But no one was prouder than Lucy Muglia Durr last May when her daughter, Patricia, walked across the stage to accept the Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Durr, who is hard of hearing, teaches Social Sciences and Deaf Studies to some of the 1,100 deaf students who attend RIT through the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).
“My mother is a strong woman and she wants nothing but the best for her children,” Durr says.
Durr grew up in Minoa, a suburb of Syracuse, as the fourth of five children. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a minor in Education from LeMoyne University, where her father taught for 32 years. After attending mainstreamed schools all her life, with speech therapy as her only support service, Durr began to study American Sign Language at the age of 20.
From the experience she gained working with deaf children at a summer camp Durr realized that she loved teaching, and obtained a master’s degree in Education through a program offered jointly through RIT and the University of Rochester.
After three years at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City and another year with Rochester’s BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services), Durr joined NTID in 1989.
She quickly found her niche in her uncanny way to relate to and empower students, through a mix of compassion, humor, and savvy. Students constantly drop by her office to discuss everything from classwork to current events, and she prides herself on knowing that she has earned their respect. They might not always like her, but she’s come to terms with that after some sound advice from her father.
Years ago, when she first began teaching, Durr took every negative student evaluation of her skills “incredibly personally.”
“I used to feel very hurt when students said bad things about my teaching,” she confesses. “I wanted all of them to really like me.” Then her father told her that teaching wasn’t a popularity contest. “He told me, ‘you’re not there for them to like you. You’re there to teach them. And they’re there to learn.’”
That learning takes place through a number of classroom strategies Durr employs, including mock trials, guest presenters, debates, and individual and group presentations.
She also informs students on the first day of class that they have the power to vote on decisions in the classroom, such as project deadlines and test dates. One time, a chronically unprepared student begged for a postponement of a Monday test, citing his weekend social calendar as the reason. The rest of the class disagreed. A vote took place and the test was given as planned.
“I learned a lot from Mrs. Durr,” said NTID student Stephanie Chester, who took Durr’s Introduction to Political Science and Economics class. “She gives a lot of time to her students and puts her energy into constructing interesting and challenging materials. She also helped me overcome a lifelong fear of making speeches in front of a crowd because we had to do it every week.”
Like Chester, Durr says, some NTID students experience fear and insecurity when they believe they’re “not capable of doing what their hearing peers can.”
Durr attributes that to being overprotected as youngsters, being isolated from communication, and in many cases being told by family or educators through the years that they can't do something because of their deafness.
She recalls seeing a family doctor while she was in college about some dizzy spells she was having. During the visit, the doctor asked about her career goals, and when Durr replied that she wanted to become a teacher of deaf students, the doctor promptly declared that she “would never be hired” because of her speech impediment. When she shared his “prognosis” with her parents, her mother quickly replied: “That’s a bunch of baloney.”
Experiences like these have helped Durr shape her teaching philosophy.
"I try and encourage my students to become advocates for themselves, and to show them that indeed, they CAN," Durr explains by signing “can’t” in reverse, a common idiom in American Sign Language.
While students report much personal growth in their knowledge and skills through Durr’s classes, she is quick to say that she takes away a great deal from the classroom as well. She has “a deep admiration” for the complexities of many of her students’ lives. “I cherish the care, respect, and scholarship they have given me.”
Durr, who lives in suburban Rochester with her husband, RIT Information Technology professor Stephen Jacobs, and two children, Zoe, 8, and Noah, 6, has many outside interests, including theatre and literature. She is a founder and former artistic director of “Lights On!” a local deaf theatre troupe.
She also has instilled in her children a strong, if not whimsical, appreciation of the world around them. Family hikes are made more interesting by the occasional pause to build fairy houses in the woods, and enjoying the beauty of a meandering stream isn’t complete without catching some crayfish.
Just as she tells students on the first day of class to “find the hidden child inside you,” Durr takes great delight in releasing hers whenever possible.
“Some time ago when we had a spectacular meteor shower, we woke our kids at 5 a.m. and climbed out on a small roof outside my daughter’s room to enjoy it,” she says. “Our kids thought that was really neat, but at the same time they think we’re a little crazy.”
NTID is the first and largest technological college in the world for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. One of eight colleges of RIT, NTID offers educational programs and access and support services to its 1,100 students from around the world who study, live and socialize with 14,200 hearing students on RIT’s Rochester, N.Y., campus.
Web address: www.rit.edu/NTID.
For more NTID news visit: www.rit.edu/NTID/newsroom.