The following article originally appeared in the
of November 15, 2015.
Natalie Schira paces near student desks as her young charges ponder truth.
A Wahlert Catholic High School teacher, Schira, 26, encouraged sophomore honors English students to use a writing assignment to explore the concept of
A Vision of Success
The tapping of fingers on keyboards intermingle with the click-clacking of Schira's heels. Students softly discuss assignment details.
Suddenly, the classroom's soft hum is interrupted when a student raises a question without raising a hand. Students are not only encouraged to cultivate discussions, but they are required to simply ask questions in Schira's classroom.
The energetic English teacher with a passion for education is legally blind.
"It never occurred to me that it could preclude me from doing what I wanted to do in my life," said Schira, who then added, "It occurred to other people."
Schira was born with Turner syndrome, a somewhat rare chromosomal condition in girls that affects physical development. The condition occurs in approximately
1 out of every 2,000 female births and 10 percent of miscarriages, according to the Turner Syndrome Society of the United States' website.
Although her family received a long list of possible medical and developmental problems the little girl could face, glaucoma was never discussed.
The term soon would become commonplace in the Schira household.
When she was 8 months old, Schira was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma. The condition places pressure inside the eye and can cause cloudiness of the
"There are a few things that I have learned to say over the years. One is: Were you to look through my eyes, you would find things incredibly blurry,"
Schira said. "That doesn't mean I notice things that way, because of my frame of reference and my experiences."
She has undergone more than 10 surgeries, including corneal transplants.
"They help clean the windows through which I'm looking out, if you will. They help make it easier for what vision I have to be useful," Schira said.
Thankfulness shines brightly when Schira talks about the families of the individuals who donated their tissue.
"I've been very blessed by four really brave people and four really smart, grieving families who made a wonderful difference in my life," she said.
While damage caused by glaucoma can't be reversed, early detection combined with treatment and regular checkups can help slow or prevent vision loss, according
to Mayo Clinic. Schira said her experience is one of many that showcased the need for babies with Turner syndrome to have eye assessments.
"At that time, it wasn't commonplace to check a baby girl born with Turner syndrome for glaucoma," Schira said. "It is now. I'm a medical case study that
proves it should be done. I'm very glad about that."
Visually impaired is just one of the many adjectives used to describe the Wahlert teacher.
"It's one aspect of my life, and, yes, it's an important one," Schira said. "But it would be foolish of me to allow any one aspect of my life to define
all the other things that I am and that I am called to be."
Books are scattered throughout Schira's childhood memories.
"I've always loved literature. It's always been a part of my life. I get irrationally excited about comma placement, and I have since I could talk," she
The West Des Moines native didn't realize she would teach high-schoolers until after she enrolled at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.
"My gosh, I delight in working with adolescents. They are witty, they are clever, they want to make the world a better place, they are committed to their
ideas, and they are exploring the world around them," Schira said, later adding, "That's a really miraculous journey to get to be a small part of."
In her fourth year as a Wahlert teacher, Schira has started to build a rapport with students and meld into the tapestry of teachers.
"If I weren't just another teacher here, I wouldn't be able to do my job," she said. "Doing this job well is dependent on that level of autonomy and that
level of authority in the eyes of the students."
A reputation as a teacher who does not hand out A+ grades also has spread.
"I couldn't survive there. Her demands are great," said Wahlert Principal Ron Meyers. "She's a deep thinker, and therefore, she drives her kids in that
same direction." Schira joked she does mark student work with the highest grade possible, just rarely. She said students must earn their grades.
"For me to hand out really high grades like candy would be disingenuous," Schira said.
Meyers was surprised when he heard Schira's name come up in a conversation about potential teacher candidates. He had been an assistant principal at Dowling
Catholic High School in West Des Moines when she was a high school student.
"She was a young lady who, at that time, I could see nothing got in her way," Meyers said. "The thing I admire most about Natalie as a student and now
as a professional is nothing stops her. She is an independent woman. Don't try to help her too much in anything."
Much of his interview with the former student was focused on her approach to teaching rather than her vision impairment.
"Maybe in some minds maybe it was a risk, but for me, it wasn't a risk," Meyers said. "I don't look at (her vision) as a disability for her. I look at
it as a nuisance for her because she will most likely find a way around whatever it is."
Schira is the only legally blind teacher at Holy Family Catholic Schools. There are no legally blind teachers in the Dubuque Community School District.
"I wasn't especially particular about the where. It was important that it was a community that cared about the students. It was vital to me that it was
in a place where I would have autonomy to be myself and to hopefully encourage the students to do the same. And I was very, very much pleased to find a
Catholic institution where we have the opportunity to let the students express their faith," Schira said.
"Kids had to adjust to her. First of all, someone who doesn't have full sight ability certainly can't teach, in their minds. But they found out that, au
contraire," Meyers said.
Sophomore Libby Brosius was one of those students. She said she was nervous in the first few days of classes because she wasn't sure what to expect.
"Now, it just seems like a normal class that we're going to," Brosius said.
Classmate Joe Patrick agreed. He said that, at first, it was "kind of weird" to go to Schira's class, but now it's not really different from his other
Schira readily admits there are some things she does differently in class.
Those differences begin before the school day does. Schira has contracted with a taxi company to bring her to and from school.
In class, students don't raise their hands. They just ask their questions.
Schira said not only does the practice fulfill a "selfish" need to know students have a question, but it also promotes a much-needed skill.
"It is important to begin cultivating a seminar-style discussion where everything isn't so directly led. Discussions are better when it is more organic.
It is helpful when students learn the appropriate moment to speak up, and sometimes, just as importantly, the moment to wait," Schira said.
Wahlert is a one-to-one school that provides a digital device to every student. That immediate access to technology is vital.
"What's great about it, among a million other things, is that that's how students submit their work to me," Schira said.
She routinely guides students on Edmodo, an online tool that provides teachers and students with a secure place to share content, educational applications
and access homework, class discussions and notifications. Students also email their homework assignments.
"She always likes to stay connected. She tells you to email her a lot if you have any questions. She loves to stay connected," Brosius said
A synthetically created voice reads the documents to Schira through a text-to-speech app on her phone and iPad. Schira simply scans her fingers over the
device or uses arrows to go through the document. She also can type revision advice to students who send drafts of assignments and use the app to listen
to what she typed.
While those who aren't used to synthetic devices would use the text-to-speech app at about 20 percent speed, Schira has it up to 100 percent.
"I've been hanging around with synthetic voices for a while," she said.
To help students who are visual learners, Schira uses an app that places an outline of the class on a large television screen in front of the classroom.
"Just because I'm a very auditory learner doesn't mean there aren't visual learners," Schira said. "It is valuable for students to walk into this room
and know what to expect."
Schira said students might one day have to learn to use modifications to adapt to their environment. For instance, a student who struggles to read might
need to find an audio book, research definitions of words or ask another person for help.
"You don't shut down in the face of, 'How am I going to do that?' You power through," Schira said.
Sophomore Marie Jeschke said students quickly adjust to the way things are done in their English teacher's classroom.
"She does a great job of what she does," Jeschke said.
Added fellow sophomore Louis Ungs: "She's just as good a teacher as anyone else."
Students have tested Schira in the classroom.
"That was something that I was very candid about during my interview," she said. "Every teacher is going to be tested. It's part of how that works."
She has challenged herself to evaluate every lesson to ensure it engages students in an effort to battle student behavior issues.
"The best way to minimize them is to plan, to create engaging lessons. The more the students are interested, the less they are going to feel the need to
throw a Skittles box across the classroom or whatever it may be," Schira said.
She said students have plagiarized and brought items into class, such as food, that aren't allowed. She also has reminded students to not use their cellphones
during class time.
"Are there behavioral issues? Certainly, as in every classroom. I'm blessed to be part of a cohesive team who works together, and we deal with it," Schira
Meyers said they have always been able to figure out "workarounds" to behavioral issues. For instance, when laptops aren't to be used, they are put away.
"They've tested her, but she's overcome," Meyers said. "She's always found a way to adapt to whatever the environment calls for."
Many students seem to have developed a sense of respect for Schira.
"She's really inspiring because she has a lot of confidence to do what she does," Jeschke said. "I feel like that is something that we can all take from
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