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Summer 2002 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Teaching the Visually Impaired - My Way!

By Elsie Rao, VI Teacher, Tyler Independent School District

(Elsie Rao, TAER Teacher of the Year for 2002, was interviewed by a TV station in Tyler, Texas when she retired this spring after seventeen years as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired in Tyler.   The broadcaster had no experience with visually impaired students.  Elsie wrote the following essay to provide a perspective on why she chose this career and continued in it for so many years.)

If people remember one thing from this essay, it should be that blind and visually impaired people can learn to do almost anything, except maybe fly an airplane.  I start telling my students this when they are very young and I repeat it over and over again until they start to share this idea with their classmates and friends, until I see them believing it as well.

I try to empower them with a sense of confidence and self-esteem which is critical for all. It is especially hard to do if the people around them do too much for them. When this happens, it teaches them that they are too “handicapped” to learn to do things for themselves. This subtle message can ruin a child. I understand that there are times when we all need help, and so it is with these students. They just don’t need help all the time. So my job involves teaching the visually impaired students, as well as teaching others how to teach them. Simply put, I am more than just a Braille teacher.

Authorities say that 80% of what a baby learns is gained through the use of vision. That is an awesome figure when you start trying to teach a child who has little or no vision. If you can keep that percentage in mind, it makes you realize just how many concepts a visually impaired child must learn before starting to master academics. These children do not learn incidentally like everyone else, so their education must include a wide variety of skills, including academics, technology, self-advocacy, career planning, and social skills. As a VI teacher, I must constantly maintain a perspective of what the normal kids are learning and doing so I know what skills need to be taught to the VI student. While this sounds so simple, I know from experience that this requires constant evaluation of students’ current levels of functioning, and is the most difficult part of my job. Generally, these students don’t master a concept or skill in one sitting, so I must re-teach the lesson until it is mastered. Since I only work with each student a few hours a week, I have to maximize each second of every lesson. I create a learning environment that is challenging and difficult, and my students love it.

One of my first requirements when working with a student is to know their individual learning style or how that student learns. This includes everything from classroom design to teaching techniques. What motivates the child to learn? What does the child already know? What do they enjoy and what is a reward? All of these are simple questions, with complex answers. At the beginning of school it usually takes me about 6 weeks to get to the point where I feel that my lessons are maximizing learning. Then I am on a mission, like a woman at the mall with a purse full of money!

All the information I teach must be based on prior knowledge the student has already mastered. That is why a child with a visual impairment receives teaching instruction as soon as the impairment is discovered. Blind babies do not know how to play with toys, respond to their mothers, hold their head up, sit up, eat, and explore their environment. They begin their lives in isolation. They must learn to respond to their families and their environment before the academics can begin. There is a network of parents, teachers and specialists who work together to try to teach some of that 80% that is lost to blindness.

The early school years are the ones I enjoy the most. I love teaching blind students basic concepts like shapes, textures, differences, and learning to take in information through the use of touch. Next comes the beginning Braille skills, and this can take several years. A blind child has never seen print, or advertisements, nor do they necessarily understand that stories come from a system of letters and words. All of these have to be taught in a sequential manner so that they learn how to (1) learn about the world they live in, and (2) how to master the arts of reading, math, and language. While this is a laborious task, it is also the most fun to me, because I get to teach them lots of fun skills likejumping rope, roller skating, and making friends. Working with this age group lets me do what I do best, talk, I love the challenge of figuring out a way to teach the concept in a way that makes sense to the child. So teaching Braille is just the tip of the iceberg in the education of a child that is visually impaired.

I have been working in Tyler for 17 years, and often I work with the same student for several years. I have to push myself to maintain that perspective I mentioned earlier. I have to design an educational program that helps them be on level academically and socially. I think it is very important to teach these kids to have goals, and to plan for an exciting life! I tell them that everyone I know has work to do, either at home or at an office. Then I help them realize that the difference between a person who makes $20 an hour and one who makes $5 dollars an hour is based on how much they have learned and the skills they have mastered.

The Bottom Line

I love to teach and I hope it shows. It is so exciting to watch kids learn. People often ask me if my work is rewarding. I guess it is, but I never think of the impact it has on me. I focus on the job, and the job is never finished. There is always something else to learn, another skill to master, or another book to read. A personal goal of mine is to learn as much as I can for as long as I can, and I had to experience some very difficult lessons to come to that realization. As a result, I try to instill the love of learning in my students.

I do not pity or feel sorry for these children. My job is to teach them to be successful, independent, and happy individuals. My job is to work myself out of a job. So I begin working many hours a week with young children and work backwards from there. I am currently working with a student in the fourth grade who is mainstreamed all day. When she was little I spent ten to fifteen hours a week with her. Today I see her for about three hours and some of that time is after school. I only go into her classroom to introduce new Braille signs or difficult concepts, teach her to advocate for herself by working with the classroom teacher or her peers, and show her how to work smart instead of just hard.

The children I have taught have given more to me than I have to them. They share their joys and their lives with me. They accept me for who I am because I do the same for them. I admire their personal strength and determination to live and make the most of each day. They have had to work so hard to get to where they are today and my job is to help them continue to learn new skills so they can succeed the rest of their lives.

They must have goals, and they must write them down. No one makes a successful, long journey without a Map! Their map is the goals they set for themselves. I am just the facilitator.

TISD (Tyler Independent School District) is an exemplary district. There are many outstanding people who work in this district with whom I have had the pleasure of working. First of all, nothing would be possible for these children if it were not for the commitment of the Director of Special Education. She makes things happen for these children and has gone above and beyond her duty by making sure these students receive the specialized instruction they need. She works with us and helps to design a comprehensive educational program that has continuity. Administrative support is vital. Then there are all the hundreds of others it has been my pleasure to work with. I am not just referring to the excellent teaching staff. I am also talking about the numerous support staff people who help these kids by ordering their special materials, get them through lunch lines with grace and dignity, help me move mountains of Braille volumes around big campuses, and make sure that the campuses are safe for them to travel. I am grateful to all of them, from the superintendent to the custodians, for the part they play in helping to educate a visually impaired child.

Special education is not a watered down curriculum designed to educate the handicapped. Special education is many special people who help special children become productive adults.

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Last Revision: August 27, 2003