Editor's Note: Tami Jones serves as Secretary of the National Organization of Blind Educators. In the following article she presents the challenges and rewards of teaching blind and visually impaired children.
When I began college I had very little idea of what I ultimately wanted to do. My goals were simple—work hard, do well, and have some fun along the way. Now that I am a teacher, my goals are remarkably similar—work hard to keep on top of new developments and technology in the field, do the best job I can for the students in my charge, and get as much enjoyment as I can from the experience. There are great rewards like knowing that because of your expertise, students have a better chance for success in school and in their later lives. There are even greater challenges that I feel anyone contemplating a career in education of blind and visually impaired students should consider and work hard to overcome.
The first big challenge is mastering the essential skills of blindness In order for your students to become successful with these skills, you must first become successful. Total mastery isn't always easy or even possible, but it is important that you keep working at it, even after you have left school and begun working. The old adage "If you don't use it, you lose it" really applies, especially with Braille. Those of us who rely on Braille in our daily lives have an advantage, but even I, who have used it since I was nine, find myself using it less for little things as technology becomes more advanced and available. I must constantly find occasions to use skills such as slate and stylus and abacus to keep my hand in, so to speak. Don't second-guess what your students may need; give them the best chance possible to succeed in their future lives.
The next big challenge is organization. If you're like me, this doesn't come naturally, and you have to work at it constantly. Since most teachers of the blind are now itinerants, at least for part of their day, it is crucial that you have what you need when you need it, whether this is lesson plans, student handouts, or IEP goals. Everyone has to develop their own system for keeping track of what they must have based on their own particular needs and the frequently changing nature of their jobs and schedules. One year, for example, my job was almost exclusively itinerant consultation. I visited about thirty schools during the course of a month, none of them more than once or twice a week. I had very little time in my office for gathering materials, so I developed a system whereby I placed materials I needed to take to a particular school on a special table. The leftmost pile was for Monday, the next for Tuesday, etc. Any materials that could not be delivered within the week could be mailed, or sent with colleagues—speech teachers, physical therapists, etc—who would be visiting that school sooner than I could. That way the students or teachers got the materials as quickly as possible.
The third big challenge is flexibility. Very few jobs stay the same. Those of us in Education are expected to "go with the flow." It seems like every other week memos are sent out to itinerants directing us to policy changes. We not only have to keep track of these changes, but we must find ways to implement them while providing the best level of service possible for our students. Schedules can change with little or no notice when special meetings are called, and office time cannot always be relied upon.
Without a variety of skills—the ability to use a Braille writer, slate and stylus, Braille note taker—I would find it difficult to keep up. I work where I can, when I can—in the car, in teacher lunchrooms, in school office reception rooms. I've Brailled important information on everything from index cards to legal pads to lunchroom napkins—whatever works.
The key to teaching is to be prepared for the challenges, so you can reap the rewards. I can't tell you how exciting it is to listen to my student read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" with little hesitation and few mistakes, or find out a student I taught several years ago graduated with honors. I know I make a difference in my students' lives, and that makes all the effort worthwhile.