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The Rewards and Continuing Challenges of Teaching
Blind and Visually Impaired Students
by Tami Dodd Jones
Tami Dodd Jones
From the Editor: Tami Jones is a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind. She now lives and teaches in Indiana. In the following article, reprinted from the Spring 2002 issue of the Blind Educator, a publication of the National Organization of Blind Educators, she talks about her experience working as a teacher of visually impaired students. This is what she says:
When I began college I had very little idea of what I ultimately wanted to do. My goals were simple--work hard, do well, and have fun along the way. Now that I am a teacher, my goals are remarkably similar--work hard to keep on top of new developments and technology in the field, do the best job I can for the students in my charge, and get as much enjoyment as I can from the experience. But it isn't always easy. There are great rewards--the knowledge that because of you your students have a better chance for success in school and in their later lives--but there are even greater challenges. Here are some that I believe anyone contemplating a career in education of blind and visually impaired students should consider and work hard to meet.
The first big challenge is mastering the essential skills of blindness. No matter what anyone tells you, it is very unlikely that your students will become better Braille users, cane users, or adaptive computer users than you are. In order for them to become successful using these skills, you yourself must become successful. Total mastery isn't always easy or even possible, but it is important that you keep working at it, even after you have left school and begun working. The old adage, "If you don't use it, you lose it," really applies, especially with Braille. Those of us who rely on Braille in our daily lives have an advantage, but even I, who have used it since I was nine, find myself using it less for little things as technology becomes more advanced and available. I must constantly find occasions to use skills such as slate and stylus and abacus to keep my hand in.
Some may say that such skills are no longer relevant, but they may well be to your students, if not to you. There are still parts of the world, even in this country, where these devices are considered the epitome of technology, and they come in handy even now when the electricity goes off or you run out of batteries for your talking calculator. Don't second-guess what your students may need; give them everything you can to provide them the best chance to succeed in their future lives.
The next big challenge is organization. If you're like me, this doesn't come naturally, and you have to work at it constantly. Since most teachers of the blind are now itinerants, at least for part of their day, it is crucial that you have what you need when you need it, whether it is lesson plans, student handouts, IEP goals, or whatever. We must all develop individual systems for keeping track of necessities based on our changing jobs and schedules.
One year, for example, my job was almost exclusively itinerant consultation. I visited about thirty schools during the course of a month, none of them more than once or twice a week. I had very little time in my office for gathering materials, so I developed a system whereby I placed materials I needed to take to the various schools on a special table. The leftmost pile was for Monday, the next for Tuesday, and so on. Any materials that could not be delivered within the week could be mailed or sent with colleagues--speech teachers, physical therapists, etc.--who would be visiting that school sooner than I could. That way the students or teachers got the materials as quickly as possible.
Another year I worked every day with totally blind students in four different schools in two different counties. Most of the equipment and supplies could be kept in each school, but the things the students shared (my lesson plans, extra Braille paper, IEPs, and so on) I kept in a banker's box I carried with me from school to school. When my banker's box got wet, I switched to a Rubbermaid storage box. If one box couldn't hold what I needed, I got a bigger one.
This brings me to the third big challenge--flexibility. Very few jobs stay the same, and jobs in education seem to change more rapidly than most. You are expected to go with the flow. It seems as if every other week memos are sent to itinerants saying that we can no longer do this or must always do that. We not only have to keep track of these changes but find ways to implement them while providing the best service possible for our students. Schedules can change with little or no notice. When special meetings are called that involve your students, you just have to attend. Office time can quickly evaporate.
This brings us back to skills. Without a variety of skills--the ability to use a Braille writer, slate and stylus, Braille notetaker--I would find it difficult to keep up. I don't yet have senior moments, but my memory isn't up to the challenges itinerant work places on it. I work where I can, when I can--in the car, in teachers' lunchrooms, in school office reception rooms. I've Brailled important information on everything from index cards to legal pads to lunchroom napkins--whatever works.
Not all teaching jobs are like mine, but many are. The key is to be prepared for the challenges so that you can reap the rewards. I can't tell you how exciting it is to listen to my student read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, with little hesitation and few mistakes, or find out a student I taught several years ago graduated with honors. I know I make a difference in my students' lives, and that makes all the effort and frustration worthwhile.
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