Future Reflections        Winter 2014        CAREERS

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Life Lessons from a Tree

by Cayte Mendez

From the Editor: Cayte Mendez teaches a class of twenty-two first-grade students at a public school in the Bronx and serves as president of the National Organization of Blind Educators. She received her bachelor's degree in linguistics and Asian studies from Cornell and her master's degree in education from Pace University. At the 2012 NFB convention, she was honored with the Distinguished Blind Educator of the Year Award.

Cayte Mendez grades student papers.Even now, thirty years later, my mother likes to tell the story of the day I ran into the tree in the middle of our front yard. She and my father are legally blind, college-educated professionals, so when I was born with congenital cataracts and developed glaucoma at an early age, they had a pretty good idea of the challenges I would face. They made sure I received the best in terms of early intervention services, put a cane in my hand at age three, and waged an almighty battle with the district where I attended elementary school to ensure that I was given adequate Braille instruction. As a kid I went horseback riding, mountain climbing, canoeing, and go-cart driving (thanks to my little sister, who rode behind me, shouting directions into my ear). But of all the stories of my early accomplishments and hijinks, the one about the tree is still my mother's favorite.

I was only two and a half when the incident occurred, and to be perfectly honest, I don't remember it at all. According to my mom, we had just arrived home from a walk-through of the house my parents had recently purchased. Mom lifted me out of the car and turned to speak to the friend who was driving. I took advantage of my momentary freedom to bolt across the lawn--and collided headlong with the trunk of a large maple tree! The way Mom tells it, I was running so fast that I literally bounced off the trunk and landed soundly on my rear. Mom expected me to start bawling, but I just sat there for a minute, looking stunned. Then I picked myself up and kept right on going. Mom always adds here that as many times as I zoomed across the lawn after that, I never again crashed into that tree.

My mother loves to use this story as an example. She says it always reminds her that children don't enter life afraid to take risks or unwilling to try again when they fall down. She never wanted me to lose that resilience as I grew older.

Even recalled secondhand, this incident has played a large part in shaping my approach to life in general and to my career in particular. As a young adult, making my first major educational and social decisions, I was still that little girl tearing full-speed across the lawn. I studied abroad in England and Japan. I learned to ice skate and tandem bike ride with sighted friends. When it was time for me to look for a job, I chose to take the risk of moving several hundred miles away from my parents' home in the tiny suburb of a small city. I took up residence in the Bronx, where I became a kindergarten teacher in a school serving high-need students, over 90 percent of whom received free lunch every day due to economic hardship.

Teach for America

I didn't go to college with the idea of becoming a teacher. As a freshman at Cornell University, I started out taking political science courses along with my Japanese classes. My plan was eventually to seek work with the State Department. Then, midway through the year, I took a linguistics class, discovered the study of language for its own sake, and fell in love. For the next three years my goal was to get my PhD and become a professor.

Then, one afternoon in the spring of 2005, a pair of teachers made a brief presentation in my Philosophy of Language class. They were representatives of Teach for America (TFA), an organization that places college graduates with backgrounds in a range of disciplines as teachers in failing schools for a commitment of two years. The organization's mission is to help close the achievement gap in America's schools. I was so inspired by the motivation, dedication, and professionalism of these teachers that I decided to put my plans for a master’s degree and subsequent doctorate on hold. I would apply to have the opportunity to teach some of this nation's most at-risk kids.

TFA screens applicants through a rigorous process, and once accepted to the program, candidates have only a partial say in where they are placed throughout the country. I took care to include only big cities with comprehensive public transportation systems on my preference sheet. I was determined to be as independent as possible. I didn't want to end up in a place where I would be forced to take paratransit or hire a driver to get everywhere I wanted to go.

After graduation I received word that I would be joining the corps in New York City. I immediately began to go on job interviews. All that summer I traveled to school after school with my guide dog, Yogi, meeting with principals and hiring committees. Sometimes they asked me specific questions about how I could be an effective teacher as a blind person; sometimes they didn't. But as the other five hundred prospective teachers in my cohort were hired, I began to realize just how much of a liability my blindness was perceived to be by these potential employers, whether they acknowledged it or not. Could I manage a classroom and keep students safe on the playground? What about testing and keeping track of student data? How would it work having a dog in the classroom? What about all the aesthetic considerations--bulletin boards and charts and labels ... the list of concerns was endless.

My life experiences up to this point had taught me to be confident in my strengths and resilient when facing challenges. By the end of August, however, after more than a dozen interviews, when I was the only new teacher out of my incoming group of over five hundred who still had not been placed in a school, I was ready to curl up in a ball and call it quits. What good were my Ivy League education, my proficiency in three languages, my various extracurricular successes, when no one believed I could do the work I had chosen to pursue? I even went so far as to start attending interviews without my guide dog, in an attempt to appear "less blind" and to take at least that one consideration off the table. I had smacked hard into the solid obstacle that is the general misconception about what it means to be blind. I really wasn't sure I had it in me to keep pushing forward in an attempt to get past what seemed to be an impenetrable wall.

Into the Classroom

In early September, two things happened pretty much simultaneously that forced me to pick myself up and keep going. First, my parents, who had been endlessly supportive during my previous three months of frustration and self-doubt, told me point blank that moving back home and finding a filler job until I could go to graduate school wasn't going to be an option. I had chosen to make this two-year commitment, and I was going to see it through, no matter what. I know for a fact that this was not an easy stance for them to take, but they knew that the only way for me to restore my confidence and faith in my abilities was to keep pushing forward, not to turn tail and run home where it was safe. Second, one of the principals I had interviewed with earlier in the summer contacted the TFA placement coordinator who had been handling my interviews. He said he would be willing to take me on in a trial capacity, since I didn't have a site to report to on the first day of school. I was to be given a co-teacher position on a trial basis, until either he decided to take me on permanently or I found another position elsewhere.

On the Tuesday after Labor Day I reported to a public school way out at the end of the #6 subway line and was told I would be teaching kindergarten with a thirty-year veteran named Mary. I was torn between humiliation at being forced into a co-teaching position, instead of being allowed to have my own classroom, and relief that at least I had found an opportunity to get my foot in the door. Now came a new set of challenges--convincing not only my principal, but also my new colleagues and the parents of my students that I could be as effective a teacher as anybody else.

Luckily for me, Mary was supposed to be undertaking the role of English as a Second Language teacher at our school that year, and she didn't really want to be co-teaching either. With her help I quickly established my own routines, procedures, and practices, and by mid-October I had proven myself capable of taking charge of my own classroom. However, even this victory was limited. One morning my principal called me down to his office and informed me that, for legal and safety reasons, although I would be the undisputed classroom teacher, I was to be given an assistant, called a paraprofessional, as a reasonable accommodation. I could have protested this decision, could have asserted that this "accommodation" was neither reasonable nor necessary; but to be honest, at that point I was so grateful to have been given a classroom that I made the decision not to fight that particular battle. It helped that in New York City, where kindergarten class sizes reach twenty-five students or more, it is far from uncommon to have a paraprofessional working with the teacher, be she sighted or otherwise. I chose to view this development as a windfall. An extra pair of hands? Terrific! This would mean more support for my students, most of whom were entering school at an educational disadvantage, due to low literacy levels within the community and a lack of early learning support.

Nearly ten years have passed since my first day in the classroom, unsure, untried, and untrusted. I fulfilled my commitment to Teach for America in the spring of 2007. Long before that I had decided not to return to academia, which had been my original career plan. Instead, I chose to get a master's degree in education and remain in the Bronx, continuing to teach my kids. Once again, I was off and running, confident in my skills and unafraid of the obstacles that might arise to knock me flat. After eight years teaching kindergarten, this past spring I decided to try something new. In September I moved up with my most recent group of students, and I am now midway through my first year as a first-grade teacher.

Classroom Management

What about all of the concerns voiced by that dozen or so principals who interviewed me? Exactly what does the classroom look like with me, a blind teacher, in charge? How do I teach kids to read print when I myself am a Braille reader? What about the data? What about the dog?

Managing a classroom as a blind person requires structure and discipline. But then again, I would argue that any kind of adequate classroom management requires these attributes. It helps immeasurably to put in time at the beginning of each school year establishing a classroom culture of mutual respect and consideration.

Assigning seats helps--this was true even in my kindergarten room, which had work tables instead of desks. Keeping students with personality conflicts or tendencies toward distraction separate improved the learning environment for everyone. At the same time, it made it easier for me to pinpoint misbehavior, since I knew who was sitting where. When lining up to travel through the school building or on field trips, my students walk with partners in size-place order. This is a fairly standard practice for the lower grades at my school, and again, because I know where each student is in the line, I can easily pinpoint talkers or hear when shenanigans are going on. My ears are my best asset--when students are seated too far away for me to see them clearly, I constantly monitor their activity by listening in. I seldom sit down or stop moving around the room, unless I am either teaching a whole group lesson in the meeting area or am working with a small group. I have actually developed a reputation as one of the strongest managers at my school. On several occasions, students who were having behavior challenges in other rooms have been switched into my class, with the idea that my classroom culture of orderly routines and well-established expectations would improve their behavior!

My guide dog, whom several prospective principals cited as a source of concern, turned out to be almost a non-issue. When we got to school each morning, he would lie down behind my easel and promptly go to sleep. I always kept him in harness as a visual reminder to my students that he was not a pet and therefore was not to be touched. He was out of their way, although they could see him. I don't think I ever had to speak to a student about trying to pet or distract him. I never made a big deal about it with the kids, and they never really seemed to take much notice. When walking around the school building, which for me was a familiar environment, I usually left him sleeping, and on field trip days I used a cane. This choice had more to do with the crowded conditions of the school buses and my need to have both hands free to carry materials than with any desire not to make my dog a factor in my classroom.

Handling the aspects of teaching related to visual displays of information proved more of a challenge than I had expected. As a person with very limited vision, I had never really understood how much information sighted people absorb by looking at environmental print. I had never been able to see the bulletin boards and charts in my classes at school, so it came as an unpleasant surprise when my principal called me out for not having the right kind of anchor charts and print resources on the walls in my room. The situation was complicated by the fact that at our school, the expectation is that all charts and resources should be made by the teacher with the kids, the thought being that these materials will be more meaningful to student learning than storebought paraphernalia.

Through trial and error and no small amount of frustration, I finally worked out a system that meets both my students' needs and my professional obligations. Most of the time, I use the electronic white board in my classroom to help my students create anchor charts. Employing a screen reader and key commands, I can use Microsoft Word just as I do on my laptop. Everything I type is displayed on the board, where my students can see it and can contribute to the process. When the chart is complete, I print it out. Either I give the sheet to my paraprofessional to copy onto lined chart paper, or I take it upstairs to the poster-making machine on the third floor, which will enlarge the material to an appropriate size for a classroom display.

Paperwork, Paperwork!

And then of course there is student data. Each year it seems that there are more tests, more benchmarks, more notes to take, and more numbers to crunch. When I started teaching, all of this information had to be recorded on paper, which caused me no end of frustration. Even using a CCTV, I simply couldn't work quickly enough in print to get everything filled out on time. It got so ridiculous that I was literally typing all my data into a table and giving it to my para to copy onto the approved forms provided by the school--a colossal waste of my time and hers. Within the past few years, though, the use of spreadsheets and other forms of electronic documentation has become more widespread. Also, for the purposes of reporting data within the school, my administration has given me the green light to create my own spreadsheets and data forms and to attach them to any inaccessible paper forms, as long as the format is comparable. These changes have made it significantly easier for me to collect and report the important data I need to track my students' progress throughout the school year.

As for teaching print reading as a Braille user, there is really no one-size-fits-all solution. I have had to get a bit creative to figure out what works best. My residual vision is good for some things, but not for everything. As often as possible I buy, download, or create Braille copies of the books I read to my kids. Sometimes it can be a challenge to make sure that the page numbers match up with the corresponding print pages so that my students can see the pictures. I have made my CCTV a part of my classroom meeting area, so that if I need to I can do a quick comparison. The CCTV is also useful when I can't obtain a Braille copy of the text. I can pop a print book under the CCTV and read it that way. This method has turned out to have an unexpected positive side effect. As I read the words enlarged on the screen, my students can read along with me, which gives them an additional print experience--and they can never have too many of those!

What about writing and math? I will admit that teaching in the lower grades to some extent makes the challenge of accessing student work easier for me, because they tend to write with large letters and numbers. But what's also great about young children--they don't balk at adaptation! One of the norms I set in place each September is that from time to time, they may need to alter the way they do things to accommodate my blindness. If a student writes something I can't read, or puts down a number I can't make out, I ask him or her to read it back letter by letter or digit by digit. Because I work hard to establish a culture of trust and respect in my classroom, students know that when I ask them clarifying questions about their work I am seeking to help them make it better, not trying to call them out or embarrass them.

Once again, it's the lesson of the maple tree. I work every day to help my students learn the value of perseverance, resilience, and flexibility. So you made a mistake. Great! First, how can you fix it? Now, what did you learn about how to avoid making this same mistake in the future? It's the academic equivalent of not bursting into tears when you fall on your backside in the grass. Get up, shake off the dirt, and keep on going.

Final Thoughts

Despite the challenges, I can't imagine wanting to do anything other than teach. There is absolutely no feeling in the world better than the one you get as you watch children learn and grow, knowing you were an integral part of the process. It has taken me years to establish myself as an equally respected member of my school community, but every day has been worth the fight against access issues and misconceptions about blindness. Last year my principal invited me to be the project manager of our school's data committee. Over the past few years, she has also invited me to accompany her to several district-wide meetings to share some of the progressive work our early childhood classes are undertaking. And this fall, when my para was absent for two weeks due to medical concerns, my administration did not even consider hiring a sub! It was clear that I had established myself, and that finally, finally, there was no doubt about whether I could really be a teacher.

To any young blind person considering a career in education, I would say this: expect to run headlong into misunderstandings, mistrust, and misgivings. You are almost certain to get knocked down emotionally at some point during the process of achieving your goal. But when that happens, as tempting as it may be to sit in the grass and cry, get up, brush yourself off, and keep on pursuing that classroom. It will all be worth it in the end.

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