance at winning the Super Bowl any year we have Aaron Rodgers leading. :-) I believe we’ll see the Packers playing the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 50. :-)
Anything you’d like to add, about your life, teaching, family, the Deaf community, our ongoing battle?
My battle cry for Deaf residential schools to keep open/alive has always been this theme: There is nothing stronger than the sense of belonging for Deaf children. I've been involved in Deaf education for 20 years—14 as principal—and practically every time when I met Deaf students transferring to our residential school from a mainstreamed program, their self-esteem and self identity would dramatically boost after only a few weeks because it is within our safe and nurturing environment that they begin to develop the sense of belonging—no barriers to communication and learning—and from there, they are being allowed to excel and thrive at our school. There are no limits to what they can achieve. They no longer need to struggle with communication obstacles and their detractors at their previous schools.
I couldn't be more proud of ISD’s new tagline—Belong, Excel, Thrive. There’s nothing more fitting for Deaf children than that. I saw this firsthand as a student how I could have been easily “lost” if I didn't come from a Deaf family. I already had a strong identity when I first enrolled at Cudahy Jr. High as a 7th grader. BUT I never felt I belonged the entire time I was mainstreamed—for 6 years until graduation. I always felt I was an outsider. Our friendships with our “hearing” friends felt superficial as we never bonded or socialized often beyond school hours. We were never interested in attending any of our school functions or events, including the Prom. I tried out for sports but was excluded because of interpreter issues. I was eligible to be a part of the school’s National Honor Society but was not invited again because of the [same] issues. It felt very rewarding when I was able to start the National Honor Society chapter at ISD (Indiana) last January because many of our ISD students were deserving of this special recognition for their high academic success.
My parents and I have discussed this. . . . that in retrospect we should have instead attended the Wisconsin School for the Deaf and explored the possibility of enrolling in local (Delavan) schools’ classes part-time or full-time while being able to participate in WSD’s extra-curricular programs.
I’ll be the Superintendent of West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. (including the Blind). It’ll be a good learning experience working with blind students (with normal hearing) and their parents. Needless to say, I'll use an interpreter when I'm interacting with them . . . I look forward to learning more about the culture of Bind people.
Deaf/blind children need to develop strong emotional intelligence too-—I’ve seen some of my Deaf friends throughout the years, some with high academic/cognitive skills, who are now staying home and not working because they’ve failed to handle crises in their lives.
It is very distressing to see that many residential schools across the nation are seeing lower enrollment numbers over the last 10-15 years. Educators, legislators, and parents need to understand that deaf/blind residential schools are the places where the majority of Deaf and blind children will shine. We need to show the community and the legislators the extrinsic value of our residential schools. We need to show that our Deaf and blind students can succeed and lead productive lives as tax-paying citizens.
I am especially proud of the fact that I’ve recently earned my doctorate in Deaf Education and of my dissertation, which I had spent about 3 years working on. My dissertation, Investigating Workplace Ecology for Superintendents at Schools for the Deaf in the United States, shed important light on how our superintendents have been able to succeed in spite of the many crises that their schools now face (low enrollment numbers, budget cuts, low student scores, etc.) while keeping their schools viable.
1. Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Soviet developmental psychologist and educational philosopher. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), a theory he developed and worked on (but didn’t complete) during the last 10 years of his short life, is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what s/he can do with help. The teacher’s role is to give children experiences within their ZPDs, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning. Vygotsky’s theory was in opposition to the conventional knowledge-based practices of his day, with the teacher lecturing about a topic, then testing the students to see how much they remembered. He believed in promoting and examining students’ ability to solve problems independently, i.e., without an adult’s help.
2. Battle of the Books, first held in 2012, is a nationwide reading competition sponsored by Gallaudet University for Deaf/HoH middle-school students. Schools compete against each other, elimination-tourney-style, using videophones and webcams; the top teams in each of the three divisions, Blue, Buff, and Green (depending on the grade level of reading), compete in the national championships at GU.