The role of an educational interpreter is often misunderstood by individuals who are not experienced in deaf education and the general field of interpreting. The term itself is misleading due to the fact that interpreters do not explain, but rather transmit information from one language or code to another. The role is further complicated by the various communication needs of the student.

Mode of Communication

Deaf students vary considerably regarding their communication preferences. Some may use American Sign Language (ASL), which is a unique language with its own syntax and grammar that is different and distinct from English. Others may use an English based signed system such as Signing Exact English (SEE), or some form of Pidgin Signed English that may incorporate features of both languages. Finding the most appropriate Educational Interpreter is not a "one suit fits all" situation. Each prospective interpreter must be evaluated in terms of the communication needs of the student.

Additionally, the age and language abilities of the student must be considered. The literacy level of a high school student will be quite different as compare to that of an elementary student. The interpreting needs of students will need to be adjusted relative to the sophistication of their language.


In most cases, those who have the authority to hire educational interpreters have little expertise regarding the evaluation of suitable candidates for the position of Educational Interpreter. The ability to "sign" does not automatically qualify an individual as an interpreter. The field of interpreting is recognized as a profession with a rigorous set of training standards and clearly defined code of ethics. An educational interpreter should, minimally, be screened by the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Additionally, the candidate should also have experience and/or training in child development and education. The candidate should also be evaluated in terms of the needs of the learner as discussed above. Attention also must be given to the content and grade level of the interpreting assignment. Interpreting for a Fourth Grade math class as opposed to an Eleventh Grade Trigonometry class require different levels of interpreting skill.

It is imperative that the hiring agency use a qualified evaluator to determine the skill level of any person applying for such a position. The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing will be happy to assist in this endeavor.

Job Description

It is important that a clear job description be developed for the educational interpreter prior to advertising for the position. The roles of individual educational team members are separate and distinct. It is confusing and often counterproductive for students to have staff assuming different responsibilities. Whenever possible, a teacher should not be used as an interpreter, nor should the interpreter's role be used to replace a qualified teacher or tutor. If the position calls for shared responsibilities they should be clearly stated in the job description.

At the present time, there is a severe shortage of qualified interpreters. It is important that a search for appropriate candidates begin well in advance of the anticipated start of services (for example, a search may begin in the spring for an anticipated need for the following fall). A job search for qualified applicant should include:

  • Local and regional newspapers
  • Interpreter Training Programs
  • Professional interpreter organizations
  • Professional journals and deaf related publications

The State of Massachusetts presently does not require formal "certification" for the position of Educational Interpreter; however, it is strongly recommended that commensuration for such a position is the equivalent of other professional educational staff.

Points to Remember

  • Interpreting is a physically and psychologically challenging profession. Be aware that an interpreting assignment that lasts for over one hour (e.g., school plays, block teaching periods, etc.) may require the services of a second interpreter.
  • Develop a plan for interpreter use when the student is absent from school. This should be
    discussed during the hiring process to eliminate any misconceptions regarding unforeseen scheduling needs.
  • Plan ahead for situations where the interpreter will be absent (e.g., sick days, personal days, etc.) It is wise to develop a "sub" list of individuals that will be able to fill in for the interpreter on those days. It may also be possible to cover such situations through in-house recruiting of staff.
  • In many rural, mainstreamed environments, an educational interpreter can become professionally isolated. You will need to determine who will provide supervision for your interpreter/s, and how they will they be evaluated regarding their professional growth. This needs to be done with sensitivity towards current collective bargaining regulations, as well as generally accepted rules of professional etiquette.
  • Interpreters serve as an important part of the educational team. Any meeting involving the team should actively encourage participation on the part of the interpreter: they should not be required to interpret for such meetings (an example of this would be an IEP meeting involving an interpreter that has worked closely with student. In such a situation, the interpreter should be involved as a Team member while someone else interprets for the meeting.)
  • Be prepared for special events (school plays, parent teacher meetings, field trips, graduation ceremonies, etc.) Always keeps "interpreting needs" on your mind whenever the school plans events where a deaf student or a deaf parent may be in attendance. Depending on your
    contractual agreement, your staff interpreter may, or may not be able to do this.

This information is provided by the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.