A Teacher's Perspective
by Sheila Koenig
From the Editor: Sheila Koenig was a 1995 NFB Scholarship winner. Now she is a middle-school English teacher with a deep commitment to her calling. The following is the text of the speech she delivered to the 1999 meeting of the National Association of Blind Educators in Atlanta:
Many times during this past year we have heard the sounds of gunfire and sobbing issuing from schools as people's lives are forever changed. Though I am saddened and disturbed by the rise in school violence, I think that as educators we must stay focused on the positive sounds. We are all here because we value the profession of teaching, and there would be no profession if it weren't for the kids. So we need to remember shouts of joy as a winning point is scored, applause rising after a solo in a musical assembly, and discussion building as students listen to and talk with one another. I want to make a difference. I want students to explore the power of their imaginations and discover the beauty of language. This is why I teach.
Those first days before students came to class were hectic. As a new teacher I received mountains of new information and met dozens of people. While trying to learn policies and names, I also worked feverishly on organizing my classroom. Using a reader, I learned which lockers would be assigned to my homeroom. I decided which posters to take from the walls and which to leave hanging.
I also adapted the TV so that I could adjust channels and volume easily. Students in our middle school watch a ten-minute program daily called "Channel 1." It is a way of keeping students informed about current issues. Since the buttons on the TV were separated by only a fingernail's width, I used dymo tape as a labeling tool. I could easily feel the first button on the right. That was the power. Then came channel up and channel down. I placed a Braille "c" beneath the channel up. I used the same procedure for volume up and volume down, placing a Braille "v" beneath the volume up. This way, if the volume was too low, I knew immediately that the button above the "v" would raise it. Conversely, if the volume was too high, I knew that the button immediately to the left of the "v" would lower it. By using a reader in this way, I quickly completed these small tasks, which allowed me to focus more intently on the larger ones.
Those larger tasks always come together on the first day of school. Seating charts, attendance, learning names, presenting the syllabus, and discussing blindness are the main items on my first-day agenda. The first year I found that the way I had designed my seating chart automatically flowed into a discussion of my blindness. In front of my room is a large table. Before each class I place index cards on the table. On one side students find their names in print and Braille. On the other are grid coordinates, such as A1, C5, and E6. The letter represents the row in which the student is to sit, and the number represents the seat.
In this way students walk into my classroom. I greet them at the door, and they find their note cards then quickly their seats. After the standard, "Hi, I'm Ms. Koenig, and it's great to meet all of you." I easily move into, "You probably noticed that there are some raised bumps on the note card you just picked up. Those bumps are your names written in Braille, and I put them there to show you how I read." I proceed to talk about other techniques they would see me using. I explain that I walk with a cane, which serves as a tool to help me find objects that might be in my path. The most important idea I want to convey in this first-day discussion about blindness is that I am totally comfortable with my blindness. It is a characteristic, like having brown hair or blue eyes.
To enforce this idea further, I ask them to ask me questions. Most often someone wants to know how I get to school every morning. I explain that I carpool with other teachers and pay them gas money. I could also take a taxi or a bus. Sometimes students are not comfortable asking questions, but I know their discomfort will disappear quickly. After I tell them about my blindness, I tell them other characteristics about myself. I enjoy reading, writing, exercising, shopping, going to movies, visiting with friends. . . . This is my way of letting them know who I am, and we can establish a community atmosphere from the beginning.
Remember the note cards the students picked up as they entered my room? Braille note cards are an excellent way to take attendance. Call out names and make two piles: those present and those absent. Attendance can then be easily marked on an attendance chart. Hand-raising is something most students are curious about. I tell them that since I can't see their hands in the air, in this class they will say their names as they raise their hands. Because this is a very different procedure, I give them a practice run by saying, "On the count of three we'll all raise our hands and say our names. One, two, three." I say my name along with them. We all laugh at the mumbled sound of so many names being spoken at once; then we move on.
Most of all I want my students to see me as any other teacher. Last year I took my turn at after-school detention, breakfast duty, and before-school supervision. Students who were in sixth grade would come up to me and ask, "What do you teach?" So they get to know me as they would any other teacher before even setting foot into my classroom. But I think it's important to step beyond these required duties. As I climbed the bleachers at a volleyball tournament, I heard shouts of "Hi, Ms. Koenig!" from the team. As I smiled and waved back at them, I marveled at the energy my arrival seemed to infuse in them. At school dances I sold refreshments and monitored the floor. My students and I joked about couples needing to be a cane length apart while dancing. I made it a priority to attend spelling bees and music ceremonies as well.
In addition to students' seeing you as a vital part of the school community, colleagues and administration must see you in the same way. In January volunteers were needed to judge at a citywide speech and debate tournament. I thought it sounded interesting and volunteered my time. The typical process was that a contestant entered the room and wrote his or her number and speech title on the board. I simply asked them to read aloud anything they printed. In this way I received the same information as the other judges in the room. I told my reader what to mark on the score cards, and I returned the envelope to the counters. As the end of this year approached, an advisor was needed for National Junior Honors Society. I volunteered instantly, even though no stipend was given. I wanted to give something back to the school that had just hired me.
One reason I chose to become active in the school community, besides wanting to support the kids, was to demonstrate to my colleagues that I stood on equal footing with them. On one of the first days of orientation, an eighth-grade teacher said to me, "So, do they have an aide for you?" A look of surprise and worry crossed her face when I said that no, I didn't need an aide in my classroom. Sighted people rely so much on their vision that they absolutely cannot comprehend how they would function without it. I believe it is my job to educate these people, to show them how to be successful using alternative techniques.
I don't know what this teacher thought would happen in my classroom, but by the end of the year I felt comfortable joking with her, and she had become much friendlier toward me. Even people who had gradually come to know me through the year at times had doubts. As our team planned the field trip to the nature center, where we would walk some of the trails with the students, I had the distinct feeling that the science teacher was worried about me. She hadn't said anything, but discomfort emanated from her when we talked about the trip. Finally one day she said to me, "Sheila, you'd speak up if there was a problem with the trip, right?" I assured her that there was nothing to worry about.
There was a time in my life when I might have worried continuously about this trip. But before I began my student teaching, I attended BLIND, Inc., an NFB training center. At the center I traveled under sleep shades in many unfamiliar areas. I knew that I had the skills to lead the students successfully on these trails. I took the opportunity to walk the trails with a friend before going with the students, and I would recommend that, if you have the opportunity to check out something in advance, take advantage of it. But most fundamental is having the skills to begin with.
So my first year of teaching is over. I have learned much more than I ever thought possible. I have certainly been touched over and over by the simple joys of teaching, and I have been confronted with both positive and negative attitudes toward blindness. One thing is particularly clear, and it resounds over and over in my mind and heart. I could not have done it without the National Federation of the Blind. If I had not met competent, confident blind people, I would never have been able to see myself in that same way. If I had not taken the time to learn Braille and cane travel, I would lack the skills essential to being a successful teacher. If it weren't for the National Federation of the Blind, I would not now be speaking to you about the wonderful sounds of shouts of joy as a winning point is scored, applause rising after a solo in a musical assembly, and discussion building as students listen to and talk with one another.