The Braille Monitor

Vol. 36, No. 2 February 1993

THE BLIND STUDENT TEACHER IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

by Fred Schroeder

From the Associate Editor: Reading the following article made me cast my mind back to my own student teaching experience many years before I found the National Federation of the Blind. At the time I had no idea how lucky I was. Oberlin College was broad-minded and dedicated to giving all its students an equal chance. I was scheduled to student teach high school English the fall of my senior year of college. No one had tried to discourage me from a teaching career during my preliminary course work, but it was clear as discussions about my classroom placement began that there was going to be some difficulty in finding a supervising teacher willing to work with me. Having done a little teaching in high school in conjunction with my history teacher, I never seriously considered that there could be any question about my ability to cope successfully with a mob of unruly teen-agers. To give my education professor the credit he deserves, he did not doubt my ability any more than I did. This was lucky for me, because he had to work hard to sell me and my credentials. He had to work his way through several school districts and a number of English teachers to find Mrs. Adams. She was a crusty old English teacher, close to retirement, and she had seen it all. I also suspect that she no longer cared much about the lofty goals of teaching or her moral responsibility to her students to impart the wonders of Silas Marner and Julius Caesar. She told him that she would take me on and warned me to come prepared to begin teaching by the second day. I did so, and neither of us ever had a problem. Grammar, poetry, drama, and novels--we tackled it all, and the students came away saying that English was more fun than they had ever thought it could be. They clearly believed they had been lucky to get a student teacher, and it made no difference to them that she happened to be blind.

I know that I was lucky to have had both the supervising teacher and professor I had. Student teaching experiences like mine do happen, but unfortunately they are rare. Most blind student teachers have a much more difficult time than I had. But complicated or simple, student teaching is always a watershed experience. Some people are not cut out to be teachers, and all of us have much to learn in the beginning about the art. Every young teacher must discern whether he or she is suited to be a teacher. This problem is usually compounded for blind teachers by the prejudice and misconceptions of most professionals in the education field, both classroom teachers and college professors of education. Blind students who are contemplating careers in teaching must understand the complexity of the situation they find themselves in and must be prepared to work their way through it.

Fred Schroeder is the Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also an experienced teacher, and for a number of years he administered the program that serves youngsters with low-incidence disabilities in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, School District. He has supervised student teachers and hired many teachers during his career. He addressed the National Association of Blind Educators (NABE) at its annual meeting during the 1991 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. His remarks were reprinted in the spring/summer, 1992, issue of the Blind Educator , the publication of NABE. This article is taken from Mr. Schroeder's remarks: I have worked with a number of blind student teachers over the years. Unfortunately, I frequently see recurring patterns of discrimination. A very long time ago I was a student teacher myself. Therefore, I understand the problems they encounter. The negative experiences that blind student teachers face are similar to the problems blind people have entering almost any other profession.

By virtue of being a minority, the blind are subject to discrimination which comes primarily from public misunderstanding about blindness. The general and undefined anxieties and misconceptions lead to fears about how blind teachers will function, and these result in discrimination. The way this discrimination plays itself out for blind student teachers is different in form, but not in substance, from that which blind people face in all areas of employment. The problem is recognizing precisely when it is taking place. If you are reasonably qualified for a job and you interview for it, can you say that you have been discriminated against if you are turned down? I do not think so, unless you are told that you are not being hired because of blindness. Mostly that does not happen.

Usually you are thanked, you leave, and then you receive a letter or call telling you the bad news. But when you apply for five jobs, then ten, then fifty, then one hundred, but still don't get a job, and people who are similarly situated are getting jobs with many fewer interviews, then you can say without doubt that discrimination exists. And you can because of the pattern of treatment that you as a blind person have received.

What happens to most blind student teachers is something like this. You are likely to go into your student teaching assignment among people who start with the assumption that you cannot possibly function effectively as a teacher. Because they are looking for trouble, they begin to find fault with the way you are doing things and identify certain aspects of your work (mostly those things that you do a little differently from their methods) as problems. Is this discrimination? Probably.

But the dilemma is, because you are at the beginning of your student teaching, you are most assuredly not a perfect teacher. You probably are making some mistakes; every student teacher does. The caution I would give supervising personnel is to consider what can be reasonably expected from any blind student teacher. All student teachers, by virtue of their lack of experience, are going to make mistakes. The question is not whether but what kind of mistakes are being made and what is their magnitude. Student teachers make mistakes. That is why they are student teaching; it is the whole point of the exercise.

But when you factor in society's misunderstandings about blindness, very often the problems, the mistakes, and the simple things which go wrong for blind student teachers are blown out of proportion. For example, there has never been a class in which somewhere along the line a student or two didn't act up. Kids misbehave, in school as well as at home. Yet very often even the mildest behavior problem in a class is held up as evidence that the blind student teacher lacks the ability to maintain order. One of the best examples I know of imagining a problem and then attributing it to blindness occurred to a blind student teacher who had developed her own system for giving spelling tests. The teacher would dictate the spelling words to the class. Then the students would exchange papers and mark them as the teacher spelled the words correctly. The blind student teacher's university supervisor heard about this procedure and pronounced herself horrified. She said this was a terrible system. The student teacher was mistreating her students emotionally and was very likely scarring them for life. The children were being subjected to emotional mistreatment because the blind student teacher was unable to correct the spelling tests herself. Yet this grading technique has been used by sighted teachers for as long as there have been teachers, classes, and quizzes.

In my view this professor's behavior toward a blind student teacher was discriminatory. It was because something ordinary was twisted by the university supervisor, perhaps unconsciously, until she convinced herself that poor teaching was taking place. This discrimination arose from the professor's assumption that blind persons are not capable of teaching with equal effectiveness and, therefore, that their methods cannot be equally good. That professor's misconception about blindness and her resulting prejudice against blind teachers and our methods is the kind of thing we must guard against. When this cycle begins, the professor and those like her consider everything that the blind do differently as necessarily inferior.

Blind people can get into a terrible spiral when we accept this assessment of our alternative techniques as inferior. We are not sighted, and therefore we do not always operate in the same way that sighted teachers do. I cannot reiterate too many times that blind people always get into trouble when we try to function using techniques requiring sight. What we must do is realize that the techniques we use, many of which are particular to blind people, are legitimate and effective. We have a long tradition of blind teachers performing at a superior level. We do things differently, but so what? Sighted teachers use a wide range of strategies and techniques in their work, yet presumably the effectiveness of their teaching is measured by their students' success rather than through dissection and scrutiny of each teaching method. Our techniques as blind teachers allow us to function just fine.

The bottom line is that blind people can be confident and successful teachers. We cannot let other people's attitudes about us trap us in a situation in which we are put on the defensive and forced to have our performance as blind persons questioned. If a sighted person is alive and pays tuition, most universities will certify him or her to teach. Yet when a student is blind, suddenly the institutions become agonizingly conscious of their lofty responsibilities and suggest that it would somehow be immoral to graduate a blind teacher who has failed to achieve arbitrary and vision-centered standards of student-teaching excellence. Such standards can usually be boiled down to maintaining hand-written attendance records, seating charts, and grade books; writing and drawing flawlessly on the chalk board; and checking work assignments in class while the students are doing assignments at their desks.

As I said in the beginning, it is not difficult to recognize a pattern of discrimination, but it is often very difficult indeed to identify specific instances of it. Blind student teachers make errors, and so do sighted student teachers. The question is not whether errors are made, but whether the blind student teacher's entire performance and results are compared fairly with those of his or her sighted peers. I am talking about considering such questions as the following: Is learning taking place in the classroom? Are the students happy and interested in what is going on? Is the teacher in control of the classroom and the paperwork? These represent reasonable standards. A healthy and balanced perspective is necessary if an inexperienced teacher is to succeed. In order to maintain this perspective, blind student teachers must maintain ongoing, regular contact with practicing blind teachers, who can serve as a source of encouragement and information, as well as a bench- mark for reasonable expectations. In short, every blind student teacher should become an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. The discrimination blind student teachers face is one more manifestation of the discrimination associated with blindness generally. It is only through collective action that the members of a minority group can reshape the public's understanding and eradicate its misconceptions, thereby promoting true equality of opportunity. And for blind people effective collective action comes through the National Federation of the Blind.