American Association of Blind Teachers

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There are probably fewer visually impaired teachers in the early elementary grades than at any other level of teaching. The challenge is even greater if the teacher is totally blind. The following article from our newsletter outlines some of the ways an experienced, totally blind, Canadian teacher has been successful and been able to adapt to changes in the educational environment.

Sharon Ballantyne

I am a full-time primary elementary school teacher, teaching grade three outside of Toronto. Children in my class are seven, eight, and nine. I have been totally blind for twenty years. I have been teaching in my current school system since 1989, having taught college internationally and public school in a different system from 1984-89 before that. Iíve been teaching third grade now for several years and, prior to that, first grade and special ed.

My students use whiteboards all the time. I have several workarounds to keep this teaching within my control. I use peer buddying a great deal, asking students to provide peer feedback to each other. I sometimes have students work with partners, selecting the better of the two boards, then discuss strategies/responses, etc. Then, in a small group of eight, decide which of the boards will be done as sharing with the entire class. Sometimes I will give a question for the whiteboard in which I am looking for a particular structured response, such as a reading response question, and I will only look for part of the response to be determined in the large group, such as, did the person recycle words from the question to get a good sentence starter that reflects that they understood the question. Then, I will call individual students over to conference with me one-on-one and to read me their responses.

Sometimes, I will teach a lesson to a small group with students I believe will grasp the concept quickly and then, in the large group, do peer mentoring and have the other students put their responses on the white board. Sometimes, I will give each group different questions to answer. For example, if there are four groups, I will give each group a different question or math word problem or whatever to solve and then they work it out on their whiteboard and present it. You will obviously create lessons that play to your strength and not set yourself up for something that sabotages your ability to assess your students.

I always use my Victor Stream to record reading assessments so I can go back to hearing my studentsí reading and do note taking. I want to be able to be intentionally listening. I usually work with audio so have an ear piece prompting me for the text or part of the lesson the students are looking at. Alternatively, you may be using Braille to accomplish this.

I have never found classroom management to be a big deal. I have only ever had one rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. This golden rule offers a lens for viewing all conflict resolution needed in my class. I believe strongly in communicating with students, making them a part of all problem-solving through class or small group meetings as needed. I am consistent and make expectations clear. It is "say what you mean, mean what you say and do what you say you are going to do" that help the students develop integrity and strong character qualities. They need to know you believe in them and they need to learn to develop belief in themselves. Seven year-olds can arrive in school with a lot of "baggage" with complicated home environments, inconsistent parenting styles and sometimes very little idea of who they are or what it is to have positive social relationships.

This is my fourth year of having the children doing blogs, and in the week since I introduced them I have nearly five hundred views just from within my class and their families. I used a closed blogging system that requires a knowledge of my exact web address, and is password protected for each user. This is particularly a wonderful thing for me as I can easily monitor blogs and comments. My guide dog even has his own blog so it is fun to create posts and comments from his viewpoint and not always the teacher perspective.

When you meet your students, you will want them to always indicate to you who they are. "Hi, Mr. Jones. It is Johnny." I am okay with kids coming and tapping me on the arm. I insist the children raise their hands in class as they would for sighted teachers. In the first few weeks we reinforce responsibility and leadership. When I call on somebody in the class (I don't really care who it is since I can't see their hand), I ask him to please call on someone with their hand up. It is a great way to ensure students are paying attention. Remember your eyes do not work but you could have 20 to 30 sets of eyeballs that do!

I still write on the blackboard, the children will tell me if something is messy but also give me directions (left, right, up, down) to avoid writing over things.

I set my classroom up so I have easy access to move around freely in my classroom, though I tell the children I need rubber padding or bumpers on furniture because I do bump into things, but they are forgiving! I establish an understanding that they will need to make a path so I don't catch fingers or anything like that.

I have been honoured to be teaching young children for most of my on-going teaching career, and I can tell you without reservation that for me the workload is huge, but the rewards immense.

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