Future Reflections  Convention Report 2006

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What I Have Learned

by Gayle Prillaman
2006 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children

Editor’s Note: For many parents, one of the highlights of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) convention is the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). This address is always delivered by that year’s winner of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. The accumulative influence of these award winners goes far beyond the power of their speeches to inspire (which they do) or the incredible amount of information they have to share. Without fail, our award winners’ greatest contribution lies within the kind of people--and the kind of teachers--they are. They are people of integrity and energy. They care deeply about their students, and, therefore, make it their business to be the best teachers they can be. It goes without saying that they have high expectations for all their students. Gayle Prillaman, the 2006 winner from Franklin, Tennessee, is a credit to her predecessors. At one point in her speech, Prillaman states that she has earned the nickname of the Velvet Hammer because of her tactful, but persistent nature. In addition to her impressive experience and expertise, Prillaman believes passionately in the power of parents to make a difference in the lives of their children. This attitude made it easy for parents to approach her throughout the convention to tap her extensive knowledge. Gayle Prillaman truly earned and deserved the recognition she received in the form of a beautiful plaque, an expense-paid trip to the 2006 NFB convention, and the $1,000 award. Printed below is a slightly edited version of her keynote address to the July 3, 2006, NOBPC annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Here is Prillaman:

I grew up in a small town in Virginia in the sixties when all children who were “different” were sent off somewhere or not served at all. When I went off to college on a music scholarship, I had never met a person with any type of learning difference, let alone blindness. In my junior year, I changed my major to psychology and discovered I loved learning about learning. My psychology classes about how the brain develops and about theories of learning wetted my appetite to know more.

A year after graduating from the University of Tennessee, I saw an advertisement about a graduate program in the education of the blind at the University of Virginia, and I began to wonder how blind children learned. It was a two-year program specifically designed for folks who did not have undergraduate work in education. I thought about it for a couple of months, made a few phone calls, and then applied--even though I had never so much as spoken with a blind person in my life. It is not an overstatement to say that this field chose me. The next fall, I began what has been a joyful and fascinating thirty-year journey alongside families and their blind children. Part of what keeps me in this work is the joy of constantly learning, the challenges of new situations, and the successes of great kids.

I repeat, this field chose me; I had no idea what I was getting into. Over these thirty years, I have taught blind children in public school programs and in specialized programs for the blind. I have taught in Virginia; upstate New York; Nashville, Tennessee; the Tennessee School for the Blind; and in Arizona, where I was the preschool outreach coordinator for the state. Currently, I teach in the public school system in Williamson County, Tennessee, where, five years ago, I started the county’s first visually impaired program.

During these thirty years, I have acquired some useful knowledge about the education system. I have also learned some invaluable lessons from my students and parents. I would like to share some of that knowledge with you today. Let’s begin by looking at transitions and change in particular. Finally, I will conclude with some personal examples of the many special lessons I have learned from my students and their parents.

First, as you may already know, the quality of services available to you and your child may vary tremendously within your state. Rural school systems often have smaller budgets and fewer resources than larger urban districts. They also have fewer blind students and may have difficulty finding certified teachers of the blind. There is also great variability of services for blind children from state to state. Some states, like Texas, have a statewide vision consultant (an education specialist for the blind/visually impaired), regional service centers, and a state school for the blind. The centers provide training and technical assistance to school districts with blind students, and the state school for the blind is a resource for the entire state and even the entire country. These three levels of support are available to all local school districts in Texas. However, other states may have a school for the blind, for example, but not a state consultant for the blind/visually impaired or regional service centers. This is true in spite of federal legislation and good intentions. So, if you find yourself feeling like a pioneer, blazing a new trail for services in your area, you may be just that--even in 2006.

Change and transition
Your child’s educational needs will change from year to year. Try to embrace the change rather than resist it; it is a natural part of growth. Living things do not stay the same. Our children will grow, adapt, and continue to learn throughout their lives. Each new school year will bring changes in teachers, too. This may be disconcerting, but on the positive side, it gives your child the opportunity to work with and learn from people with a variety of personalities and expectations.

There is a delicate balance between being challenged to grow and being overwhelmed. The demands of the public school setting can be overwhelming at times, especially at key transition points. If you see signs of extreme or prolonged stress in your child or yourself, do not ignore it. Do not hesitate to ask for appropriate accommodations and modifications for your child, or counseling support and information about local support groups for yourself, if you need them. The bottom line is that your child should be learning, have friends, look forward to going to school each day, and feel confident about herself/himself.

Also, do not forget that there is a range of educational options available to your child. There is no one type of educational setting that is appropriate for every blind child. Each child and family has unique needs, and each educational placement provides different levels of instruction and support.

There are several natural transition points during your child’s school experiences that are times of major change. These are:

Preschool to elementary school
This is a time when the focus shifts from the family to the child. New demands are made of your child. He/she is expected to pay attention in a group and follow directions. Generally, you will have less frequent communication from the elementary teacher than you had from the preschool teacher. This means that you may need to initiate the communication with the teacher. Reading is actively taught through third grade. By fourth grade, the emphasis is on vocabulary development and students are expected to be able to read independently. Parents need to have age-appropriate expectations about reading skills. If your child’s skills are lagging behind, you need to ask why. Be sure your child is introduced to accessible technology at an early age and maintains age-appropriate computer skills at each grade level, whether he or she is a Braille student or a print reader. Always be sure your child is oriented to any new building he/she will be attending before classes begin.

Elementary to middle school
This transition brings an increase in the number of children and teachers with whom your child interacts and usually less overt parent involvement in the school. The agenda of many teachers at this age is to prepare students for high school. Classroom teachers may be less flexible at this level than at high school. Social issues are paramount for students. There are usually more opportunities for participation in athletics and extracurricular activities than are available in elementary school. In middle school the volume of work increases as well as the pace of instruction. Students need to be able to advocate for themselves and to be well organized. This is a very important time to have close communication with your child’s teacher of the visually impaired.

Middle school to high school
More class options and greater flexibility in scheduling come with this transition. Many extracurricular opportunities are available. This is the age to explore many different types of experiences and leadership opportunities through classes, clubs, volunteer work, tutoring other students, and working part time. Did you know that work experience before graduating from high school is one of the most important experiences your child can have? It is a leading predictor of success after high school.

High school classes, especially honors and AP classes, require massive amounts of reading. Your child will need a variety of alternative techniques as well as excellent reading skills and speed to get the most from any class, but especially the advanced classes. You can expect a great deal of testing in high school. In addition to the ACT and SAT for college-bound students, your state, like mine, may require that students pass other state exams in specific core subjects in order to get a regular high school diploma. My local district also requires end-of-course exams in several academic areas for all high school students. Be sure your child has all appropriate accommodations and formats for these tests.

Preparing for the transition after high school
Be sure to establish a relationship with vocational rehabilitation services in your state before your child graduates from high school. Once your child graduates from high school, all services provided through your school district end and materials and equipment are no longer supplied--a new set of guidelines for eligibility and types of service through your state vocational rehabilitation agency goes into effect. It is very important to begin this transition to the next service environment before the senior year in high school. In fact, a vocational rehabilitation counselor should attend your child’s IEP meetings during the junior and senior years.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies may have slightly different titles state-to-state, and some states, such as New Jersey and Iowa, have entirely separate agencies or departments for the blind. Whatever their titles or structure, this agency receives federal funds to provide financial assistance for job training, college, technical school, continuing orientation and mobility training, and tuition for rehabilitation training centers. Speaking of training centers, do not forget to explore evaluation and training opportunities available through the National Federation of the Blind training centers in Colorado, Minnesota, and Louisiana. Rehabilitation funds can often be made available for this training, too. Also, rehabilitation can fund special equipment related to employment or while in training that will lead to employment.

Those are some of my thoughts about change and transition. Now, let me talk with you about my experiences regarding the role of administrators and teachers in your child’s educational services.

Role of administrators and teachers
Very often, school administrators have little idea of what you or your child need in terms of educational services. They might know that they must provide the services of a certified teacher of the blind and an orientation and mobility specialist, but have a superficial understanding of what these teachers actually do. Because of the relatively low numbers of blind and vision-impaired students, our programs are often below the radar within a school system. But parents and teachers can change that.

In my system, each new teacher is required to be observed three times each fall as part of the teacher evaluation process. The observers are either school principals or coordinators in the student support services department. For teachers of the visually impaired, this is unusual. I have worked in many school districts where the administrators have never observed itinerant vision teachers actually teaching as part of the evaluation process. But I saw these observations as a wonderful opportunity to educate key administrators about blind students and about our new visually impaired program. This county had never had a full-time teacher of the visually impaired, and I wanted the administrators to know what we do. If they observed me teaching, then I could model for them a positive philosophy of blindness.

So, in my second year of building this new program, the principal at one of my schools observed me with a blind second grader. That same year, my coordinator from the student support services department observed me with a blind high school student. One year later, the principal became the superintendent for the entire school system and the coordinator moved up to become the director of student support services. Both of these individuals have become powerful advocates for our program. They are definitely the reason we were able to hire a new teacher of the visually impaired each year for the past three years.

And what can parents do? Make a point of introducing yourself to the director of special education services in your system at least once during the school year or immediately after the end of the school year. If that is not possible, e-mail him or her with a positive comment about your child’s school year experiences. You would be amazed at how seldom an administrator actually meets our students or has contact with parents when things are going well. Meeting you and your child in pleasant circumstances does so much to help an administrator form positive perceptions about blindness. These are the key people who approve requisitions for big ticket accessible technology items, approve hiring additional teachers and mobility specialists, and provide funding for things like a Braille class for parents.

Parents can have a tremendous impact on the level of service the school system provides. Interested, active parents draw positive attention to the needs and successes of their children. The school system loves to celebrate the success of your children. My school system employs a public relations staff person for just this job.

Now, let me talk about the relationship between the teacher of the blind and the parent. Communication is the key to creating and maintaining excellent services for your child. Tell your child’s teacher what you need. Do talk about what is difficult at home for your child and what concerns you--i.e. setting limits, learning to ride a bicycle, eating skills, etc. Do ask for clarification about things you don’t understand concerning school procedures or your child’s progress. Do ask for information of all kinds--summer camp, names of other parents you can talk to, names of local piano teachers, etc. Do ask for help in meeting competent blind role models from your own community. Of course, you cannot cover all these topics in two or three conversations or meetings at school, so remember to keep the dialogue going throughout the year. I believe parents should be able to think of their child’s teacher as a resource for them and an advocate for their child.

And what about regular education teachers? In my county, we operate on the inclusion model. We do not cluster blind students together in one school or offer resource rooms, but serve all students in their neighborhood schools. This means that each fall we “begin again” in multiple schools to educate each school staff. Part of my job as a teacher of the visually impaired is to change their perceptions of what it means to be blind and raise their expectations for the new blind students. To do this, I need the support of administrators and most particularly I need the support of parents. We are always more successful in changing attitudes in the school when parents reach out and help in that education process. We need you to reach out to other parents of blind children in your school system, to your community, and to your child’s teachers--the general education teachers, the physical education teacher, the music teacher, the art teacher--all of them. Students themselves are part of that process, too. I am very aware that my students are changing the public perception of what it means to be blind every single day.

In my county, I have found that the educators are very open to the training I offer them and are very willing to do whatever it takes to make their classrooms stimulating and supportive for our students. As the highly qualified teachers in their academic content areas, they must assume responsibility for all students--including my blind students. This is a powerful shift from assuming that the teacher of the blind has the primary responsibility for the educational program for the blind or vision-impaired student. I do provide direct instruction in Braille and the expanded core areas for the blind and visually impaired, but I am equally responsible for supporting the general education teachers and providing adapted materials for my students to use in their classes. This educational philosophy and approach for blind children have many challenges but also many rewards.

Everyone has a role to play in the system--parents, students, teachers of the visually impaired, regular classroom teachers, and administrators. Everyone’s participation is needed to ensure success for our blind and vision-impaired students.

Now, let me share with you some personal stories from the past thirty years of my teaching career. From my students and their parents I have learned the true meaning of courage, teamwork, and persistence. I have also learned to be sensitive to others’ reactions to change, and I have learned that imagination is more important than knowledge. Here are my stories:

I was a preschool outreach coordinator in Tucson for the Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind when I first met Anna and her parents at a parent meeting at the school. Blind from retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), Anna was four years old and small for her age but active and very spunky. She was wearing a tee shirt that said, “Never give up.” I visited her about a month later at her home in Bisbee, which is a mining town built on a series of very steep hills. Her home was perched on top of one of these hills. Imagine my amazement when I stepped out the back door of her home for her to show me her swing set. There was a low cinderblock wall about one-foot high around the three sides of her postage-stamp-sized back yard with twenty-foot drop-offs on two sides and very old, narrow, and steep concrete steps descending down the third side to the store. Anna not only showed me how well she could swing that day but that she could walk up and down those steps by herself. I was in awe of her parents who were courageous enough to allow her to be as safely independent as she could be. I had no doubts that when the time came for her to go to her local kindergarten in Bisbee, she would do just fine.

Sammy was a totally blind boy with multiple disabilities who received services from six different specialists, including myself. I had the privilege of working with him for four years in the Metro Nashville school system. Early on I was struck with how graciously his mother communicated with the various instructors and therapists who made up the team that worked with him. Communication and coordination was a priority for her, but that was not always easy. She worked full-time and team members were rarely at his school at the same time.

So, at his mom’s request, we wrote into his IEP that his team would meet monthly to monitor his progress and collaborate on teaching strategies. We got better at it each year. Before we knew it, we were functioning as a trans-disciplinary team. We made it a priority to schedule overlaps during the week and to work in pairs when possible on lessons and classroom activities. I learned firsthand of the synergy that can occur when a group of specialists are focused on the same goals and are constantly coordinating their efforts. And all this happened because a parent asked for teamwork. This was a powerful experience and one I strive to replicate. It doesn’t always come together, but when it does magical things can happen.

My advice to parents? Never assume that all the different specialists who work with your child are communicating frequently with each other; in fact, they may not even be on the same page. At your child’s IEP meeting, you can ask that regular communication be specified either in the minutes of the meeting or on the service page. If regular meeting times are documented in the IEP, they are more likely to happen. Otherwise, as everyone’s schedules keep absorbing new students, there is soon no time for informal meetings. Getting it in writing benefits the therapists and teachers by allowing meeting/consult time in their schedules.

Change can be tough
Another important concept that parents have taught me is that I need to be sensitive to those for whom change is tough. I learned this from a parent of a student in my preschool class for blind children in Nashville. I had taken the teaching position with some very definite ideas about what my preschool students needed and what I wanted to offer to parents. The class was very diverse and several students were from inner city neighborhoods. I added a regular home visit to my classroom schedule and started looking for several sighted peers to add to the mix of our class. I scheduled regular visits by blind adults to read aloud during story time. Before the end of my first week, a very outspoken mom informed me, as she dropped her daughter off one morning, that she didn’t like any of the changes I had made to the class and she wished it could go back to the way it had been--including the previous teacher. I was taken aback but somehow found the words to acknowledge her discomfort and to assure her that we both wanted the same things for her daughter. I was sure we could work together. It took several months for this mom to get comfortable with the changes and to learn to trust that awful new teacher. It did turn out to be a positive experience for her, but it was painful at first. I am usually energized by change, and in my enthusiasm about the class I had overlooked her early signals of discomfort. So, I appreciated her honesty, even though it was hard to hear at first.

Imagination is more important than knowledge
Four-year-old Cindy was in my preschool class. In addition to blindness, she had cerebral palsy (CP) that affected the use of her legs, trunk, and hands. She was very bright and talkative. She loved books, loved being read to, and always asked wonderful questions. I called them Cindy Questions. Here’s an example: “What will happen if I let this kite string go?” she once asked me as she released the kite.

The problem was that her hands were habitually curled up into tight fists. Fortunately, I had the wonderful support of a skillful occupational therapist and physical therapist. Together, we decided to work to get her little hands open so she could be a Braille reader. I had never taught a student with CP to read Braille, and I had doubts about whether she had the tactile discrimination skills to be successful. But then I thought, Why not? We had to try, and her family was on board. I hoped that with her intelligence and drive she could do it--and she did. That little girl really wanted to read. Once those hands were open and strengthened, the Braille skills came steadily. She was reading her Braille alphabet in kindergarten, and this fall she will be reading her way through ninth grade in a public high school in Nashville.

Another student I have worked with this past year reminds me that NFB’s insistence on high expectations and age appropriateness help us imagine the best for our students. Ten-year-old, blind, and autistic David moved to our county a year ago. He is very verbal, very musical, able to recite pages of stories after hearing them once, and has a wonderful sense of humor. However, any change in his daily routine confounded him. He couldn’t feed himself with a spoon or fork, and his speech often had nothing to do with what was going on around him. He only used his fingers to push buttons on electrical musical toys and keyboards.

No one had imagined that he could use an object schedule to anticipate his daily routine. No one imagined that he could overcome his fear of playground equipment, let alone his fear of going to new places. No one had imagined that he could use his hands in a functional way and begin to feed himself with a spoon and begin to explore Braille storybooks. No one had imagined that he could take piano lessons after school. Yet, we at his new school dared to imagine all of those things, and David has surpassed our expectations.

The lesson for all of us is not to let our lack of knowledge limit our goals of success for the children who are entrusted to us--their teachers and their parents. We want our children to build on their strengths, aptitudes, and interests to create futures for themselves that we truly may only be able to imagine in the most general terms. I don’t think as parents there is any way we can foresee all the potential our own children have because it can only be discovered as they move out into the wider world. Even if you don’t have the knowledge of where your child is headed, dare to imagine that it is somewhere wonderful.

Persistence pays
The last lesson I will share with you today is that persistence pays. I am here today because I have learned so much from the NFB about remaining persistent and positive in my desire for quality programs for my students and their families. Some of my fellow teachers and friends have given me the nickname Velvet Hammer. There have been times when I felt that hammering away on particular issues was having no effect and I wanted to bring out the sledgehammer. But seriously, I have learned that being persistent does pay. Let me give you an example.

For the past three years, most of our vision program materials were stored in the boys’ football equipment room (adjacent to the boys’ locker room) in the northernmost high school in our county. To get to our shelves, we had to physically move heavy racks of stacked shoulder pads. We shared the space with the county OT/PT program. Between these two programs, we have about twenty teachers or therapists, all sharing the one key we had to the outside entrance. These materials were used with students all over our county. It was a horrible situation, not to mention the smell that permeated all the equipment. The problem is that our county is growing so quickly that new schools are full before they open the doors. Our need for space was probably number forty-two on the long list of needs for space for the district as a whole.

But, my NFB buddies kept encouraging me not to give up on requesting a new storage room. So, tap, tap, tap, I went steadily with my little hammer. This year my director and coordinator finally went to the district superintendent for approval on a new storage site for us. In April we moved to a dry, air conditioned, and centrally-located site.

I share this with you so you will know that there will always be challenges or obstacles that interfere with the smooth flow of services to your child. But, be encouraged that with persistence and unified efforts, almost any situation can be improved. We gain so much by joining our voices. I am grateful to the NFB for bringing us together.

A positive philosophy
Finally, let me speak briefly to you about the significance of the NFB. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the NFB’s positive philosophy of blindness because, when it’s lived out, it literally changes the lives and educational experiences of our blind children. Like many other teachers, I, too, believe that being blind is respectable and that there is no shame in using the alternative techniques of blindness. I’ve tried to model this for my students. Here’s one final example.

Ten-year-old Bobby began struggling in third grade with print reading when I decided, with the support of his parents, to introduce him to Braille. We began by doing simple daily spelling lessons using Braille, and he continued using his low vision equipment for all other written work. However, he always took his Brailled lessons to class and proudly shared them with classmates. This year, in fourth grade, he continued to use his low vision equipment, and we continued regular Braille instruction. Then, out of the blue, Bobby asked me one morning if he could do a class writing assignment in Braille. He did it and proudly read it to his teacher. He continues to use his low vision equipment, but he is also enthusiastic about increasing his Braille reading and writing skills.

Bobby now has access to more than one way to get his work done. He has a choice. Though many people have questioned me about why I’m teaching him Braille, I tell them, “Why not?” Braille has given Bobby the power of choice and has increased his potential for achieving equality, opportunity, and security. For Bobby and for all blind or vision-impaired students, the question to ask is not Why, but Why not?

Thank you so much. I look forward to seeing you all in Atlanta next summer!

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