In early June, I was contacted by our president of the National Organization of Blind Educators (NOBE), Sheila Koenig. She explained that an attorney working for the NFB had contacted her, wanting to speak with a blind teacher in Special Education. Since I teach Special Education, and Sheila and I know each other through NOBE, she thought to call on me. She said the attorney was representing a teacher who had been teaching Special Education when she lost her sight, and that after Rehabilitation at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, renewal of her teaching contract was being denied. Of course I told Sheila to give my number to the attorney; I would love to help in any way I could.
I spoke with the attorney, Joe Espo, the next day. He filled me in on the unfortunate details. He read to me the rejection letter that the teacher had received. It included such things as, "Visual supervision of students is essential in managing both the behavioral environment of the classroom and the learning environment," and "The position of a teacher in a public school requires visual monitoring in order to ensure the safety and well being of all students." The letter concluded by saying, "...expect a formal non renewal letter from [Dr. So and So], Superintendent of the Little Rock School District." I can assume that all blind educators offer a collective gasp at reading this. We know that blind individuals can successfully supervise behavior as well as learning; we can monitor the safety and well being of students. This is what we do every day!
Mr. Espo and I had several conversations leading up to the June 26th meeting of the Arkansas State Board of Education. He would be representing the teacher in "appealing" the decision of the school district. He prepared me for making my statement and for responding to questions that members of the Arkansas State Board might have for me. I shared my experiences in the classroom. I described to him how I monitor and supervise students. I told him that when I was in college, I didn't believe that I could be a teacher; I should only ever plan to be an assistant to a teacher. But after my first meeting of the National Organization of Blind Educators, I grew to believe that I could be a teacher myself. He asked me what it was about NOBE that helped me come to believe that. All I could say was, "I met dozens of blind teachers from all over the country who are successfully teaching. They impressed me by sharing alternate techniques of doing the everyday things that any teacher does; taking roll, making a seating chart, involving themselves in extra curricular activities, etc."
I made special arrangements to be home in time for the conference call on June 26th. At 9:45 PM Arkansas time, Mr.. Espo called and said, "I'm really sorry, but they don't want to hear from you." I think we both assumed the worst. He told me that he might need my help in the future, but that he'd call me back in the morning with more information. When he called me the next morning, I was surprised and relieved when I heard him say, "You're not going to believe this! After all that, the reason they didn't want to hear from you is that they had already made their decision to extend a renewal of the teaching contract." He told me that after the information he'd gathered and the conversations that the Board had, they knew that she deserved to have her job back. The blind educator triumphs thanks to the help from the National Federation of the Blind!
I have to admit that I looked forward to the opportunity to present to the Arkansas State Board of Education. I was also excited by the possibility of being a part of the story in Dr. Maurer's Presidential Report. But, in the end, I couldn't be more pleased with the results. I am so happy for the teacher in Little Rock. I admire her determination to hang in there until she was given a fair chance. Beyond that, I learned a great lesson. I saw first hand the importance of being active in divisions of the NFB. What if there was no National Organization of Blind Educators? What if there was no network of teachers to call upon to testify on behalf of one being discriminated against? If you haven't already felt the strength and the influence of NOBE, someday you just might. Who knows when each of us may have to fall back on NOBE for support? Who knows when each of us may be called upon to provide that support?
I for one am very grateful for the National Organization of Blind Educators. As I told Joe Espo, "it literally changed my life and my belief about what my potential as an educator might be." Thanks to all of you who provide that network of support to me and to a teacher in Arkansas who had to fight, but triumphed, in keeping her teaching position.