Future Reflections         Convention Report 2010

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by Dr. Jerry Petroff and Dr. Ruby Ryles

Dr. Ruby RylesIntroduction by Dr. Eddie Bell: Our next panel will talk about teacher training and where we're headed. The first speaker is Dr. Jerry Petroff of the College of New Jersey. Following him we will hear from Dr. Ruby Ryles from Louisiana Tech University.

Dr. Jerry Petroff: The College of New Jersey is a state-run school with about six thousand students. It was once a normal school that trained only teachers. It is now a liberal-arts college with what I believe are great preparation programs for all kinds of teachers. We have the state's only programs to train teachers of the blind and teachers of the deaf. Vito DeSantis, the director of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, came to me when there was no teacher of the blind program in the state. He said, "I'm really interested in partnering with you to start a program, a program that has a different vision from most of the programs that are training teachers." I said, "This would be great! Let's try to do it!" He gave us three years of funding, which was very important, since blindness is a low-incidence disability. We knew we weren't going to have the twenty-four students in the classroom that the college requires. Some kind of funding was necessary before I could go to my president and say, "This is something we should do, and it won't be financially impossible." Also, the State Department of Education said, "If you can get three years of funding from the Commission, we'll give you funding for the three years after that."

I did an estimate and found that programs for low-incidence kids need outside funding for at least six years. It takes six to ten years for the roots of a program to work their way into the system. I'm still waiting for the state to come through with the money we were promised; I have hopes that it will happen this year.

A New Set of Values

Vito DeSantis gave us the money for our first three years. He said that Dr. Fred Schroeder would be a really good guy to help us allocate that money. Dr. Schroeder was the right person, and he and I have become good friends and colleagues. Another crucial thing we did in starting the program was to engage Carol Castellano. Carol came to work with us part-time. She and Dr. Schroeder helped us formulate a program based on a set of values. One of those values is the idea that disability is a social construct and that we need to reject the medical model as much as we possibly can. [Applause.] Today the medical model drives practice. It makes teachers look at the deficits of your children. We wanted to embrace what I've heard here this morning, the idea that blindness is one feature of an individual.

We drafted a value statement that you can read on our Website. It declares the same clear, simple values that permeate the NFB. Our statement talks about high expectations for our kids. It talks about teaching blindness skills. The traditional model looks at the child's blindness as something that needs to be fixed, and even encourages sighted people to admire the fact that they are sighted. Our statement embraces the premises of the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). It doesn't just give lip service to the law. It doesn't just allow you to think about how to get around the law, which is what school districts so often do.

When I sat down with Carol I had a lot of questions about the changes we were making. I looked at what schools teach future teachers right now, and I said, "You mean, it's not important to teach our students about every possible thing that can go wrong with the eye?" [Laughter.] Carol said, "It's not important. They're not doctors. They're teaching our children."

We'd discuss these things and I found myself reflecting. I said to myself, I'm resorting back to the mean again. I consider myself a somewhat thoughtful guy, and brave with my head. If this was happening to me, how were we going to give young teachers the skills they need to combat the thinking they'll have to combat? I hate to use military terms, but I can't think of any other words to say it.

A young teacher went to work for the Commission for the Blind. She came to me two weeks ago in tears. She said, "They're beating me up in the office. Every time I do a learning media assessment the way you taught me and it comes up showing that a kid needs Braille, they make two or three older TVI's do it over again. What do I do?" I said, "Bring me into it." I have to go myself and say, "Let's talk about this. We can look at it another way."

Our program is still very small. I hope we can make it grow. I have only three students right now. I'm not going to flounder or compromise on where we need to go. We believe that blind students need to know Braille. We believe that children have a right to be as independent as they can be. We believe in the importance of teaching blindness skills.

Building a Community

Vito DeSantis, who gave us money and has been such a wonderful support, is up against an education workforce that really is not clear on what it should be doing. It is made up of teachers who are perpetuating old visions, old paradigms of looking at the education of blind children. We need to combat those old ideas with logic, preparation, and cooperation (which I'm not always good at, but I can do the other things!). We need to create a community in New Jersey around our teacher preparation program. Carol is working with us to have in-service training, to create a place where teachers can come and say, "This is what I'm struggling with. How can my community help?"

I'm happy to say that we now have a five-year program. Young people can come in at eighteen or nineteen and say, "I want to be a teacher of the blind." We have them for five years. They come out with a master's degree, certification in elementary education, a content major, and an understanding of the education of children. That understanding is the first and foremost thing we want for our teachers. Beyond all that, our students understand the way we're teaching them to be teachers of the blind. Now we're establishing a master's program where anyone can come in with an undergraduate degree and certain liberal arts prerequisites and can train to become a teacher of the blind. That program should be in place by next semester.

Another struggle we face is state accreditation. We don't agree with all of the things they say our teachers should be learning. Some of the language is heavily laden with the medical-model approach. We're looking for ways to get around that, and I think I've found a few of them.

I've come to realize that our program must do more than train teachers. It must be a safe haven where we can come together with blind people to move the agenda forward.

Dr. Ruby Ryles: Across the United States, university programs for teachers of blind students and orientation and mobility instructors are struggling. We are very fortunate at Louisiana Tech for a number of reasons. Dr. Bell introduced the dean of our College of Education this morning. He is here at this conference. This dean and the dean we had before him are the reasons that our institute and our degree programs for teachers and O&M instructors have grown substantially. Joanne Wilson is here in the audience. Joanne was one of the people who helped launch our teacher training program back in the early 1990s. We offered classes for teachers before we had our degree program.

The Low-Incidence Challenge

Because blindness is a low-incidence disability, it is hard to get these programs started and it is difficult to keep them going. We know all the problems that low incidence and isolation cause us. We know it as parents, with our kids being the only blind children in the area. It affects us at the university level also as trainers of teachers. Our classes are very small. Jerry is nodding right now--he has three students! In this day of budget cuts, most universities would say, "We're cutting your program." I'm not sure how many programs there are right now. Nationally there used to be thirty-six programs to train teachers of blind kids and less than two dozen O&M programs. Think about that! We've got about 96,000 kids in the United States who need services, and we have so few programs, and many of those are destined to be eliminated.

We are grateful to Louisiana Tech for allowing us to hold these important classes with only four or five students. Dr. Gulatt has teased me over the years, saying that if the College of Education had to depend on the revenue from our students to keep the lights on, we'd all be working in the dark! [Laughter.] It takes a supportive university to keep such a program alive.

The Louisiana Center for the Blind under Dr. Joanne Wilson and Pam Allen, working closely with Louisiana Tech, has helped us so much. Joanne Wilson and the previous dean got the idea for starting the Institute on Blindness. We've had the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech for the past ten years. Under the able guidance of Dr. Bell it is booming. Our problem right now is that we don't have the staff to carry out all our ideas.

Low incidence affects me at the training level because I have real problems recruiting students. We have students at several levels. Some are just entering, some are student teaching, and some will start student teaching in the fall. Altogether we have a dozen students. In the beginning I had a problem finding sites for student teaching. Four years ago a dynamic graduate of ours started a program in a school district about thirty miles from us. She had nine students when she started, and she has fifty-four now. Her program has grown to have three teachers, and they're all wonderful. Two were trained at Louisiana Tech and the other one--we claim her, too. She's a convert.

The Greatest Learning Experience

All of the students in our program are at this convention. We bring our students to the NFB convention because it's the greatest learning experience we can give them. How in the world can they know the issues their students are going to face unless they learn about the concerns of blind adults? We don't have money for much of anything else. We want to put our money where it really counts, toward this learning experience right here. Students come away from convention as parents and blind adults come away. It is life-changing. This organization made me the teacher I am today.

One of the problems among teachers of blind kids is isolation. You get out in the field and you've got to deal with low incidence. You're the one and only out there. There's nobody else around. If you're a first-grade teacher and you don't know what to do when something comes up, you can run to another first-grade teacher because there are lots and lots of them. There are plenty of books full of good ideas for first-grade teachers, too. That's not the reality for teachers of the blind. Let me give you an example.

I taught in Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1980s. One of my blind students wanted to take a class on the mechanics of small engines. In Alaska that means engines for small planes. What did I know about engines? That wasn't part of my teacher training! Nobody taught me how you work on an engine without sight.

At first I thought I had nobody to go to for help. But that wasn't true. I had 50,000 people to go to in the National Federation of the Blind. I knew that somewhere in this organization there was some blind person who knew how to work on an engine.

Sure enough, I found a blind mechanic over on the east coast. There was no point in me talking to him. Anything he told me would be watered down by the time I took it back to my student. So I put Joe on the phone with this guy and let them talk for a while. When he got off the phone Joe told me the guy said he needed a set of adaptive tools. One of them was a caliper. I went to the Lions Clubs and pleaded my cause, and they helped buy a set of adaptive tools for Joe.

Joe took that class very successfully. In the end he decided he didn't want to be a mechanic--he didn't like getting his hands dirty! [Laughter.] He had a great experience taking that class, though. Today he owns his own restaurant.

I learned in the Federation that partially sighted kids need to be taught Braille. There's no argument about it with any of us. I was fortunate that my son was born totally blind. He was an outstanding Braille reader. We belabor Braille at Louisiana Tech. I can't let our teachers-in-training student teach until they can read Braille at speed, whether they're sighted or blind. Our minimal speed is fifty words a minute. In the strategies class our students have got to get up to a hundred words a minute. At the end of their coursework our students take the exam for national certification in literary Braille.

Incidentally, our teachers are called teachers of blind students, TBSs. That term came from a meeting with the NOPBC. The NOPBC requested that our teachers not be called vision teachers--they're not teaching children how to see! The NOPBC also requested that our teachers not be called teachers of the visually impaired, because that term reinforces the fear of the word blind.

Due to the low incidence of blindness, one of the biggest problems in the field is that teachers of blind students graduate from university programs never having known blind adults. Typically there might be two or three blind adults in these programs. Whatever those few adults can or cannot do is what those teachers believe. Most of our teachers are sighted. They come in with all the attitudes about blindness that exist in the general public. At Louisiana Tech we have a very close connection with the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Our students spend a lot of time at the Center, where they get to know many competent blind people. Our students really are immersed in blindness. Our O&M students wear sleepshades for three months and learn all the techniques of blindness.

We teach our students the ultimate assessment of blind students--that is, what would you expect the child to do if he/she were fully sighted? That is the easiest and most accurate assessment. It covers reading, technology, daily living skills, and social skills.

We would love to talk to you about our program at Louisiana Tech. We invite you to get hold of us.

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