Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1993, Vol. 12 No. 2


by Mary Willows

[PICTURE] Mary Willows and husband Jim, who is an engineer, are long time leaders in the National Federation of the Blind of California

Editor's Note: In the previous article, “Valerie,” by Valerie Negri, we learned how the limited expectations of others can hamper the fulfillment of a blind person's dreams. In this article another blind teacher, Mary Willows, describes a different twist to the problem. Here is Mary Willows's story as reprinted from the Spring/Summer, 1991, issue of The Blind Educator, a publication of the National Association of Blind Educators, a Division of the National Federation of the Blind.

I would like to preface my remarks with background on my decision to go back to school to get an elementary education credential. I have always known that I would like to teach; however, there has been an evolution in my thinking which you may find interesting and useful.

Twelve years ago I decided to get a master's. I was faced with either getting an elementary credential or just getting a master's. The latter would only let me teach adults. I chose the master's, but I want to tell you why. I chose adults because I did not think I could teach children. Really, I did not want to take the risk. Adults seemed safe and comfortable. Discipline and whatever else I was afraid of would not be an issue.

Most likely I do not have to tell you that a master's to work with the blind with no credential is very limiting. Far more limiting than I realized. I was told that at the time, but I chose not to listen. You know how some people in their twenties can be!

In the meantime I married and had two children. Of course, my family became my priority. However, I did not want to lose touch with the teaching profession. I taught religious education to high school students, another safe job. I was becoming a little braver, but not the risk taker I am today. I continued this safe teaching for four years without any problems. But, I did learn that I could teach others than adults. As time passed, my children were in school and it was time for me to move on with my career.

I'm not afraid of children anymore. I have hung around my children's grammar school enough to feel comfortable with the idea of keeping 30 short people under control. But, there was one issue with which I had to deal before teaching in a regular elementary school. I always thought that the children should like me.

Every teacher knows that one of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is to want all the students to like the teacher. The teacher will be eaten alive with an attitude like that. Fortunately, my own children have cured me. I was then ready to teach in a regular
public school.

Worrying as I do, I identified three areas of concern for a blind teacher: orientation and mobility, Brailling material in a timely manner, and discipline. I believe in taking one step at a time and solving problems as they occur.

As soon as I knew the name of the school where I would student teach, I spent half a day investigating the grounds. I recalled that I knew a blind child who attended the school, so I asked her to be my mobility instructor for the day. She was pleased and proud to give me the grand tour. Many schools in California are made up of many small buildings or pods. Since I did not know which classroom I would be in, we located all the rooms. We even found the janitor's office. She showed me where assemblies were held, where the library was located, and how to find the swings on the playground.

Since I did not know which grade level I would be working with, it was impossible to obtain any of the texts in advance. When the time came for me to begin teaching lessons, I prepared myself with Braille notes. I used a slate and stylus for any last-minute notes from the teacher. I scheduled ample readers in the evenings so I could preview material for the coming week. If there were papers to collect after a lesson, I put them into a file folder with my Braille notes so that I knew what those papers were. That evening I directed a reader in correcting the papers.

Speaking of a slate and stylus, I developed my own class list within the first forty minutes of being in class. The teacher wanted each student to have an opportunity to meet me. Each came to me and sat and had a chance to talk with me a bit. I used this to my advantage; I made a name card for me in Braille, and one for each child. By the end of forty minutes I not only had all their names, but also I had time to connect names with voices.

I was quickly responsible for the weekly pre- and final-spelling tests. I had also a reading group and math. Each week the teacher read the spelling words to me so I could put them in Braille. This was another time that I was glad I knew how to use a slate and stylus. This is a skill every blind teacher should have. Braille should be looked at the same as a sighted teacher's using a pen and paper.

My third area of concern was discipline. The first time I was left alone with the students they were all over the place. I could have died because my supervisor was sitting right there. Of course, those other student teachers at the university with me were having the same problems. These students were having a field day with their new teachers, too. Once I demonstrated to them that I could write the names of the guilty on the board, they decided that I was the boss and they settled down. That night I could not sleep for thinking of the fact that these kids were fooling with my career. It is sometimes said that we have to get mad before progress is made. I made up my mind that these little folks were not going to spoil my future. I do not let my own children get away with anything, so why should these? The very next day I was put to the test. I had to take many different reading groups over to the cafeteria to practice plays they had been learning. I had never been in a play, so this was going to be interesting. I knew I could direct these plays, and I did. I sat each group down at the end of the stage and showed them my slate with paper in it. I said I wanted to hear only the actors. If I heard anything else, the guilty person's name would be written down and later copied on the blackboard. There were only two who tested me.

You must understand that writing names on the board was my master teacher's method of discipline in her classroom and I was asked to do the same. Personally, I prefer a reward system. I was encouraged to try my method. I have a jewelry box shaped like a treasure chest. I filled it with goodies. The Friday before they were to present their plays, I told each to write out lines over the weekend. Everyone who handed me lines could go to the treasure chest and choose a surprise. Over half turned in the assignment. The teacher was pleased with the success, for many had never followed through on assignments before.

Another assignment I had was to escort the students into the classroom after the morning bell and after recess. This meant locating my students among five hundred. This was no problem, for when they saw me, they came running. That line of students did not move until I gave the word. I did not give the word until there was silence. Their own teacher was impressed.

Each morning I chose a monitor to assist with the absentee list and the lunch count. I told the monitor what to write on the absentee slip. I had the student look left and right and tell me who was missing. For the lunch count I had them raise hands; the monitor wrote the count.

I hope that sharing some of my techniques might encourage anyone who was a teacher, but who thinks teaching is out now because of blindness. Also, I want to encourage those who are thinking about teaching as a career. We have and we need the National Federation of the Blind because of the support and encouragement we gain from one another.