Teaching English as a Second Language would appear to be especially challenging for a blind teacher because so much of the classroom instruction involves using visuals to communicate information. The following article from our newsletter suggests that with dedication and creativity that it is possible to do it successfully.
Q. What attracted you to teaching?
A. I was originally in music therapy and then became a teacher of the visually impaired. There was a hiring freeze in the 1980s, so then I decided to get my teaching credential at San Francisco State. When I was a teacher of the visually impaired, I was “itinerant,” traveling to different schools. I got tired of traveling to all of the different schools I was assigned to cover. So, I changed careers and got into teaching English as a second language.
Q. What attracted you to ESL?
I took a career assessment class. We took several inventories. The results said for me to explore adult development and international activities. At that point I realized that I really needed a change.
The career counselor advised me to volunteer at a couple of adult ed. Schools, get my feet wet, and try working with ESL students. She said, “Just try it out,” and I really liked it.
I started out as a sub. Eventually, I went back to school and got my certificate in Applied Linguistics at UC, Davis.
Q. Is applied linguistics a common path to get into ESL?
A. Yes. It is applied linguistics with an emphasis on teaching ESL.
Q. What kind of students do you have in your ESL classes?
A. First of all, I teach adults. The classes I teach are offered through our public school district. Even though I’m teaching adults, the courses are not offered through the community college. The particular school that I am at is all adult education.
I have two classes. In my first class, I have students from three or four different countries -- Viet Nam, Mexico, China, and India. In my second class, I have students from about 11 different countries.
What a lot of people think is that I teach these classes in all of these different languages. I only teach in English. I try to encourage my students to speak English as much as possible, although this is a beginning level class. Because they are just starting out in the language, I do allow them, if they have to explain directions, to do that to one another in their own language. For the most part though, we do everything in English, so it’s not bilingual. Bilingual ed. Is when you try to do something in the native language and English.
Q. How do students come to you?
A. They have to register for classes. At our school, they go through an orientation. Someone explains to them what the program is about, and then they have to take a placement test. It’s a reading test. They pay a registration fee which covers the class plus materials.
They come for different reasons. Sometimes they want to get better jobs; sometimes their jobs require them to learn English. Sometimes they want to help their kids in school. They want to help their children with homework. They want to be able to talk with their teachers during parent-teacher conferences. Some students want to go to college, so they take English classes at our school to get the foundation in the language before enrolling in the community college. Some people just want to be able to talk to other people in English and survive in this country.
Q. Where are the classes held?
A. We have some off-site classes, but I teach on the main campus. We do, however, have some classes in the community that are offered at different public schools – elementary, middle, or high schools.
A lot of times, the schools reach out to the parents of kids who are enrolled in the public school system. They learn about the family and parents from the kids who serve as an entrée.
Q. I’m assuming that, since your students are adults, these courses are offered in the evenings. Is that correct?
A. No. Actually, we have day classes as well. I started out teaching at night a couple of nights a week and eventually got a day job. We do offer classes during the day as well as evening.
The day classes are Monday through Friday, but the evening classes are on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The day classes are two hours long, and the evening classes are three hours long.
Q. So, what is your individual teaching schedule like?
A. This semester my first class is from 8:00 to 10:00. Then, my second class is from 10:10 to 12:10. I have a short lunch break, then I do prep between about 12:45 and 2:00. I do my lesson plans and preparation of materials after school. This is my schedule all week.
Q. What would a typical class be like?
A. We usually start with me greeting them: “How are you?”, “Are you ready to learn more English?”. I have an agenda on the board which lists the objectives for the day. Because I have a beginning level class, I usually have them read the agenda with me. I’ll say, “Listen and repeat.” I’ll read the item, and they’ll repeat the item. I’ll read the next item, and they read it, and so on, until we’ve gone over the entire agenda. So, they know where we’re going for that day.
Then, we have what are called “classroom jobs.” What I have are classroom workers who help me in the classroom. I have five “classroom jobs.” My attendance clerk makes sure everyone has signed-in on the sign-in sheet so I can do my attendance later. The “welcome clerk” helps other students with English. The “distributor helper” passes out papers and books. The “board clerk” erases the board.
I’ve been doing this for a long time because I think it creates a sense of classroom community. All of that is a beginning of the class routine.
Next, we’ll go through some vocabulary and maybe some grammar. We’ll also do some “life skill” activities; it just depends on what the topic for the day happens to be. For example, we just started a module on health, so we’ve been working on making an appointment to see the doctor, filling out a health history form at the doctor’s office, and, this week, we’re starting to talk with the doctor.
I incorporate all the language skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – in with all of the life skills. They’re all combined. Even the grammar involves whatever life skill we happen to be discussing.
Q. How long does one of your classes last? Would there be follow-up classes?
A. We are on a semester system. The fall semester started in late August and ended in December. The spring semester started in January and will end in early June.
The interesting thing about our ESL program is that we have six week modules. So, within the semester, each of these modules focuses on different life skill topics. This year, for example, I started out teaching about things related to school like how to call to report an absence, how to succeed in school, etc. Then, I did a module on citizenship. I did a module on the DMV where students had to talk with a police officer about a traffic stop and fill out a traffic citation. Now, we are doing health. My last module of the year will deal with employment.
Although we have the six-week modules within the semester system, it can be confusing because we get new students every six weeks. Every time we start a new module, we get new students. So, we are continuously getting new students added to the class throughout the semester. This means we are constantly getting a new infusion of students going in and out of the same class.
We only promote students twice a year, once in December and once in June. This means that I have some students who I promoted in December but then I also have other students who have been with me since August and will be with me until June. The majority of students tend to stay with me for the entire year.
Q. If I were a student and took your first semester and I wanted to, I could take the second semester as well?
A. Yes. I would then not only look at your test score at the end of the year but I would also look at how you functioned in my classroom. I would make sure that you had all of your language skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing -- under your belt. We also have all these additional assessments for all of the life skills topics that you would have taken. I would take all of that into consideration. If I felt that you had not only done well on the placement test but passed all of the module assessments and were doing well with your language skills, then I would promote you. My expectations are pretty high.
Q. Would I be correct in assuming that grading does not take the same form as in a conventional class?
A. Exactly. We don’t have letter grades but we do have lots of assessments. We do go by the test scores and all of the other evaluations. The reading test is used throughout the local system as well as the state, not just with ESL. It’s used in a number of other departments. It’s given to native speakers as well.
Q. What is the reaction when students discover their teacher has a visual impairment?
A. They handle it pretty well. I address it the first day. I tell them that I can’t see. I show them the Braille I use. I have a paraeducator in the classroom who is my helper, and I introduce her as well. I just tell them that I’m visually impaired but have been teaching for a long time. I’ll let them know that I’ll try to learn their voices and names. Usually, that’s all I have to say. Once I address it on the first day, it’s not a problem.
I think that’s because they’ve had to overcome so many obstacles themselves. I believe that has a lot to do with why they’re so understanding and patient.
Q. Do you see any differences based on the cultures they come from?
A. They’re taught to respect in most of their cultures. So, most of them tend to be very respectful and co-operative. They know that I’m the teacher.
Although I'm conscientious about looking at them, because I can’t look them directly in the eye, sometimes they’ll ask the paraeducator questions or tell her something when they should be addressing me directly. They might say, “I’m going to be absent tomorrow because I have an appointment.” That’s can be an issue sometimes.
Q. What is the role of the paraeducator?
A. She is what we used to call a “teacher’s aid.” She helps me to monitor the students’ work in the classroom. I circulate and, if they have questions, they ask me. She can see the written work which, in this subject, is very visual. She helps me to correct the papers and tests. After school, she helps me to write my ideas for lesson plans in my lesson plan book. She also helps me prepare materials, so she makes copies. She types worksheets on the computer; she does my online attendance.
For example, in the classroom, she helps me with audio-visual equipment. We have a document reader that is like the old overhead projector so that now you don’t have to use transparencies. You can just put books and documents right under the camera and it will project the images directly on to a screen. She’ll handle DVDs since those are pretty inaccessible if you can’t see.
Q. Did you have difficulty in getting the administration to approve funds for a paraeducator?
A. No. I’m very blessed that I work with a staff, a resource specialist, and administrators who have been extremely supportive throughout my career. I started teaching there about twelve years ago.
I started out with low vision. About four years ago, my vision gradually diminished until it was completely gone. I’ve been able to continue working there because they’ve been so supportive.
Q. Do you have any idea what accounts for the fact that they have been so supportive?
A. I think they were always that way from the first day. They really care about the needs of the students and really seem to support the needs of the teachers. Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t see that. I’ve been in environments where teachers aren’t supported, and it was really difficult. It makes a big difference if they back us up, support and encourage us.
Q. So, it’s more a reflection of how administrators deal with the entire system rather than you individually?
Q. You began teaching when you had some vision, limited though it was. Looking back, how much of an advantage was that?
A. I was able to see all of the material in the books and worksheets, so I was able to readily monitor my students’ work. I was also able to make my own copies, overheads, etc. I didn’t need much assistance. Actually, I started out with an assistant, but she passed away and, so, I had to survive without one for several years. That meant that I had to learn how to use the copy machine. I had a video magnifier and I had a screen enlarging program on my computer.
Now that I can’t see, I have to put a lot of things in Braille, which I had to learn as an adult. Also, the school purchased a scanner for my computer in order for me to scan print materials. I can listen to this information since I do have a talking screen-reader program on my computer which I brought from home.
Q. Typically, public school teachers are assigned other duties – bus duty, cafeteria duty -- in addition to their regular classroom responsibilities. Is this true in your situation?
A. No. At least for adult ed., we don’t generally have that type of extra duties.
Q. What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered as a blind teacher?
A. Learning the names of my students. Now that I’ve lost all of my vision, I can’t use any visual cues. I’ve had to learn to recognize their voices, and some of their voices sound very similar, even at the adult level.
My very first challenge is when I write down all of these foreign names for the first time at the beginning of the semester, I’ll think, “Oh, boy. These are going to be interesting to pronounce.” I just have to ask them, “How do you pronounce your name?” I then practice a few times and then I get them.
Then, because students are constantly rotating in and out of the class, I do have to get to know new people every six weeks.
Calling on students can also be challenging. My roll sheet is in Braille, so I make a point of taking roll every day in order to get to know where they are sitting and get to know their names. This enables me to call on them more easily.
Being able to physically help them with their work is more difficult because a lot of ESL materials are very visual. Especially, at the beginning level, there are a lot of printed materials; we use a lot of pictures. For example, I would say, “Look at the picture. What do you see?” Students frequently are expected to write sentences about the pictures. This is one of the places where the paraeducator can be of assistance. She can describe the pictures to me so that I know what they are looking at.
Sometimes, I will write a description for myself in Braille about the pictures or worksheets. We don’t have a lot of space in the classroom, and, so, I don’t put everything in Braille because, if I did, I would run out of space really fast. If, however, there are certain worksheets that I know I will be using year after year, I will have a file with their descriptions under specific topics.
Q. How large is your typical class?
A. Our maximum is 40. Right now, my first class has 32, and my second class has 36 students.
Q. What technologies do you use and how do you use them?
A. First, I use a desktop computer with a talking screen reader. I use that for e-mail, getting on the web to get resources, and word processing to design worksheets for my students. I also use it with a scanner to read regular printed materials when a human reader is not available.
I also use a digital recorder. For example, if I don’t have a Braille-writer handy, I can record things that are of importance and then take notes later.
I use the Victor Reader Stream, which I use to download books and also take auditory notes.
I also have an electronic Braille notetaker called Voice Sense. It has a Braille keyboard, but I don’t have a Braille display on it because I wanted it to be portable so that I could take it back and forth from home to work. Instead, the output is auditory, and I use a set of earphones. I enter information using the Braille keyboard but listen to the output. I use that primarily to take notes, to keep my contacts, to keep a schedule calendar, to check e-mail, etc. So, I guess you could say that I use a lot of technology.
Q. What advice would you give to someone else who is blind just starting out in the profession?
A. I would say that they should have an idea of how they are going to do the job because that is what they are going to be asked in an interview. How are you going to learn your students’ names? How are you going to give tests? How are you going to do your lesson plans? How are you going to prepare materials? You have to have a pretty good idea of what your skills are.
For example, if you have low vision, do you have a magnifier that will really work in the ways that are needed? Can you read large print? Do you have a screen enlarging program on your computer? If you’re totally blind, do you have Braille skills? Do you have good auditory skills? Do you have a scanner on your computer so that you can scan documents and read them? Do you have a way to put students’ names on a roll sheet in a format that you can read? The most important piece of advice that I would have is really have a good idea of your blindness-related skills and how you would get the job done.
Early in my career, another teacher advised me to be really aware of what I’m able to do and also be aware of my own limitations and be honest about that with myself as well as with other people.
Also, they should talk to other blind and visually-impaired teachers to see how they do their job. They should definitely get mentored by people who have been in the field for a while and are successful. If possible, they should try to locate teachers who are in the same subject they plan to teach.
If they go through a training program, be sure they have the support of the administrators and professors in that program. It is important that they do well in the training program so that they can get the support of their professors, administrators, and whomever is supervising them in order to get good recommendations and letters of reference.
Q. You have mentioned Braille several times. Have you always used Braille or did you have to learn it later in life?
A. I learned it when I was a young adult in my twenties. I just learned it for fun, just in case. Then, four years ago, the “just in case” stage actually came where I did lose all of my remaining vision. I hadn’t used the code for a few years; I had to relearn it. Now, I’m very thankful that I know it because that’s probably one of the reasons that I’ve been able to keep my job. Knowing Braille and computers was a big help. When I had low vision, I was primarily using large print and a hand-held magnifier.
Q. Looking back on your teaching career, is there anything you would have done differently knowing what you know now?
A. I would have asked for help sooner when I started losing my vision. When it happened, I guess it was pride, but I didn’t ask for help right away. I started having to stay after school later and later and later to get my prep done because the copy machine and everything else got more difficult to see. Before, I was only staying until 3:00 or 4:00, then, when my vision started going, I’d stay till 6:00. My administrator finally had to step in and say, “Hey, you’re staying too late; we need to get you some help.”
Q. What kind of help did you need?
A. I needed help because I couldn’t see the copy machine any more. I also needed some assistance writing stuff in my lesson plan book. That’s how I ended up getting the paraeducator because my vision finally wet from little to nothing. I was too reluctant to ask for “reasonable accommodation.” I think I could have avoided a lot of stress if I had asked for accommodations sooner.
You may also want to listen to an
conducted with Bateman July 20, 2013.
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