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Profile of Sylvie Kashdan, Teacher of English as a Second Language

Sylvie Kashdan

Intro: What would you think of a job that allows you to combine your love of languages, caring for people, and a steady income? Interested? Then read on...

The Story: I teach English as a new language to blind and visually impaired adult students for a small nonprofit organization; develop curricular materials appropriate for students' individual goals and needs, which may include finding or writing materials and producing them in braille; and research and develop effective methods for teaching such students. My partner, Robby Barnes, and I give informational presentations and training workshops for rehabilitation and mainstream teachers and volunteer tutors, introducing them to the most effective methods for assisting blind and visually impaired students. I also correspond with and share resources via e-mail.

I generally start my day by spending at least an hour or two answering e-mail and sharing resources with people in various parts of the United States as well as other countries. Then, I focus on preparing instructional materials for my students. This may include finding news stories on the Internet and rewriting them in simplified English to meet the students' language proficiency levels, or finding stories or health articles on my own computer that are already written in simplified English. I translate some of the articles into braille files, and spend some time embossing whatever is necessary. Additional time is spent going over students' homework and writing responses to the students regarding their work. I also maintain individual learning logs for each student.

On the days I teach students, I typically spend two to three hours helping them learn their new language. Some days we ride the bus to neighborhood stores, local parks, or the Talking Book and Braille Library, or we visit other interesting places. We record on tape some of the things that interest us as we go, and I later help the students write about their field trips.

I am one of two staff members of the Kaizen Program, and as one of the founding Board members, have a lot of control over what I do. I am able to be creative and explore new avenues with the approval of my partner and the Board of Directors. I consider my working situation very positive, thanks to the cooperative and sympathetic nature of our Board of Directors.

I have been teaching English as a new language to fully sighted students since 1988. In 1997, Doug Hildie, a rehabilitation counselor at the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind, asked my partner Robby Barnes and me to help some blind and visually impaired immigrants and refugees he had on his caseload. He felt that these individuals were poorly served by the available mainstream adult literacy programs.

At first, we worked as independently employed teachers. After a year or so, Doug Hildie suggested that we form a nonprofit organization. We did, and that was how Kaizen came to be.

I use all of the skills I developed in previous jobs in my current job. I worked my way through college performing manual labor jobs in factories. After graduating from college and getting my MA, I taught working adults beginning and advanced sociology courses at the University of the City of New York. I also taught arts and crafts and current events classes to senior citizens in public housing projects.

I progressed to become an editor, writing understandable English translations of advertisements for various health care, games, and educational items originally produced in French and Spanish. I started teaching English as a new language to fully sighted immigrants and refugees before focusing my skills on teaching the visually impaired.

I currently use a Perkins Brailler to prepare documents for my students during lessons, and I also use a braille slate and stylus for my own note taking. I use a PC computer with the JAWS screen reader. About three years ago I was able to get a Basic D embosser and the Duxbury braille translation program, which streamlines my preparation for classes. Before I had the embosser and the braille translation program I was producing all students' lesson materials (including two entire textbooks for students attending community college classes) on my Perkins Brailler. It took a bit of an effort to learn how to use the Duxbury translation program in a way that produced braille that satisfied my students' needs, but it was worth it.

I love teaching students, sharing ideas with other teachers, and training volunteer tutors. I dislike the bureaucratic procedures my students have to go through, and I don't like having to compromise when there are not enough resources available to help students.

On the positive side: I think that a career in teaching can be a very rewarding one. Teaching adults (especially immigrants and refugees) who have visual impairments is both fulfilling and very necessary. Teachers that are blind or visually impaired provide vital role models for visually impaired and blind students. They know from experience the best ways to solve problems, are familiar with the resources available, as well as those that are missing. They know what it feels like to be in the students' position, and therefore can be respectful and compassionate. They give students hope of what can be accomplished. Fully sighted teachers can also help, but they have much more learning to do before beginning and on the job, and they may suffer from unconscious prejudice which can be unproductive for students.

On the negative side: There are not very many well-paid teaching jobs in the field of adult education today, and the ongoing budget cuts are impacting the situation further. Teachers in large public and private organizations are being asked to do more and more bureaucratic paperwork, leaving less time for preparation for class and teaching. More limitations are being placed on teachers' creativity in the current climate. Blind and visually impaired people continue to experience discrimination in the field of teaching because of their disabilities.

The Contact: Sylvie Kashdan

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