Fostering Inclusion: Learning From Your Students

Emily Coleman

Fostering Inclusion: Learning From Your Students

By Emily Coleman

In 2010, I enrolled in a graduate program at Portland State University in Oregon to become a Teacher of Blind Students (TBS). During the summer coursework, I met a couple of women who had just completed the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Teachers of Tomorrow program. They were obsessed with the benefits of the program and its impact on their lives as educators. Given their glowing review, I couldn’t help but apply, and I was excited to be chosen as part of the 2011-2012 cohort.

At the time, I was the parent of a six-year-old blind child; I had met many blind children and adults by the time I joined the Teachers of Tomorrow cohort. Yet, as a new teacher, I realized that I had much to learn about raising expectations and promoting independence for my students. Part of the Teachers of Tomorrow program involves staying at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute and learning from successful blind people. I was excited to have the opportunity to learn from the lived experiences of blind people, by completing some basic tasks under learning shades and learning about positive blindness philosophy from successful blind professionals. When I returned to my caseload, I was empowered to push my students harder and farther, because I knew that with the right nonvisual techniques, blindness would not hold them back.

I was asked to see the principal on my first Monday back at work. One of my students had hit a school staff member. The principal told me it had happened on Friday, but because my student was blind, he wasn’t going to receive the same consequence as his non-blind peers. I immediately pushed back; my student knew it was wrong and would do it again and again without proper discipline. In school, that might be okay, but in other situations doing this would have disastrous consequences. The school staff shouldn’t pity him because he was blind; his blindness should not exempt him from being treated like his non-blind peers. Even just one weekend with the Federation had instilled in me a sense of equity for my students—not only promoting the positive, but also not ignoring the negative.

My cohort had close to twenty-five educators. We became good friends over the course of our year. We learned side-by-side multiple times in Baltimore. We attended the National Federation of the Blind Washington Seminar. We visited the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), and we attended the National Federation of the Blind National Convention in Dallas, Texas in 2012. To this day, we reach out to each other for advice and feedback in our continued work educating blind students across the country. I even have many of their numbers on speed dial, as well as the numbers of our instructors.

After working as a Teacher of Blind Students, I moved into administration. My supervisor at the time was Dr. Craig Meador, before he went to American Printing House for the Blind (APH), and he recognized leadership potential in me that I hadn’t considered before; inspiring me to apply for new roles. Now I am the superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). Stakeholder feedback and engagement is a critical component of my work, and the connections I made through Teachers of Tomorrow have provided lifelong relationships with members and chapters of the National Federation of the Blind in multiple states. As a person who is not blind, I rely on Federation members and other blind adults to critically scrutinize my school’s work, and to help us do better for blind students. My perspective of recognizing the importance of blind stakeholders’ active engagement is due to the Teachers of Tomorrow program.

When I became the superintendent of TSBVI, the NFB of Texas passed Resolution 2019-03, “Regarding welcome to the new superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” Within the resolution you’ll find the following statements: “Whereas, since arriving in Texas, Emily Coleman has extended a hand of friendship to blind Texans and has encouraged members of the NFB of Texas to engage with her and other staff at TSBVI to enhance educational opportunities for blind and low-vision children in the state,” “Whereas, while we may sometimes disagree on issues, we pledge to work in a constructive manner to resolve those disagreements,” and “Be it resolved by the National Federation of the Blind of Texas in Convention…that we pledge to work with her throughout her tenure to help blind children live the lives they want.”

During my almost-five-year tenure so far, we have worked hard to invite the Federation to participate in all stakeholder meetings. We partner with them to offer mentoring programs for our students. We seek to provide representation of staff and students at both the NFB of Texas state convention and the National Federation of the Blind National Convention as well. If I had not had the opportunity to participate in the Teachers of Tomorrow program, I am unsure whether I would be so committed to the Federation’s work, and to ensuring that our students truly can live the lives they want. I believe wholeheartedly that every educator serving blind students would benefit from NFB programs and partnerships. Unless we are blind ourselves, it’s critical that we check in with those who are blind to gain first-person perspectives. Our careers are made better for it, and most importantly our students’ successes depend on it.

The application period for the 2024-2025 NFB Teachers of Tomorrow Cohort is now open. Apply to help turn your students' dreams into reality.