High School Teacher
The Story: I am a high school Industrial Arts or Technology teacher in New York City and have been working at my profession for 23 years with a license that certifies me to use and instruct students on the use of various woodworking and metal working tools. In 1989, I became legally blind. Though I had only limited sight in one eye I felt that I did not need a cane for mobility or any other type of assistance and worked at maintaining my job with no apparent outward variation. To place information within my visual acuity I used a high powered bifocal lens, a magnifier and an enlarging photocopy machine. At that time, I was able to read 14 point print and required my students to hand in work in that format.
This system worked until 2004, at which time I needed more surgery. I lost a significant amount of vision so I decided to take a paid leave of absence to recuperate and figure out how I would return to work. During this time I received mobility and low vision computer training, and I also contacted my union and told them that in order to perform my job successfully I would need an aide to assist me in my classroom. A formal appeal was made to the Medical Office of the Department of Education, which included a request for a computer equipped with the appropriate assistive software. To my delight they accepted my proposal. Although there were many problems in coordinating all the pieces of this plan, by November of 2004 I had an aide, a computer, and at the end of the semester—a successful term.
Because for almost 15 years I denied my vision problem, I am new at presenting myself as a blind person. Apparently the frustration I felt then was not as bad as the fear of admitting that I was blind. It was only last year, after my surgery, that I could not avoid the truth any longer. There was no denying that I could not see well enough to travel safely or independently.
My mobility instructor was of great help. For three months after the surgery, I had not gone outside. When he came, he put a white cane in my hand; we practiced and out we went. Ever since then I have been working to continually improve my mobility skills. Traveling is much different now than when I was sighted. For example, sometimes well-intentioned strangers assume that because I am blind I need their help. Sometimes I do, but often I don't. Another example is that my train doesn't always leave me in the same location or on the same platform, requiring me to ask for directions. This works for me as long as they don't point!
The best time for me is in my classroom. On the first day, the first thing I do is to let the students know that I am blind. I tell them that I know my job but I cannot adequately observe their actions around the shop equipment. I then introduce my aide and let them know his function in the classroom. He is there to assist me, read material, and observe their behavior. He is not there to assist or help them. In no uncertain terms, I let them know that I make the rules and decisions in class and they are not to ask my aide for assistance. He works as my eyes and not as their teacher.
I have arranged the student desks so that there is a runway down the middle of the room and the desks face each other. This allows the students to discuss topics better. It also places me in closer proximity to each of the students.
I use an overhead projector to give a lesson instead of the blackboard, and whenever possible I use physical models, as well. Preparations for demonstrations are done in the shop beforehand. I often use a student or two to demonstrate, as well. While supervising the shop, my aide stands at my side scanning the room and reporting any safety issues such as missing goggles, inappropriate conversations, or any unruly student behavior. I have learned to speak out, so if I hear a sound that is unusual, I ask him to look that way and tell me what he sees.
Sometimes when evaluating a project it is difficult to tell why two projects are so different. Learning how to evaluate quality takes a more methodical approach, using questions to focus my aide's eyes on the project. In addition, now that I write all my responses on the computer the student has a much clearer idea of how and where to improve. Having another adult in the class has been great for me because we verbalize everything, which helps keep me focused on all the activities.
Although I underwent additional surgery this fall, I returned to work in the spring. I am presently asking the New York Commission for the Blind to sponsor me for more training in JAWS, which should further improve my skills by the next academic year.
Someone interested in teaching, particularly shop, has to enjoy problem solving and have the ability to stay calm when things are not going well. Throughout my career, I have continually used new techniques to manage students. Sometimes a different combination of the same skills produces a successful outcome. It is important to remember that there is always some thing or some new way to solve a problem.
Speaking directly to newly blinded educators, allow me to encourage you. It was important that I get past my blindness and remember that I am here to teach. You may need to do the same. Students will let me know if I forget. Best of all, I get a new group each semester that doesn't know how many mistakes I may have made last time! My blindness does not put them off. They see me as a teacher—that is all, that is everything, and that is where you can begin!
The contact: Rich Realmuto.