Never Laugh at the Teacher's Jokes
by Srikala Ashok


Editor's Note: Srikala Ashok, a teacher of blind children, was asked to do a presentation to the 1996 National Federation of the Blind of Illinois Convention Parents' Seminar on the topic of socialization of blind children. The presentation was so well done and so well received that Debbie Stein, a long leader of the NFB of Illinois, encouraged her to submit her remarks to Future Reflections for publication. She did, and here, preceded by an introducation by Debbie Stein, is what she submitted:

Introductory Remarks by

Debbie Stein

Kala Ashok is a teacher of blind children with the SEDOM Co-op program based in Woodstock, Illinois. She grew up in Madras, India, where she taught children with cerebral palsy for several years before coming to the United States. At Western Michigan University she earned a master's degree in teaching blind children. She has taught multiply-handicapped blind children in Louisiana, and since 1993 has been at SEDOM working with children from infancy through junior high level.

Kala got in touch with us about a year ago because she was looking for blind adults who could talk to some of her students about their careers. I said to her, "In the ten years that I've been involved with the Federation, this is the first time a teacher of blind kids has ever come to us and said, `I'd like my kids to get to know some blind adults.'" She was amazed. She said, "How come people aren't doing it more?" and I said, "That's a really good question." That began an ongoing dialogue about this and many other topics. I think she has some very important and interesting thoughts to share. Here is Kala:

KALA ASHOK—When I was asked to come and speak to you I gave many reasons why I would be a bad choice. I was excited, but I felt unsure about my professional expertise. I was unsure whether I was the right person to do this, whether I know enough. I don't think I do know enough. I'm constantly learning. I don't have all the answers—so if I say something off the wall you'll know who to throw your eggs at. (Laughter)

When we hear a child's behavior being addressed in school, it's usually because that behavior is negative in some way. It's mouthing behavior, acting-out behavior—something that has a negative impact on other kids. If it's not an obviously negative behavior it's less a cause for alarm. But what alarms me about my students who are blind is not so much negative behavior, as a need for positive social behaviors. Because this is not something that has a negative impact on other people, it fails to get the attention it deserves. Actually it is having a very strong negative impact on someone, and that person is my blind student.

When blind kids are placed in a regular school setting, you might think that they are constantly in a situation where they can pick up the social skills they need. That's a logical assumption to make, but it doesn't always happen. Just putting a kid into a situation does not assure that socialization will occur. It works well for some kids; they can make the system work for them. I'm more concerned with the kids who may be shy, who may not have the ability to initiate social interaction. For those kids we really need to intervene. We need to plan ways to assist them.

As an itinerant teacher I know there is very real academic pressure in school, especially in the middle and upper grades. All of us—classroom teachers, itinerants, parents, and students—are concerned about assignments, tests, and making sure that all the necessary materials are in Braille. Everyone's caught up in this effort to make certain that the student's grades don't suffer for any reason. We're right to be concerned. But in the whole process something else gets bumped down on the priorities list, and that's social skills. That's why we all need to come together as a team sometimes. We have to provide these kids with experiences that will help them get the social skills they need.

It's very important for us to be tuned into the world of the sighted peers of our blind children. We need to know what makes them laugh, what interests them, what makes them angry, what kinds of things they jeer at. We need to know everything about their world. Only then can I, as a teacher, give appropriate feedback to my students about social skills.

I rely a great deal on classroom teachers. They see a lot of behaviors which, as an itinerant teacher, I may not pick up on. One junior high classroom teacher told me this: it's not considered cool to laugh at a teacher's jokes. After she pointed this out I observed and found it was really true. The kids would look at each other, or look away, or appear completely uninterested, but they would never laugh at the teacher's joke, no matter how funny it was!

My student, a charming young lady with impeccable manners, would laugh out loud. She thought that it was perfectly appropriate to laugh. But in the world of that classroom, she was setting herself further apart than she already was. It's not that she did anything wrong. But by laughing when the others did not, she heightened the difference that already existed between her and the rest of the class. That's why I think it's so important for us to be aware of the world of the sighted peers of our kids.

Sometimes simple arrangements in the classroom will seriously hamper a blind child's interactions. It amazes me how conditioned a lot of us are to think that the best seat for a student who is blind is right near the door. After all, she has her big heavy Brailler, and all these large books to pick out and put back, and she has to get in and out of the classroom quickly because there's only so much time for passing between periods. The other place which is considered appropriate for kids who are blind is near the shelves in the back of the room, where all those fifteen million volumes of every textbook can be stored. That way she has easy access to them and a way to store all her other equipment.

These are all very legitimate reasons which can't be disputed. But if you think about it, those are the worst places for social interaction. When you're seated near the door or in the far back, you tend to be away from the group. You're more easily left out of what's going on. When there are fewer people talking around you, there is less chance for you to be drawn into conversation.

I like to see my students right in the middle, in the thick of everything. There they have more people around them and have more opportunities to engage in conversations. There's more of a chance for teachers and other kids to call on them. Yes, those issues of time and storage are important. But if social skills are a priority, they need to be given status as such. We need to make socialization a priority and work around these other issues. It calls for additional time management and planning, but it can still be done within that context. Maybe you don't have to do it in every classroom. It may not work with every teacher. But if there are situations where it can work, it needs to be stressed as an important priority for the student.

I find social workers to be very helpful within the school. They come up with some great ideas on how to encourage social interaction in the classroom. Besides the inevitable group projects and work with partners, they have other suggestions too. One thing we have tried is the "circle of friends." A student identifies other kids in the building with whom he or she has had positive interaction. These kids can form a little club, a circle within the school where they do things for each other and look out for one another. They can do things outside of school too. It's so important to carry over the interaction from school to the outside.

Let me explain why I think this is so important. If you think about the pace of the school schedule—and this is especially true in the higher grades—there is very little time for chit-chat with friends. Classroom teachers have told me directly that they're not there to encourage kids to talk to each other. They want them to come in, do their work, get out, and go to the next class. In fact, where you see most of the interaction is out in the hallways during passing periods. The hallway is noisy and bustling. It's where the latest gossip is all being shared. The kids are shouting over people's heads or from one end of the hallway to the other. They may just exchange a smile, they may thump somebody on the back, but that's where the interaction is taking place—during that three- or four-minute passing time.

At that time, my student is busy gathering her stuff. She's putting her books into her bag, getting her Brailler, and maneuvering through those very crowded hallways to the next classroom, which could be way down at the other end. She's getting there, taking out her Brailler, and rolling in a piece of paper to be ready for the next teacher. Kids have a very rigorous schedule, and sometimes I think they don't even realize they're missing out on those friendship moments.

One of my students had never told me that she missed having friends, that she missed having someone to share things with. After a lot of prodding she finally said one day, "Mrs. Ashok, nobody talks to me on the school bus." The bus would be the perfect place for making friends. You're not worried about getting somewhere on time, you're not thinking about the teacher's directions—you're sitting on the bus going home. What could be more relaxing? It's the kind of pressure-free time that we want to provide for our kids, where they can have a chance to get to know their sighted peers better. It's an opportunity for them to get to know their interests and to share their own interests too. But my student didn't know how to make use of this opportunity that she had every day.

You know your kids best. Some are less inhibited, are able to take risks and initiate social interaction. But other kids are not, and those are the ones that I'm really concerned about.

I want to digress a little bit and talk about something that makes this whole discussion so personal for me. I think perhaps it helps me understand the needs of my students a little better. In many ways I perceive people with visual disabilities as expressing a different kind of culture. There is a difference in the manner in which they do some things, and the unique perspective because of that difference represents another culture.

I grew up in a culture that is vastly different from the one I find myself in every day. There's one thing I've learned after many, many years. I've fought it, I have resented it, and finally learned to accept it. If I want to integrate socially in this dominant culture, the responsibility for doing so lies entirely with me and with nobody else. I have to push myself into this dominant world. I cannot wait to be pulled in. That for me is always the hardest challenge. I see it paralleled in the lives of my students. They need to push themselves into this dominant sighted world. They cannot wait to be drawn in. It will not happen unless they make it happen themselves. They have to initiate.

To initiate means participating in a discussion without being called on to do so. It means asking a question and not merely providing answers to questions that you are asked. It means offering opinions or suggestions. It means asking for assistance and offering assistance. All of that is social initiative. It's so important for us to provide opportunities for kids to take these steps when they're young. We can't wait until they're thirty-something and can start to figure it out on their own. We must facilitate experiences with their sighted peers at a very early age, and continue to do so as they grow up. By doing so you are in a sense creating and recreating the real world. That world is made up of both sighted and blind people. Learning to interact within that world must become a very normal process.

At my age, I constantly have to give myself reasons for pushing myself into the world. My job is on the line. I need to be perceived as competent. A big part of my job is consulting—talk about social skills there! Because my job is on the line, I must take the initiative. I push myself to do it.

When you make interaction a priority for your children at an early age, it becomes a natural way of dealing with the world. You don't have to list reasons for them as to why they should do it. It's just part of life.

Right along with this is the idea of networking with kids and adults who are blind. Our experiences as we go through childhood and adolescence will ultimately determine our self-image as adults. The fact that my blind student is considered atypical by this "typical" world is going to be a large part of her experience. Connecting to and maintaining connections with other people who are blind will strengthen her self-image in two ways. First, it will help her understand that being different, atypical, is an integral part of who she is. Secondly, it will allow her to see this difference not as a bad thing, but as something fruitful, productive, socially rewarding, and empowering. We need to give our kids the chance to develop a positive self-image.

I want to thank the Federation for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts. They are my thoughts, they're not anything else. I learn a lot from my students. They're my best teachers. (Applause)

Question From Cathy Randall—Has your student found ways to interact between classes? Has she made friends on the bus? Kala—It would be easy for me to say yes, she has. But I think it's really an ongoing process. It's not going to happen in a month or even a year. I would like to think I started that process with her, that I've made her aware of what she needs and how much she could enjoy it. She's in high school now, and I'm hoping to continue the circle of friends we started. It opened up a world for her. It's too soon to say she took complete advantage of that opportunity. She needs more time. I think she needs input from all of us, from teachers and parents continuously. Has she found it? No, not yet, but I think she's working and trying, and her parents are still trying, too.