Braille Monitor                                                         July 2007

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Agents of Change: Teaching Structured
Discovery in an Agency for the Blind

by Brook Sexton

Brook Sexton gives Hawaii Lieutenant Governor James "Duke" Aiona a cane travel lesson.From the Editor: In 2002 Ho`opono Services for the Blind in Hawaii adopted the structured-discovery method of training students. Brook Sexton began working for the agency as the Braille instructor in early 2005. She has recently accepted a job as a cane travel instructor. Brook was part of the first class to graduate from Louisiana Tech’s teachers of blind students program with certification in orientation and mobility. She was the first person hired to work in the training center who had a background in structured discovery. She made the following presentation at the Sunday, January 28, 2007, National Orientation and Mobility Certificants (NOMC) seminar. This is what she said:

Though I have never been married, I received some marital advice as an undergraduate student studying marriage, family, and human development. This advice is something I intend to remember when the time comes: after you are married, forget the person you thought you married and get to know the one you did.

When any of us begins a new part of life such as marriage or a new job, we have expectations about the way things are going to be. We believe that marriage, for example, is highly desirable and that it will bring much gladness to life. We recognize that tough times will come, yet, if in general we approach the situation with gladness, we will make it through those difficult times.

Two years ago I decided to go to work for an agency for the blind in Hawaii that for several years has been in transition from being a traditional training center to one modeled after our NFB centers and the program Dr. Jernigan developed in Iowa. The road has not been easy, and we have a long way to go, but much energy has been put into the effort. Some days I am tired of being one of the few people in the agency with a foundation in structured-discovery training. Some days I am tired of being an agent of change and the person coworkers turn to for advice. At these times I remember gladness--the things that have made it possible for me to continue to be an agent of change and a positive role model to my students and coworkers.

I would like to share my gladness formula with you. The eight points are not in priority order, but each has relevance.

G: Gain Administrative Support

I would not be able to do the work I do without the support of my administrative team. This doesn't mean I get my way all of the time or that the administrators always agree with me. It also doesn't mean that the suggestions I make will always be implemented. It does mean that fundamentally my supervisor and agency director believe that blindness need not be a barrier to success and that they value my suggestions. It means working together to find solutions and to continue to challenge our expectations about blindness. Dave Eveland and Lea Grupen have worked tirelessly to bring about change, and I am fortunate that they believe in structured discovery. They understand the uphill battle we face, and they are not afraid to take steps into the unknown, even though they face criticism from many sources. Without their support I would not be able to deal with the daily challenges of working with people who don't quite understand what structured discovery is and how it can help transform lives. Not everyone will be as lucky as I am, but it is essential to have support at the top to help reinforce your way of teaching. One way I established a relationship with my administrator was very simple: from day one I went into his office to say good morning. I have done this with other coworkers, and it has established a relationship that would otherwise be very limited.

L: Listen and observe before suggesting changes

The fact that I know structured discovery works and have my own ideas about how to go about implementing it doesn't mean other ways of doing things cannot be effective. I remember well my first day on the job and my first staff meeting. I don't recall the discussion, but I remember thinking, “I can't just sit here listening to this erroneous idea without speaking up.” Later I realized that I hadn’t known the students, the situation, or the possible reasons we were going to proceed in the way decided, and I had been out of line to pronounce my coworkers wrong.

I quickly learned that it is essential to understand why things are done a certain way and to observe and listen for a while before voicing strong, contrary opinions. In doing this, I have been able to guide gently and change perceptions.

Vincent Van Gogh said, "Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination. Do not become the slave of your model." Structured discovery is a model, and, while it includes some definite principles and practices, there are thousands of ways to implement a program. Just because I have learned to listen and observe, I have not become a slave to others’ ideas, and I have not been persuaded to stick with the status quo. By listening and observing, I have been able to bring about more change because people know I'm not speaking out of ignorance. I must never allow my imagination to be quenched, but I must also never become a slave unwilling to compromise.

A: Always the example

As a person who has had the good fortune of being trained using the structured-discovery model, I must be aware that my coworkers who want to learn about structured discovery watch everything I do. They learn much more through my example than by what I say. They seek me out when they have questions, and they model their behavior after mine. Even on a day when nothing seems to be going well, I have to remember that people are watching and learning and anxious to understand why I do something a particular way. I often feel that I can't allow myself to be human (I will talk about that in the next section), but I also understand that a blind person who has been lucky enough to have had proper training has a duty to be a good role model.

Recently we went on a field trip to Chinatown in downtown Honolulu. It turned out to be a productive day in which students planned the shops and restaurants they wanted to go to, and the staff backed off to give students more freedom. We decided to drop students off at various bus stops and have them figure out how to get downtown. Again staff was not to interfere. After the field trip a coworker commented that I was an example to the students. I responded by saying: "It's not about me; the students led the way, and all I did was follow along."

Later my supervisor pointed out that this coworker, with whom I don't particularly interact, was giving me a genuine compliment. I later apologized and acknowledged that I was a role model by the very fact that I was there.

Other field trips have taught me that sometimes staff members don't know how to interact with me, though they actually want to learn from me. It becomes my responsibility to be approachable as questions arise about why I do what I do. Also I must be ready and willing to accept constructive criticism and recognize that I can learn from everyone else too.

D: Don’t be afraid of mistakes

When you begin a new job and go to an agency in which you do things differently from your coworkers, you may feel as if you must be absolutely perfect. Recognize that this is impossible. You must be willing to make mistakes and be prepared for the possibility of making them. You will try things that fail, and you will do things that do not build relationships. In the end you must learn to regroup and keep trudging forward.

One day in a staff meeting a mobility instructor announced that a blind person could never learn a new place as quickly as a sighted person. This angered me, and I lost my temper in front of everyone. I slammed my hand on the table and said: "That's not true!"
"Oh, yes it is," he said.

"How would you know? You've never been a blind person," was my biting response. This was inappropriate and a grievous mistake. I lost the respect of my coworkers and my supervisor. It took a long time for me to reestablish a working relationship with this mobility instructor.

I wish I could go back and change that incident and many others, but I cannot. However, the next time I can try to do better. I can't let these sorts of things stop me from moving forward.

N: No one can do it alone

Just as having administrative support is essential, you must also understand that you cannot be an agent for change by yourself. You need to surround yourself with people who can encourage you and remind you why you work for an agency for the blind. You need people who understand structured discovery to help you regain perspective and energy. I gain this needed support through my participation in the NFB and through interaction with fellow NOMCs.

E: Establish working relationships

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "A man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions." The only way my peers in my agency will truly understand structured discovery is through observation and interaction with those who believe in it. I must work at developing personal relationships with each of my coworkers. This is not always easy. Some members of the staff in Hawaii do not like me and avoid me at all costs. Nonetheless, I recognize that it will be easier for me if I establish a relationship with each person. They may never agree with me, but at least we can work together on a team. I have made it a point to get to know things about my coworkers--their children’s names and activities, their interests, etc. As I have reached out to various members of my team, we have been able to find common ground. It is important to be inclusive and have personal time--"talk story”--as we call shooting the breeze in Hawaii. Through these relationships I have been able to say things or present ideas that I could never have addressed in a more formal setting. Also through one-on-one discussions minds have been stretched and change has occurred.

S: Seeing the progress

I often ask myself: “Is it worth it?” Then I look back to the year I came to Hawaii; I remember where we were six months ago, last month, and even last week. Looking back reassures me that we are making progress. When I get caught up in the day-to-day challenges of center life, it is difficult to see the progress. If I am not careful, I am likely to focus on the minute details that are wrong and not what is right. Sharon Omvig was the first to give me this advice, and whenever I feel hopeless or frustrated, I try to remember and begin counting all the positive changes that have occurred.

S: Select your battles

Change takes many years and lots of patience. Some battles must be fought, and some things can be let go. I don't always know the difference, but I'm working on it. I want to wave my magic wand and make everyone understand and work together, but I don't have magical powers, and I don't have limitless energy. Therefore I have to select my battles. I must decide when holding my ground is necessary and when to go with the flow. This approach helps tremendously for a variety of reasons. First, it allows me to relax and enjoy my work. Second, I am not seen as combative on every point. Finally, when I am not battling everything that is wrong all the time, if something really needs to change, people listen to my suggestions.

Working for a state agency in which structured discovery has not been the norm is absolutely challenging. I do not have all the solutions or answers, but I do know that it is rewarding. When my students realize there is hope for their futures, when students leap ahead in their confidence, and when my coworkers recognize the power of structured discovery, I am reminded of the reasons I chose to work in this field. My heart is full of Gladness.

So my advice to all of you who work for agencies for the blind is ultimately: Forget the agency you thought you joined, and get to know the one you did. Then work with your heart full of Gladness to bring the strength of structured discovery to your program and bring real hope to your blind students, for where there is no hope for the future, there is no power for the present.

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