One of the most daunting questions asked of blind applicants for teaching positions in elementary schools is: How will you be able to control a classroom? This concern is magnified when the children are in special education. The following interview with Gillie Presley, who is both totally blind and has been a highly successful special ed. Teachers for many years, explains how these questions can be answered.
Q. How did you become interested in special education?
A. I went to Troy University in Troy, Alabama and got a degree in elementary education. I thought I wanted to teach in a public school so I taught for one year in Georgia. While I was there, I got interested in several kids who couldn’t seem to keep up with the class. That was interesting to me. So, after that year, I decided to go back and look into getting my master’s degree and I went to the University of Alabama and pursued a degree in learning disabilities.
Q. How difficult was it finding a job once you graduated?
A. I understood there was going to be a hard time finding a job. So, I wrote to every system in Alabama at that time because I wanted to stay in the state. I went anywhere that offered me an interview. I interviewed for several schools here in Tuscaloosa and got the job I’m at now.
Q. What is meant by “special education”?
A. Special education is any kind of education that is provided outside the regular classroom. There are a lot of different areas. We have specific learning disabilities, and those are children with normal IQs or above that have a deficit between their ability to achieve and their actual achievement. Then we have children who have trouble with either their speech or language. We also have behavioral problems, which are sometimes called “emotionally conflicted” or “emotionally disturbed,” but they are kids who have extreme behavior that prevents their learning. In each of these groups, you have a difference between IQ and achievement, except for the children with extreme behavior. Their intellectual achievement and IQ don’t have to put them in that category.
Q. If you have limited or no vision, how do you deal with children who have severe behavioral problems?
A. Getting to know your children very well is extremely important. In elementary school, there’s always a tattler in every class. But you also have to be careful about that too because, if they don’t like the other kid, they’re going to snitch on every thing they do.
If you know where your children are suppose to be in the classroom and you know what they’re supposed to be doing and you’re attuned to the children, then you know when they’re misbehaving. You know if they’re out of their seats because, if you call their name and they’re out of breath when they answer, you know they’ve just run back to their seat. If they answer you and there head is turned away from you, you know they’re not looking at you and paying attention. If I know that a child is going to be a behavioral problem, I sit them next to me.
When I’m teaching in a large classroom, I frequently don’t stay in one place; I walk around. I may teach from the back of the room and have somebody else be a “recorder” on the board. I try to call every child’s name in every class time. If I hear talk in a certain area, I know what kids are sitting in that area and I call on those kids to answer the question.
I have the kids do a lot of moving if possible. In math, if we’re working a problem, for example, I’ll say, “When you have the answer, pat your head or stomp your feet” or something like that so that they’re doing some kind of movement and not sitting completely quiet. I try to do things that make them surprised so that even the kids who are going to be mild behavior problems are going to pay attention to see what you’re going to want them to do next.
Q. What types of classes do you teach?
A. While I do sometimes “pull-out” a few students for work on special things, I generally attempt to “include” special ed. Kids as part of the regular classroom as much as possible. For example, I co-teach a fifth grade math class. So my co-teacher teaches some days, and some days I teach.
If I have a lesson that involves a skill where it’s not going to be hard to write on the board, then I’ll get one of the students to be the “recorder.” All they do is to write what I say. Sometimes the kids are real critical of another child’s writing, and so I have to tell them to write a little larger or make it smaller or write it like you would like to see it yourself. When you can involve them in what you are doing, they are going to pay more attention. They all want to be the “recorder”; they all want to write on the board. Some days I’m able to make it so that every child in the room gets a chance to come up to the board and do some writing. You have to be real creative about that and watch your time carefully. That works all right if you’ve got 20-25 students, but, if you’ve got 30, it’s hard to get all 30 of them up to the board in one day. I keep a careful record of who didn’t get to write, so that, the next time I teach, they get to go first.
Q. You also teach reading to sighted students. How do you do that?
A. I’ve always used Braille and so I Braille all of the lessons I’m working with. If you’re reading Braille, then you can “watch” all of the kids while you’re reading. That’s just a part of my classroom management. Some of my kids get irritated because they say, “You said you couldn’t see us” when I’m looking over to where the behavior is taking place. Then you always hear somebody say, “She really can see.”
Q. What are the biggest challenges you face as a blind teacher?
A. One of the biggest challenges is getting the material you need and having to Braille it yourself because it’s not out there. To me that is a great challenge. When I first started, I transcribed everything using a Perkins Braille-writer. I hired somebody who came every day and read to me and I copied by hand. Now I can scan on the computer. Some of the math programs don’t scan as well and, of course, I have to do those by hand with a Braille Note.
Another problem is transportation. If you have to go to a meeting and nobody you know is going, that can be a problem. To the extent that you can, you have to try to plan ahead.
Q. You have an aid to assist you with some tasks. What was the process for getting the aid and was getting it a battle?
A. It wasn’t. I was just beginning to lose all of my vision. I talked to my principal, and he just talked to the board and they hired somebody. But I had worked with the system for a long time. So, I was established and had a track record. I’ve told people, if you’re out applying for your first job, you don’t need to say, “Well, I need this and this” because they’re not going to hire you. You need to say, “This is what I can do and this is how I’m going to solve the problem.” When I applied for my job, I said, “I will hire somebody to read for me and help me to grade papers.” I didn’t even ask for that. They need to see that you can do the job on your own before you can start asking for anything.
Q. You began your teaching without a guide dog and now have one. What’s been the effect of having a dog in a classroom with small children?
A. They absolutely love it. I had a child when I first got her who had Asperger’s syndrome. He had a lot of trouble in the classroom, so he could have time out with Roxey if he could be really good. Then, if he really could not keep himself under control, he would sometimes come and sit under the desk and pet her.
The kids love coming into the classroom, and they’ll ask to pet her before they leave. Sometimes when they’re reading they’ll get on the floor and read with Roxey. All of the kids at school love her.
Q. What advice would you give to someone starting out in the profession now?
A. We are using a lot more technology in the classroom. Sometimes that is both a hindrance and a blessing. I would say that when you’re going out into the profession make sure you know as much technology as possible and you know how things can be adapted.
Also, you should go in with an attitude that “I can do this” and “If there are problems, I’m going to think of a way to solve them” instead of “There’s a problem, and you’re going to have to help me solve it.” Go in knowing that it’s will be harder for you in the classroom than for other people. You’ve got to be creative. When things go wrong, don’t sit down and get depressed about it just say, “What I tried today didn’t work so I’m going to come back tomorrow with a different plan and go forward from there.”
Also, don’t be afraid to go to your colleagues and say, “This is what I’m doing. It doesn’t seem to be working. Can you give me some advice on what you’ve done?”
You’ve got to be willing to work and work harder. It’s sad to say, but that’s the way it is. You’ve got to be willing to work harder and longer to show that you can do just as much as anyone else.
If everybody in the school takes a turn on duties, be willing to take your turn on any kind of duties that they give you to do. Try to think of a creative way to do it; don’t say, “I can’t do this.” If you are asked to do something, your first response should be “Yes, I’ll be glad to do that,” unless, of course, it’s driving the school bus. You might want to question that one.
I didn’t always do things the way everyone else did. For example, everybody at our school has to do bus duty. When I first started doing it, the kids lined up in the hall, and they would wander in and out of line. I knew I couldn’t keep up with all of those lines so I had them all sit on the floor. Then, I could walk up and down between the lines while they were seated. Pretty soon, all of the other teachers started making the kids sit on the floor. It turned out to just be a different way of being sure that the kids followed the rules.
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