American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2020      ADVOCACY

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Teacher Shortages: What Choices Do Parents Have?

by Lydia Anne Schuck

Lydia Schuck with her daughter AnnaFrom the Editor: Lydia Schuck is the parent of a blind young-adult daughter. Her daughter, who has additional disabilities, was homeschooled. Lydia Schuck has a deep interest in education. Her series of articles on transition was published in Future Reflections.

When children are ready to start school, parents face a lot of choices. They could choose the neighborhood public school, a charter school, private school, or homeschooling. Parents whose children are blind or have low vision have more complicated choices. Each option has its pros and cons, of course.

One option is your state's residential school for the blind. Not every state has one, and some residential school programs are stronger than others. If there is a residential school in the state, and if it meets the child's needs for academics or for special services, it can be a great choice. Some students attend a residential school long enough to gain specific skills, and then return to a local school with less intensive support.

Some parents choose to homeschool, with or without supports from the local district. Homeschooling takes time and commitment, and often means a loss of income. Parents who already are homeschooling or have homeschooled may offer help and support.

Most parents send their blind or low-vision children to local school programs. If you live in a populous area, the local or county district may offer a center-based program. The teacher of the blind and visually impaired (TVI) is there all day, working with several students. The children may come in and out of a "resource room" during the day, using it only for the support they need and spending most of the day in the regular classroom.

The most frequently chosen setting is an ordinary public school. In the local school, your child is often the only blind student. Typically, the TVI is "itinerant," traveling between schools to meet the needs of several children. Younger children, especially those learning to read, often have more TVI time each week than, say, a high school student whose Braille and technology skills are proficient.

Today many students are using online schools through their local districts. They have support provided by the local district TVI or through a TVI from another district or even another region. 

In all of these school settings, parents expect that the child's TVI has the education and experience specified by state law. In one state, Michigan, special education regulations require a teacher of students with visual impairments to have thirty graduate credits in areas that are relevant to these students, including student teaching.

You may have heard stories of teachers who don't have the skills and experience necessary to provide the supports that a blind or low-vision student needs. Sometimes the teacher is qualified to hold the state certification or endorsement but has not kept up with technology or mastered other important skills. Sometimes the teacher holds a temporary approval or emergency certification.

It's completely legal under federal regulations for states to create temporary approvals, (e.g., in Michigan, see “Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education,” R340.173). Temporary approvals are needed because teacher shortages have prevented districts from finding fully qualified teachers. Teachers working under temporary approvals already have bachelor’s degrees, but may be required to take courses toward a certification in visual impairment as a condition of the temporary approval.

Why do teacher shortages exist?

We've been hearing about teacher shortages for years. Colleges prepare enough teachers, so why are there shortages? The Learning Policy Institute (learningpolicyinstitute.org) has listed some reasons for the shortages, including the following:

For blind students, the shortages are real. There are not enough trained teachers of the blind. When new TVIs graduate from one program in the Midwest, they routinely have a choice of four to five teaching jobs, which indicates the kind of demand there is for these teachers. They can choose the kind of district they want to teach in. They might choose to stay in the suburbs or to stay near their college or family.

Additional factors influence the shortage of TVIs. Teachers of blind students are mostly itinerant, traveling from one school to another. Hours that could be spent instructing students are spent driving. 

Many teachers became itinerant when students were mainstreamed out of state residential schools and into local schools in the 1990s. Preparation of new TVIs has not kept up with the need for more teachers since then.

When a child's teacher holds a temporary approval or can't meet a child's needs for other reasons, parents might feel really stuck. We all want what's best for our children. However, parents know that they may have to work with the teacher for several years, and they want the relationship to stay positive. What choice does a parent have when the teacher is not able to provide what the child needs?

Filing a complaint

Filing a complaint with the state board of education may or may not really help your child. Due to shortages, there may be no one else to step in anyway.

Students are entitled by the IDEA to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), but not to a teacher certified in a specific way. In some cases, FAPE has been interpreted as any access to a school education. A court will look at whether the education is "appropriate," not whether it is what the parents want. Students are not entitled to the best education, just FAPE. If your child is making progress of any kind, the court may decide that it's okay.

A fully approved teacher is not a guarantee of clear sailing. Even a fully approved teacher may have weaknesses. If the temporarily approved teacher is attending graduate classes, she or he actually may have more cutting-edge knowledge than a teacher who is already state approved as a TVI.

If you choose to file a complaint, acquaint yourself with the process that is followed in your particular state. Parent training and information centers, protection and advocacy agencies, and independent living centers may be able to provide you with information and help you through the process.

Changing schools

Some families move to another district or another state to find a more qualified teacher or better program. But most families cannot move. Parents might take advantage of a schools-of-choice arrangement to enroll the child in a nearby district. There may be a better teacher there, but there are some tradeoffs. Using schools of choice may require parents to provide transportation. Children from one family may end up in two different school districts. Going to another school district might not make any difference if all of the towns in one county are served by the same TVI.

Other school options

Residential Schools: Parents might reconsider the choices they looked at earlier. A residential school may have the academic or other support services your child needs, and, given the TVI shortages, you might find the best education there. Some state schools for the blind have strong academic programs, and many are strong in serving students with multiple and complex disabilities. 

Homeschooling: After a less-than-ideal experience in the local schools, some parents reconsider homeschooling. If an academically capable child has additional disabilities such as autism, homeschooling might provide the settled routine needed to make progress. 

Distance learning or hybrid face-to-face and distance arrangements

A growing number of families have found solutions by contracting with fully approved distance teachers who can provide the technology, math, or other learning the student needs. This kind of arrangement is getting more common, as audio-video communication has improved over the internet. Sometimes the arrangement is private, and at other times the school district will make this contract as part of the IEP process. 

Where do we go from here?

When we talk with other parents, we have to offer real and practical solutions. Most families cannot move, and even if they do move, other students may remain in the school district who still need better services. 

If a state is not attracting the teachers it needs, especially the teachers it needs for students with low-incidence disabilities, it's time to look at the reasons and address them. Members of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) can work with state education officials to increase the number of teachers through alternative certifications and "grow-your-own" approaches.

What is a "grow-your-own" approach?

Is there a paraprofessional in your district who might make a good teacher? Is there a current teacher who could pick up an extra certification in order to serve the one or two blind students in the district? We don't want to take teachers away from other kids with disabilities, but could we make it easier for an already-employed teacher, one who is settled in the community, to serve your child? This approach might work better than trying to entice a new teacher to move to the area, especially for a part-time teaching position. This strategy really can help in rural settings.

Meanwhile, we have to support the teachers we have, even, or perhaps especially if they are teaching under temporary approvals. The NOPBC chapter in your state can promote Braille and other skills of blindness by introducing the teacher to members of the National Federation of the Blind. Maybe a state affiliate could bring a promising teacher to the annual convention to support learning about blindness and to hear the teacher's perspective on schools and shortages. Look for ways to support that "grow-your-own" candidate or to attract new teachers right out of school.

BELL Academy summer programs can help new teachers as well as the students who attend. All kinds of helpers are needed, and a new teacher can catch enthusiasm about blindness skills by seeing kids learning together with blind adults. Invite your child's teacher to attend the BELL Academy in your state.

We all know that public schools are supposed to teach blind children Braille and learning strategies of all kinds. But if a teacher is not effective or is temporarily approved, parents will have to work on Braille and those other strategies at home. This is another place where your Federation friends can help. Look for a mentor among the adults in the Federation. 

As a national organization we might try to educate the public about the need for teachers of blind students, the salary, and the rewards of the job. We could show kids learning and reading Braille, stressing the need for all students to become literate. Whenever we have a chance, we should promote higher salaries in shortage areas such as science and math, special education, and teaching in rural and urban districts.

Could some of our national connections help our advocacy?

We don't want to be perceived as the group that helps people make complaints. We want to be the people who support parents and children in finding solutions. Distance and hybrid supports can be an effective antidote to the problems of itineracy, eliminating the long-distance driving for teachers.

Before school started you had choices for your child's education. Even if the school year is a little rocky, you still have choices. Reconsider everything, and consider involving your Federation family in supporting the teacher you have. Then write a short article for Future Reflections so we all can find out what works in supporting our teachers.

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