Tami Grant, the Washougal School District’s nominee for the 2020 Washington “teacher of the year” award, has worked as a sign language interpreter for Vancouver-based Sorenson Communications for the past 10 years and has taught American Sign Language (ASL) at Washougal High School for the past 12 years, but her connection to the deaf culture and community goes back much further.

About 30 years ago, Grant’s sister married a man who was, at the time, hard of hearing and is now completely deaf. One year later, Grant’s oldest daughter, Ashli-Marie, then 2 years old, was diagnosed with deafness. One night, about 15 years later, Grant’s ex-husband Kevin went to bed with perfect hearing and woke up the next morning unable to hear, the victim of sudden neural hearing loss.

And about a year-and-a-half ago, Kayla Ritchey, Grant’s younger daughter, discovered her newborn son, Carson, was deaf.

After Carson’s birth, testing confirmed that Waardenburg syndrome type 2, a genetic condition characterized by varying degrees of deafness and pigmentation abnormalities of the eyes, hair or skin, runs in the family.

Grant acknowledges there have been some struggles along the way, but she views her dealings with deafness as “one of the biggest blessings that’s ever happened to (her) family.”

“I found out there’s a whole new language and a culture that I didn’t even know about,” she said. “There (are) so many people that I wouldn’t have met, so many things I wouldn’t have experienced had I not learned about deafness, had we not had deafness in our family.”   Those experiences have informed her approach to teaching in a profound way.

“I tell the kids this all the time – you have to go through a grieving process,” Grant said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, deafness is this horrible, terrible thing.’ You have a picture of what life is going to be like, and then it changes, (and that) picture is gone and now you have to figure out what life is going to be like. You’re grieving the loss of that picture, that plan.”

Her approach appears to be working. The Washougal School District announced at its board of directors meeting on April 23 that Grant is the district’s nominee for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction 2020 Teacher of the Year award.

“What I see Tami doing on a regular basis is providing our students with a safe, supportive environment where they can explore their talents and their skills,” said Washougal High principal Aaron Hansen. “She’s relationship-focused, and that means so much to our students. She connects with them. She asks how they’re doing. She wants to know where they want to go and she helps them get there.”

Grant is the director of Washougal High’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, serves on the school’s culture and climate team and helps lead the district’s career technical education professional learning committee.

“The leadership that she provides the other adults in our building is priceless,” said Sheree Clark, Washougal High’s associate principal. “She influences our teachers to push past their comfort zone. That’s huge. A lot of the credit that we’ve made as a team is (due) to Tami.”

A ‘welcoming environment’

The ASL program is truly a family affair at Washougal High.

Ashli-Marie Grant, who works as an executive secretary for the Utah School for the Deaf and Sorenson Communications as interpreter scheduler in Salt Lake City, periodically visits her mother’s classroom via video call to answer student questions.

Two years ago, when school district leaders determined the high school needed a second ASL teacher to keep up with demand, they hired Ritchey, who had been working for the district as an interpreter.

“From a young age, I wanted to be a teacher, but never anything to do with ASL. Actually, I was kind of resistant against ASL,” Ritchey said. “I didn’t want to be identified as the person who knew sign language. My mom helped me understand that it is OK for that to be a part of me. It’s what makes me unique and special. It’s a skill that can help people. She inspired me to start working with high school kids, and I love it.”

Every so often, Ritchey brings Carson into her classroom, where the toddler is popular with students, including senior Dylan Van Horn, who has joked that he’s going to be Carson’s interpreter when the boy gets older.

Van Horn has been inspired by Grant’s tutelage. When he first enrolled in her class as a sophomore, he viewed ASL as not much more than a means to an end in terms of obtaining a needed language credit.

Now, he’s planning to attend Western Oregon University to study ASL and English interpreting and hopes to work as an interpreter.

“(Grant) provides a welcoming environment,” said Van Horn, who translated the entire score to the musical “Mama Mia” with Grant’s help for his senior project. “You have more of a personal relationship with her; she’s more like a mom than a teacher. Kids who are struggling, she gives them a chance. Kids that are feeling alone, she gives them a reason to come to school.”

Throughout the school year, the ASL classes produce and perform interpretive shows in front of the entire student body — a daunting task for some of the more introverted students.

But Grant helps them through the process by encouraging them to “come out of their shell,” something she said she has done herself during the past 12 years.

“My whole philosophy is I need these kids to feel safe to try new things,” Grant said. “I have to make it a safe place because I’m asking them to do something that’s out of their comfort zone. My biggest philosophy is trying to reach them as individuals, to help them get a respect for what it is that I’m trying to teach them about the culture.”

She also has a few personal motivations.

“Honestly, I want to make sure the next generation is learning to sign,” said Grant, whose son Matthieu is endorsed in ASL and works for Disney in Florida. “Clearly it’s not stopping here in my family. My grandson lives in this district. He’s going to be going to school here someday. I would like him to have peers who know how to sign and understand that he’s coming from a different culture and has different norms.”

When Grant was a child, she moved with her mother 27 times, from Bellingham in northern Washington to Vancouver and to several points in between. She attended 13 schools, including five high schools, before graduating from Washougal High School.

“She had a really rough life growing up,” Ritchey said. “She’s had to survive on what she’s been given.”

She’s also earned a lot of things along the way — respect from her students and peers, for example.

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, Grant’s students presented her with a signed picture frame. One student wrote, “If it wasn’t for you, I would’ve dropped out of school a long time ago.”

“At the end of the day,” Grant said, “what matters is the students knew they were important. They knew that I believed in them. They knew they could keep going on and things were going to get better. They’re going to grow up to be good people because of what they learned here. In a world with so much chaos, we need the good people.”