Teaching elementary school can be one of the most difficult areas for a visually impaired or blind teacher to break into. It can pose special problems that administrators and parents are especially concerned about. The following article suggests ways in which a teacher with over 20 years of experience in the public school setting has confronted these issues and dealt with them successfully.
After teaching ESL in Japan, Sharon Ballantyne has taught third grade in Ontario, Canada since 1989. She has a B.A. in Psychology and Religion, a M.A. in Divinity, and is finishing a PhD. In Counseling. For a more detailed explanation of her unique background, you may want to visit
Sharon Ballantyne, the First Blind Minister in the United Church of Canada, Doesn't Know How to Give Up.
Q. How did you get started in teaching?
A. Growing up I had about 5% vision in my left eye and no useable vision in my right eye. Therefore, I had the ignorance of bliss of not knowing all the stuff I couldn’t see. Growing up in a time when there wasn’t all sorts of support and assistance, I just learned to cope as best I could. From the second grade on, I was borrowing the notebook of the child next to me so that I could make sure that I got the notes from the board correctly.
When I was finishing university, I went ahead and did my regular faculty of education. It was a hurdle in that the registrar’s office didn’t want to have this legally blind person in the profession. They didn’t know what to do with me, but they couldn’t keep me out either.
I got good recommendations, and I started out teaching in Japan with my husband for a year. After we came back, we had our first little wee one and moved to where we reside now in Southern Ontario. I started teaching at the college level based on my connection to the English as a second language and then had an opportunity to teach where I do now. It was about five years after that when I lost all of my sight. The school board wasn’t sure what to do with me at that point, but, because I was able to keep working and learn to do things as I was losing my remaining sight, it worked out.
Q. You’re teaching very young children. How do you handle discipline?
A. It’s not as challenging as you would think. If you have a class of 25 children, you have 50 eyeballs that work. Mine are the only ones that don’t. You put out very clear expectations with the children, so I’m a very structured and highly organized teacher. I prepare them for transitions: When we finish x, we are going to do y.
If a child is standing up, their voice is going to project at a higher level than if they were sitting down or on the floor. You know where sounds come from. I just use the same skill set that I use in daily life; I just apply it to the classroom.
I almost never sit down. I’m always on the move. I start my classroom out at the beginning of the year in horizontal rows, facing the front, so that all faces are toward me at the front of the room. I organize the class according to what the previous year’s teacher has told me about the kids in terms of their personal dynamics, individual behavior, any types of special needs, etc. I have the seating plan completely memorized before the class enters the door for the first day.
For example, if I have a child with ADHD or maybe a learning disability, I try not to have those kids in the middle of the mass; they need to be right in the front row or at the ends of the row so that I can scoot around to them quickly. I like to pair an academically stronger child beside a child who might have more difficulty learning. That’s just “strategic seating.”
When the children come on the first day, I already sort of know who they are. So, as they’re at their desks, I can call on them. I am very conscious of “looking” at them even though I’m not really seeing them.
Whenever possible, I try to color-code everything. So, for example, science folders are all red. They have print labels for the children and a Braille label for me. So, if somebody’s book is laying on the floor, I pick it up and I know immediately that it’s Johnny’s or Susie’s. No, I can’t read their worksheets inside but I’ve tried to develop all the tools I can to help me do as much as possible myself.
Again, because I’ve got all their little eyeballs that work, they learn to help each other. When we’re dealing with misbehavior, they’re always good citizens who alert me. We do a lot of discussion about the difference between “reporting” and “tattling.” We have one rule in my classroom that every single situation can be funneled through: Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.
Q. I understand that, although you learned Braille later in life and make use of it, you don’t have the speed to read to your students using it. So, how do you read to them?
A. I read whole novels to them. I read the math textbook. At this point, I do it through antiquated technology because I’m using audio-tape. I’ve literally taught myself to “simul-read,” so that I can pace myself to read fluently. I’m listening to the novel on an earpiece in my ear while holding the book and turning the pages. I’m modeling good reading for my students.
I have my volunteer and paid readers record the story for me. They cue me when to turn the page when they’re recording. For all intents and purposes, then, the kids see me as functioning like their sighted teachers.
Q. You are expected to teach your students to write in cursive. That’s highly visual. How do you do it?
A. I lay my hand down on the table in front of the student. They use their finger as an imaginary pencil and they trace the form of the letter. This allows me to know if they started the letter in the right position. For example, if they’re going to make a lower-case “c,” they’ve got to start from the bottom and come up and around. We just have to be creative.
Q. Do you have an aid of any type?
A. I did not have an aid when I was legally blind, those first years when I was just starting out and I had very little sight. But since I’ve been totally blind, I do have an educational assistant assigned to my room as “visual support.” They largely function as an administrative assistant, a secretary if you will, who looks at the children’s agendas in the morning, will read me any notes, will gather money for food or trips, and so on. I will leave an answer key for everything I’m teaching so that this person can sit and do the actual marking of the papers that I can’t read.
The primary difficulty with this is that the arrangements change almost every single year because of the seniority of the educational assistants and their union. At the end of the school year, they apply for new job openings, so you get a lot of change.
I believe, although my school board has never come out and stated it directly, that part of the reason they are accepting of the need for an educational assistant is a concern for minimizing potential legal jeopardy. If there really were a fire, not a drill, it would be the responsibility of the educational assistant to lead the class out of the building. So, they’ve got the “first alert” if the door were blocked or if there were flames in order to redirect us to our alternate route. I defer to my assistant for the visual pieces. I will still direct everything that is going on with the children, but the assistant is providing an extra measure of safety.
Q. What has been the response of parents when they learn their child is going to have a visually impaired teacher?
A. I have lived in this community, and my own children attended the elementary school I teach in now. So, I’m pretty well known in the community. As a rule, I would say it’s pretty favorable. New parents naturally are going to ask that question. What I say to all my parents is “ask.” “
I’m the one who’s in there with your child six hours a day. You’ll want to know how I do things, so please ask me. If my own child were to come home and say, “Mom, I’m going to have a teacher who is in a wheelchair next year” or “my teacher is deaf,” I’d want to know how they’d do it too. It’s just natural. As long as you keep those communication lines open, I think people develop a comfort level and truly become your best supporters. After all, as educators, we work with our families; we are there to support the children. There has to be a very strong bond throughout the ten months their children are with you. That bond extends through the whole family because you will probably end up teaching the siblings as well.
Q. Do you feel that you interact with the parents more because of your vision?
A. I don’t know if that’s because of my vision or if that’s just a personal professional piece. I do value communication with my parents. Here in our school board, every teacher has e-mail, so we send out our information electronically. We are accessible to parents. For example, 90% of my students receive my weekly newsletter electronically. It goes out to the family by an e-mail distribution list that I created rather than having to photocopy a print paper, put it in the child’s agenda, and sent it home.
Also, in my school, we all have telephones in our classrooms. Consequently, it’s easy to leave a message or to make your calls to parent’s right after school. This isn’t the case, however, for all schools.
Q. Your school makes more use of computer technology than some other schools. How has that worked for you?
A. Another thing that’s brand new and exciting is that we’ve just set up a BLOG for all the children in my class. Yesterday was just the first day that our technicians actually had the computer imaged correctly. We have four computers in our classroom. My children all picked nicknames because we didn’t want to use our own names on the Internet. Even though only our class has access to the BLOG, we still want to practice good Internet safety.
It was delightful to be able to read these little one’s blogs. They were commenting on what other children had written. Everything has to be approved by me as an administrator. When they post something, then it’s pending. It’s waiting for my approval. Once I “approval” it, then it gets uploaded, and they can read what everyone in the class has written.
Now, for the first time in 18 years, I’m back to being able to respond to student’s written work immediately. I have, in the past, had to rely on someone reading me their printed text. The students are just little computer wizards. Most of them have been having computer technology of some sort since they were toddlers. They are really excited about this.
Q. Was this all accessible from the beginning?
A. I was careful when I chose which blogging site I wanted to go with. I sat down and I went through it with JAWS to make sure it would work. I set up a prototype using myself as the administrator to be sure I would be able to access that.
Q. So the school didn’t have a standardized system for all teachers? Did you have some discretion?
A. I can not access the images or the server system that is used throughout our school board. I can access the teacher communication part, but most of the things the children access are not accessible to me with JAWS. I’ve had to spend a lot of hours to figure out what is happening on my student’s computers so that I could chat with them. These are only third-graders, however.
Q. You have a guide dog. What has been the effect of the dog on your class?
A. When you have a dog in your classroom, you’re instantly popular. They don’t care about you; the kids want the dog. I am on my fourth dog. He is the best of them all. Much can depend on their temperament, however. My third dog was my wild child from the moment I got him. His temperament was that he found it more challenging to be in the classroom.
I do not work my dog in the classroom. We walk in in the morning, he goes over to his bed, and that’s where he hangs out with his toys and his bowl. The children know “work time” is not a “dog time.” But, when the bell rings, then they’re allowed permission to go pat the dog.
One of the other things that’s been really nice, especially for children who maybe don’t see themselves as strong readers, is that it is not uncommon for a child to have his or her book box sitting on the floor next to the dog’s bed sharing a story with the dog. A dog is a very safe “person” to share a story with.
Q. Elementary and secondary teachers are routinely expected to have additional responsibilities outside the classroom. How have you handled that?
A. I teach third grade but I also have a “duty supervision.” Every teacher has to do some sort of yard duty, lunch duty, bus duty – that sort of thing. My duty supervision happens to be in a “junior kindergarten/senior kindergarten” class. So, presently, I have a ton of three year-olds. Twenty minutes out of each day, when my own class is outside on recess, I go into the kindergarten class so that the kindergarten teacher can have her break.
I have done outside yard duty before. In the Canadian winter, depending on the terrain of the school yard, when sometimes it is very icy and the yard is on quite a slope and you’ve got little kids playing foot hockey and ball hockey, it can be a big temptation for your guide dog, who also wants to go play with the tennis balls that they’re shooting around. Over time, we’ve made the transition that I no longer do an outside winter duty.
That’s not entirely bad since outside recess isn’t canceled until the temperature reaches minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus four degrees Fahrenheit). We get out in some cold and windy stuff.
Q. How do you do the grading and evaluating of your students?
A. I have an aid that does the physical marking. For example, I would have a mathematics worksheet or a page from the textbook my students are working on. I will explain the correct answers, what each question is worth, etc.; they simply have to follow my directions and score the assignment. If there are any questions, anything they’re not sure of, we conference about it, and then they actually put the mark into a mark binder. I tried to do my marks electronically for a while, but it just got too cumbersome. It was easier and faster for the assistant to just do it.
Q. What have been your greatest challenges?
A. I think for me it has probably been self-evaluation or self-judgment. If I let myself focus on something I think I can’t do, then that becomes destructive for me. I run the risk of creating in my mind the idea that I’m might be judged negatively if I can’t do something. Really, a lot of the stuff that runs through my mind is of my own making so that I can become my own worst enemy.
It’s all about mind over matter. We spend all day teaching our children to have a positive attitude, try, and not give up. If I can’t model that myself, then there is a problem. If I can’t allow my children to correct me when I goof it up in some way, then there’s a problem.
Q. What advice would you give students who are considering teaching the early grades or someone who has taught them and is losing vision?
A. It’s a lot of work. I have to spend way more time doing what I do compared to what a sighted teacher does. I don’t have the luxury of walking in my classroom and picking up a book and just starting to read it. I have to be organized and I have to be patient to figure out what is it that I need to know and how am I going to do it. I have to have all my ducks in a row before I start the day. Of course, there are always things that you have to deal with on the fly.
If it’s your dream and you believe you can do it, you shouldn’t give up on it. Unless you’re planning to fly a plane or drive a vehicle, the sky’s the limit. You do have to be very determined, however.
Q. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you know now?
A. Yes. When I was little, I would have learned Braille. I did not learn Braille until I had lost my sight. I am not a good Braille reader. I use Braille every day. I use it to label my students’ books, labeling my CDs and audio tapes, items all around my house, but I am not a fluent Braille reader. I think if I had developed that skill, it would have allowed me to adapt things much more quickly.
With the speed at which technology is changing, I don’t know if that will be the same observation that young people or newly blinded people will experience in the future. Technology opens our world in so many different ways. For example, my new scanning system permits me to scan a book literally as fast as I can turn a page.
I would be remiss to not say that I believe that it is still very difficult for someone trying to get into teaching, probably at any level. It is going to be a huge challenge to get your foot in the door, especially in these economic times, where it’s difficult for anyone trying to get into the profession.
But it is doable. We’ve been through times in the past where teaching is not seen as a very viable option for someone who is blind. If people are willing and committed, then I believe you can make those doors open. The more people who are in the profession, the more the possibilities will become realities.
Q. What advice would you give someone in terms of interviewing or looking for a job?
A. I believe that honesty is the very best policy. I know, however, that there a different schools of thought about this. For example, if someone had visual loss but it was not known what the trajectory of that was going to be over time, they might feel that they best cover that up because they needed to get their foot in the door and then prove themselves. I think everyone needs to discern what works for them.
In my very first interview for the school board that I work for now, I said, “I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair if I didn’t believe that I could do this job.” I did not hide the fact that I couldn’t see. I’d rather have it all out there. We have enough surprises in our lives that I don’t need to add anything else to it. But that’s my own character and philosophy. However, I can appreciate that some colleagues have found themselves in situations where it was in their best interest not to be as forthcoming with all of the personal details.
Q. Do you have any final thoughts?
A. So much of what we cope with as teachers, whether we are blind or sighted, is the same; it’s just a matter of navigating those waters a little differently. We all use differentiated instruction. If you, as a college professor, had a student in your room who was a new English speaker, that’s going to present the same kinds of challenges as me having a third-grader who is a new English speaker. I get children who have learning challenges; they’re not so good at writing, for example. You also get papers that are submitted by college students who are not strong writers either. You still have to use the same strategies. They may need to be applied differently depending on the audience, but the issues are the same.
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