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Teacher Recognition Letters
Editor’s Note: I am delighted to introduce not one, but two, teacher recognition letters in this issue. The first letter is from Mary Beth and Robert Phillips of California, and the second is from Sharon Gordon of North Carolina. The primary purpose for publishing these letters is to spotlight hard-working professionals who deserve public recognition. But the letters are more than that: they are blueprints for parents, teachers, and administrators who are often unsure about the role of the specialized professionals who work with our blind kids.
If you know a teacher, O&M instructor, Braille transcriber, teacher’s aide, etc. who deserves a public “thank you,” please send your Teacher Recognition Nomination Letter (with, if available, a photo of the teacher and/or the student) to: Future Reflections
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
You may also send it by email to: <Bcheadle@nfb.org>. Be sure to include: the name and address of the sender, the teacher’s name, the student’s name, the name of the school district, and specific details about why this professional deserves national recognition. The letters should be no less than one typed page, and may be up to three pages. If your letter is published, we will send you extra copies of the issue free of charge at your request.
She Makes a Difference
Teacher: Stephanie Leigh
Student: Elizabeth Phillips
School: Oakland Unified School District at the College Preparatory School
May 16, 2001
Dear Future Reflections Editors:
We are writing this letter to publicly thank and recognize Ms. Stephanie Leigh for the difference she has made in our daughter’s life.
Ms. Leigh has been Elizabeth’s teacher of the visually impaired for the last four years and has provided Elizabeth with a firm foundation from which she can spring forward into college and a career.
When Elizabeth first started as a freshman and as Stephanie’s student, we were quite discouraged. We had been told by previous teachers that Liz was “difficult,” that she should not continue in mathematics because she would be a writer anyway, and – most destructive of all – that she was an over‑achiever who should stop putting so much pressure on herself to do well academically.
Elizabeth had many requests and many questions for her teachers. Elizabeth expected much of herself and she wondered why others she looked to for education and support didn’t expect much from her, too. The dynamics were not helped by a system that proposed (seriously!) to fax Elizabeth’s Braille to her.
I can still remember Stephanie’s calm statement to Elizabeth when they first met: “Elizabeth, I will take you as far as you want to go. But you will have to work with me, not against me.” Stephanie and Elizabeth became a team. Elizabeth was given Braille, computer, and note‑taking skills that kept pace with her academic pace. For the first time, she was given all of her Braille and books‑on‑tape at the beginning of the year along with the rest of her peers. For the first time, Elizabeth was given basic access to information (graphs, charts, test‑taking strategies) that allowed her to participate fully in her academic program. Liz was gifted with a professional, personally-invested teacher who believed that all children deserved to go as far as they could go.
There were academic and organizational hurdles to work through at Elizabeth’s new school because the school had never had a blind student before. Stephanie handled these issues and, over time, taught Liz to handle these issues as they came up. But there were other challenges that Elizabeth faced related to, but not caused by, her blindness. Socially, Elizabeth needed some help to adjust to her new school and to learn how to manage groups of peers. Much of her life had been in the classroom, with after school tutors, and in special pullouts from class. According to Elizabeth, she was “Adultized.” Ms. Leigh and another teacher developed a Social Skills class at Liz’s school where a small group of students, including Elizabeth, learned how to better relate to one another in a semi‑structured setting. Stephanie was called upon to educate staff and students about what equal access means. For example, for the freshman retreat, Stephanie worked with the organizers to find out what activities were being developed and was able to provide Brailled note cards for a communications game so that Elizabeth could fully participate. She consulted with teachers about the best way to adapt materials, including charts and graphs and methodologies, many of which benefited all students. Teachers learned to consult with her and, later, felt comfortable going directly to Elizabeth to solve adaptation issues. Stephanie actively pursued new technology so that when Elizabeth’s curriculum included material such as how to conduct research on the Internet, Stephanie knew what technology was available and how it worked and could teach Elizabeth so that she was able to do her own research with the class. Perhaps this doesn’t sound so remarkable to you, but I can tell you, it has been our experience that it is quite exceptional for a professional to be so dedicated that he or she is willing to learn countless new things in order to meet a student’s academic needs. If we expect our children to keep pace as adults in the world, then it follows they will need to keep pace with their peers. Teachers like Stephanie do a great service to our children when they teach to the educational moment and experience rather than behind the moment. Giving Liz the Braille symbol or adaptive computer skill she needed to fully participate in the educational program at her school put her on par with the other students so that Liz could do her best.
Elizabeth absolutely detested mobility training when she first entered the high school. Mobility meant failure, stupidity, and inability to her. Stephanie was not Elizabeth’s actual mobility teacher, but the aspects of mobility that meant the most to Elizabeth, those “teachable moments” in a day that motivate and provide context for mobility skills, were not going to happen during mobility instruction time. Stephanie provided the mobility training necessary to meet Elizabeth in the moment. Elizabeth sang in the chorus and needed to learn all about risers, facing the audience, bowing with a group. Elizabeth wanted to participate in chemistry labs so Stephanie provided access to equipment and materials outside class so that Liz knew what she was getting into and how to get into it. Liz wanted to take the river‑rafting interterm trip, so Stephanie helped her talk through the adaptations she could make on a totally rustic river setting where the group would stop and set up camp along the river as they made their way down the white‑water for five days. No fuss, no trauma. No thoughts of “pushing the river” of “over‑achieving.” No remarks about any limitations at all. The key word is facilitation. And the response from all that have taught and learned with Liz, and from Liz herself, has been cooperation.
I have to credit Stephanie with supporting the biggest mobility stretch for Liz, as she became more confident and wanted more and more independence. Stephanie encouraged Elizabeth to get a guide dog. First, however, she took a grueling training class to see if it would be appropriate and to learn more about the experience. Elizabeth received her dog, Bonds, last summer and her sense of independence has increased greatly. There continues to be adjustment to the partnership between Liz and Bonds, and Stephanie is more than willing to provide additional time during the school day to help the two learn how to work better together in the school setting.
With Elizabeth, the challenge is to help her balance her enthusiasm and curiosity with the reality of living. This year, Liz would have been content to take an extra class, to write a book, to continue to focus on the academics. Liz got so good at getting around the Internet that she found an on‑line Physics class and is doing it “for fun.” But Stephanie has been able to focus Liz on the future in another way and has structured, with Liz’s input, time to learn some basics to prepare her for dormitory life. These lessons have included supporting Liz as she set herself up with the Department of Rehabilitation, teaching Liz how to order textbooks and pleasure books for herself, encouraging Liz to order Braille labels to be placed on her yearbook page, making a visit to a university cafeteria, and so forth. These are pragmatic life lessons that will allow Liz to hit the ground running when she starts college next fall at Stanford University.
Bob and I have always believed that Liz should reach for the sky but we seemed to have to fight each and every year for basic services, respect, and dignity for our child. When we finally situated Liz in the Oakland Unified School District at the College Preparatory School with Stephanie, we found a partner, a true professional, who valued our daughter and what she was capable of, who allowed Liz to push and pull herself to where she wanted to go. We realize how fortunate Liz is, how fortunate Liz’s high school has been to have Stephanie on site. We believe that by acknowledging Stephanie’s commitment to students who are visually impaired, by acknowledging her commitment to the profession, through her emphasis on Braille literacy, on accessible technology, on mobility, and on independence skills, we underscore what we can expect for our children. We challenge teachers to refrain from status quo thinking, from minimizing potential and curiosity to keep education comfortable. We believe that by honoring Stephanie, we will encourage other teachers to be like her: a teacher who partners with her students as they reach for the stars.
Mary Beth Phillips
Jackie Rief: Braille Technician
Braille Technician: Jackie Rief
Student: Erica Gordon
School: McDowell High School, Marion, North Carolina
Erica Gordon (left) and Jackie Rief
Hi. My name is Sharon Gordon. I have a 17‑year‑old daughter who is blind. Her name is Erica. When she was born, we lived in Marion, North Carolina. This was where she started school in a Head Start Program when she was three years old.
When she was four years old, we moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina where she attended the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind. She attended there until she was ten years old. At that time, we found out that she could only get a certificate of graduation. Erica would have to be mainstreamed to get a high school diploma. She attended public school in Spartanburg the next school year. That was when we decided to move back to Marion. She had learned all of her Braille skills while at the school for the blind, so she didn’t need a Braille teacher; just the Braille materials. I contacted Pleasant Gardens School in Marion and let them know Erica would be starting 5th grade the following year. They had a Special Educational Needs office that we also contacted. These people would be in charge of getting all her Braille books that needed to be ordered. They also supplied her with the computer and any other devices she needed.
This is where she met Jackie Rief, a lady who would be going through to 12th grade with Erica. They asked Mrs. Rief if she would be interested in working with Erica for just a few hours in a day (this turned into all day). When asked if she would be interested in staying with Erica until she graduated, Jackie said “Yes.” Jackie did not know Braille before she met Erica, so she taught herself Braille. Now she Brailles novels or anything else Erica cannot order in Braille. Most of Jackie’s job consists of Brailling materials for Erica’s classes. Jackie makes sure Erica has all her worksheets, or anything else the class is working on, in Braille. Jackie spends hours making maps for history class. She uses different kinds of tactile material that Erica can feel.
Erica is in the 11th grade now. She has been on the A‑B honor roll all through school. Jackie is still with her. She has been a very big influence in my daughter’s life. If this article is published we would like to say, “Thank you Jackie for all that you have done. You have been a blessing to our whole family, and we feel like you have become part of our family.”
Erica and Family
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