The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______     November 1997

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Denise Mackenstadt

Denise Mackenstadt

Insights from an Instructional Assistant

by Denise Mackenstadt

From the Editor: One of the most puzzling figures in the educational landscape of blind children in public schools today is the instructional aide. Parents and teachers are often uncertain what the role of these aides should be. Denise Mackenstadt has been doing this job intelligently and knowledgeably for several years. Her husband Gary is a long-time leader in the NFB of Washington, and Denise herself is a leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. At the 1997 seminar for parents of blind children in New Orleans she spoke to the audience about what should and should not be part of an aide's responsibilities. This is what she said:

I live about twenty miles northeast of Seattle and am an instructional assistant, as we are called, in the Northshore School District. We have about 20,000 students in an area of sixty square miles. There are approximately twenty blind and visually impaired students on our caseload. I am assigned to a normally developing fourth grade blind boy. He is totally blind and a Braille user. There are some additional problems that affect his learning, but they are not directly related to his vision. I spend four hours a day at the school. I am a member of the school staff, which is an important part for me to play, because, in order for our student to become an integral member of the school community, I have to do a lot of PR, a lot of educating. My presence really helps allay the fears and anxiety that are frequently seen in a general education staff. I think that we have been very successful over the last two and a half years. The fourth grade teacher he will have this fall has actually requested that he be in the class. I view that as a real asset and something we can be proud of.

I've been with the National Federation of the Blind since 1970 in a variety of roles, so of course I've brought that experience to this job. However, my job description does not really require anything that you would recognize as specific to working with a blind student. My job description says that I am to follow directions given by a certified teacher, that I keep accurate records, that I know how to operate office equipment like the photocopier and rhisograph, and that I have some knowledge of technology. The certified teacher that I work for is the teacher of the blind--the vision teacher. She happened to want me to have this position even though she was warned not to hire me. She stipulated in the job announcement that an applicant must have a basic knowledge of Braille and white-cane use. Since I was the only applicant who had those skills, I was hired.

A year ago Washington passed a Braille literacy bill, due to the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind. Part of that bill is unique in that one of the legislators, who was a former school board member, stipulated that the Braille competency requirement must also apply to any assistants producing Braille materials or instructing a student in Braille. So I was required to take the National Library Service Braille Competency exam, which I did last year and passed.

This provision of the Washington law reflects the influence that instructional assistants have on the educational program of blind students. Frankly I see my student more often than the certified teacher does. I have more interaction with him. I see him in areas that are critical to his social development, such as playground, lunchroom, PE, music--the times he interacts socially with his peers. I have a tremendous impact on what he does every day.

The thing I appreciate most is that the classroom teacher, the vision teacher, and I have agreed that our ultimate goal is to work me out of a job. Our goal is that this student will become increasingly independent so that by middle school he will be able to meet a good number of his own needs or will be able to get the materials he needs through transcription services, readers, working with his teachers, etc. That has to become the goal for all of us who work with these children because, if they are mainstreamed into a regular school program, they have to acquire those skills. As parents your goal is to enable your children to handle their own lives and to determine their own destinies. As educators that must be our goal also.

I am very cognizant of my own limitations. I am not certificated. I really try to maintain close working relationships with all the certificated staff. I eat in the teachers' lounge in order to talk to other teachers, to hear what's going on, to work with other teachers on their projects. I work in the lunchroom so that I really get to know the custodian. As all of us who have worked in schools know, the people who truly run the school are the secretary and the custodian. I was gratified to see that I had been successful in that effort. At my end-of-the-year evaluation my principal noted that I still work in the lunchroom even though our student doesn't require my presence. Aides have to mingle with the staff because we are an itinerant program. Most of the regular educational staff has no idea of what we do, so part of our job is to make it very easy for them to accept this blind student as a regular student in the classroom.

As a non-certified staff member, there are some experience and knowledge in instructional skills that I just do not have. I don't necessarily know the progression in reading instruction or mathematics instruction. These are areas in which I need to learn from and work with the classroom teacher and vision teacher. I am there to adapt the regular education program for our blind student and to teach the specific blindness skills he needs. In addition I provide all transcription services. I come to school in the morning, check with the teacher about what is happening in class, and look at her plan book. She may tell me that she is going to give a four-page reading exam that day, it has to be Brailled by 11:00 a.m., and it's now 8:30 a.m. This means that I have to have the test transcribed into Braille that this student can actually read by 11:00 a.m. That's the reality of a public school program.

The responsibility for instructing the blind student in the standard curriculum belongs to the classroom teacher. At times, out of misunderstanding, the regular classroom teacher will expect me to instruct the blind student in areas that are not my responsibility or within my expertise. Avoiding these misunderstandings can be a difficult task. My goal for the coming year is to learn how to avoid these confusions of responsibility. The classroom teacher must be willing to accept the blind student as just one more student in a class of fourth graders. I must sometimes go to the instructor and say, "this student is in need of help on this math problem." Then I walk away to assist elsewhere in the classroom so that the teacher can spend time with the blind student.

This past year my office was too accessible to the blind student. He needs to stay in the classroom more. He performs better in the classroom because there he wants to be like the other kids in the class. And, if he is going to be like the other kids, he will have to meet classroom expectations behaviorally and instructionally. I'm locking my door this coming year. He's not going to be able to wander in and out quite as much.

Those are some of my goals for the upcoming school year. This past year my professional goals were to pass the Braille Competency Examination and to learn more about computer technology for the blind in education. My goal for my student was to develop and improve his self-esteem. I took from the National Federation of the Blind and from what we've done at our rehabilitation centers in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Colorado the understanding that I couldn't accomplish a lot just using a self-esteem curriculum. I could do all the talking I wanted, but what was really going to build his self-image was his feeling of competence using his blindness skills. That, I am very pleased to say, has happened. His feeling of competence as a Braille reader and as a blind traveler and his ability to communicate his needs to his sighted peers or adults has improved his self-esteem as much as--no, more than--any of the head talks he and I could have had.

The advantage of being married to a blind man has been that, when my student comes to me saying he can do or not do such and so, I can say, "Hey, don't talk to me about it." I can say "I know my husband." Even if I weren't married to a blind person, as an instructor I would have to know adult blind people for my own education, for mentoring him, for helping him to understand that there is an adult future for him to dream of and be a part of. That is really what our goal has to be as educators. In conclusion I would say that I have the best job in the world because I am working with kids, one on one.