Advice for a Visually Impaired Teacher

Today’s post comes from an email I received this week from Heath in Maine (used with permission):

Thank you so much for your awesome website and YouTube videos! After working as a mental health counselor for the past 20 years, I’ve decided it’s time for a career change. I go back to college this fall to become certified to teach secondary education. I know I love to teach as I’ve taught intro. psych classes as an adjunct teacher at the college level. I also really enjoy working with teens although it has mostly been one on one. Anyway, I’m excited to be starting this new chapter in my life and I wanted to let you know that I find your online material not only very informative but inspirational as well! 

There is one area I would appreciate your advice on. I am visually impaired and I’m wondering how that might affect classroom management. I do have some usable sight as I can still see color and movement pretty well. Other than that, I can make out “the big picture” but not details. I also use a guide dog to get around and will have her in class with me. I’m not worried too much about assignments as I use high-powered magnifiers and other adaptive technology to see small material. I’d greatly appreciate any thoughts you might have on the matter as well as any advice.

Thank you,

Congratulations, Heath, on your decision to launch this new adventure! As you know from your current work, change (even if it’s for the good) can be stressful and I can only imagine all of the scenarios that are racing through your mind. I haven’t ever taught with a colleague whose vision was so limited as to require a guide dog and I can’t possibly know the challenges you face, but I do have a few ideas that might help. I’ve placed these below in no particular order of importance:

• Community matters. The personality of schools vary widely and you’ll need to find the right fit. Big campus or little? Public or private? Sports-minded culture or engineering academy? Now, I don’t know much about you or your teaching style, but my first thought is that your collegiate teaching experience probably means an assignment with older students, like 11th and 12th grade, in an academically rigorous environment is a better match than a class of squirrely below-level 9th graders. While I love all of my classes, my older kids are always an oasis of calm compared to my freshmen.

• Your dog will be a celebrity on campus. Have a plan to turn that attention into an advantage that gets students excited about being in your class. A few years back, I taught a girl whose family trained service animals. For a semester, Maddie brought Monte, a yellow lab, to class every day and the rule was that we couldn’t touch him if he was wearing his vest and we were asked to pretty much ignore him. Still, Monte was so charming that we all fell in love with him and he became our class mascot. Is there a way to incorporate your dog into your teaching? I have no idea what that would look like, but I have a feeling she could be the ticket to having the most popular class on campus. The things that make us different are the things that make us awesome, yes?

• Seek every type of experience available during your student teaching. This is a time for you to figure out how to make this work and discover what level of kids/types of courses feel the most comfortable. In my own student teaching assignment two decades ago, I taught a sixth grade class in the morning and then an 11th grade class at the high school across the street in the afternoon. I knew within the first few weeks that I belonged at the high school. Those sixth graders were adorable, but they pretty much expected me to do everything for them – they were so little, I half-expected them to ask me to help them tie their shoes – and I couldn’t imagine reading Rikki-Tikki-Tavi for the next 30 years. My juniors were fun and edgy and laughed at my jokes. High school was a no brainer.

• Consider adding a social studies/social science credential to your English credential. That way, you could teach psychology (there’s an AP Psychology class for upperclassmen that might be a great fit for you) and expand the pool of possible jobs. When I was student teaching, a professor told me that English teachers are a dime a dozen, so I also earned social science and health science credentials to differentiate myself. That’s ended up being a huge advantage whenever I’ve needed a job because principals know they can toss an extra oddball class or two onto my schedule. I’ve decided I’m the Beyoncé of teaching – a triple threat. I can’t sing, dance, or act, but I can teach English, history, and health. You’d hire me, right?

• During job interviews, be ready with an answer for every concern. Better yet, introduce the concerns yourself and then show the solution. Look, it’s going to be awkward. You’ll walk into that interview room with a guide dog and the administrators will be on edge because they don’t want to accidentally say something that’ll get them sued. Ease those fears. Have a sense of humor about your situation and make them see they don’t have to be overly cautious when they talk to you. Be real. Have a plan. How are you going to deal with kids who try to sneak their cell phones? What’ll you do if your dog needs to go the bathroom right in the middle of final exams? You’ve been dealing with your limited vision for a long time and you must have plenty of stories to show the hiring panel how you manage difficult moments with grace and humor. Those stories will hopefully win them over; if not, you wouldn’t want to work for those stuffed shirts anyway. Believe it.

Well, Heath, it seems I had more to say about your situation than I first realized. It’s exciting to watch someone take on a challenge and your future students and colleagues will certainly benefit from your trailblazing ways; you’ll teach everyone a lot of lessons – and not all of them will come from a textbook.

Okay, teacher friends, I’m out of my depth here and Heath needs our help. With his permission, I’m sharing this part of our conversation and providing a bit more background. There aren’t any schools for the blind near his home in Maine and he’d prefer to teach at a mainstream school anyway. He became visually impaired 11 years ago due to an accident and knows what the visual world is like. His guide dog, Mari, is awesome and he’s already trying to think of ways to include her in lessons. Some of you must have more ideas and/or helpful experiences you can share. Heath’s going to check back on the blog in a week or so and I’d love to have the comments section filled with ideas and encouragement.

What advice would you give to a visually impaired student teacher? How can Heath make this work? Add your comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. 

Teach on, everyone.

(Note: The above image is not a picture of Mari or Monte. It’s just a super-cute public domain image from Pixabay.)

16 thoughts on “Advice for a Visually Impaired Teacher

  1. My grandfather was visually impaired and taught high school English in the first continuation high school in our city. He had a bit of fuzzy peripheral vision, that’s it. I so wish he or my grandmother were still alive to talk with you!

    I am sure the power of his personality helped with his classroom management. He was sharp, funny, and saw more than the average sighted person. Coincidentally, he went into mental health and earned his PsyD with the help of my seeing grandmother, who read to him. He also had his students read their papers to him, so he developed one-on-one relationships which helped with classroom management. He also had circle time, where conversation may have started in response to the literature, but moved into psychology, sociology, life talks.

    “Only connect” was his motto. Do that with your students and you will greatly reduce management issues. I will find out if my parents remember anything else that might be helpful to you and come back to this post. Best of luck!

  2. Fantastic, LMB210! It’s gratifying to hear that your grandfather was so successful on this path. As I mentioned to Heath in our other messages, he can’t be the first teacher to attempt this; there must be many others who’ve figured this out. It sounds like your grandfather was wise and warm – exactly what our kids need. Please do circle back and share more if you can. Thanks! 🙂

  3. Message from Traci via Facebook:

    What an awesome opportunity for these kids! They will get to learn not only lesson material, but how to work with someone who has a challenge unknown to them, and how to treat service animals. My number one piece of advice is to open up to the students about you as well as why the dog is there. Teach them the “rules” and let them learn to respect them. They will. Last year a teacher with a service dog started at my school. Rudy was more than a celebrity, she was a part of our school family. She was trained for PTSD and in a school of kids with high trauma scores, she was the perfect addition. It also allowed that teacher to talk about what he struggles with (as he was comfortable of course) and the kids flocked to him. He didn’t have any classroom management problems because kids saw him as real and didn’t want to push his boundaries like other teachers. Good luck and welcome to the family!

  4. Message from Jeh via Facebook:

    I student taught for my license in special education and had a student with autism and epilepsy have a service dog. It was like the dog served as a positive bridge for students AND faculty to understand and respect individuals with significant disabilities.

  5. I teach to VI students (ESOL, MS) and I asked them their advice. I like their idea of building community and trust in the beginning among parents, students, and teacher. Best wishes! Sounds like an exciting opportunity!

    “We thought about it… And here are our ideas:
    He can ask for a co-teacher, whose job is to watch the students. If the visually impaired teacher was speaking, the co-teacher could go to a student and talk to him quietly if they are doing something wrong such is not paying attention in class. Another idea is he can explain his situation to his students. And to their parents… It is going to be up to them if they care or not. Because if they did not care and did not follow the rules, it is going to affect their grades, and it is not going to be the teacher’s fault because he cannot see.
    That’s what we thought of…
    Hope that helps.
    Have a great day!”

  6. Thanks, jdunphy15! I love that you went to the experts – the students, themselves – to seek solutions. I’m thinking Heath should launch a similar conversation with his own classes, too. Great ideas! 🙂

  7. Tenaly Bleak says:

    Hello! I just read this email…and thought to myself…Golly..I bet my friend would love to meet/contact another visually impaired teacher. I teach with an amazing teacher. He teaches high school science and math. He is so smart and has great ways to compensate for his lack of sight. He is amazing. He is so brave!!! His name is Landon S. I know he would love to talk with your friend and to share his journey. Thanks for sharing all your ideas and tips! I LOVE them! Tenaly Bleak

    On Sat, Jun 16, 2018, 7:08 AM Laura Randazzo – Solutions for the Secondary Classroom wrote:

    > Laura Randazzo posted: “Today’s post comes from an email I received this > week from Heath in Maine: Thank you so much for your awesome website and > YouTube videos! After working as a mental health counselor for the past 20 > years, I’ve decided it’s time for a career change. I go” >

  8. Fantastic, Tenaly! Definitely send this article link to Landon and, if he’s interested in helping, have him reach out to me via the “Contact Me” link. Then, I can share his contact info with Heath via email. I’d love to be the bridge to link these two.

  9. Traci Grogin says:

    My daughter’s social studies teacher in middle school was visually impaired. At first, she was disappointed in the “plain” undecorated classroom. As the year went on, she really appreciated the stimulus break his room provided as her other classrooms became visually overwhelming.
    One thing Mr. H did that was successful was building community and teaching his procedures from day one. He was up-front with students about his needs and how he would meet their needs. He introduced his guide dog and shared rules regarding her. He also told his students that they would not be changing seats during the year. Middle schoolers expect a lot of their drama to be addressed by the teacher doing a seating change. In the kindest possible way, he told them to sit on their drama because it was not going to be dealt with in his room. It was fantastic to hear that ego-centric 7th graders would set all that aside when they entered Mr. H’s room. 🙂
    Finally, he taught them that during instruction or discussion, if they had a comment or question to call out “Comment, Melissa” or “Question, Evan” to let him know what they wanted to say and who they were.
    My daughter loved his class and enjoyed not only the course content and his instruction, but also the atmosphere Mr. H created in his room.

  10. Wow, Traci! I love the way Mr. H. handled things and built that supportive atmosphere. Even your small tip about how to handle questions/comments in class is so useful. I never would’ve thought of that simple but effective move. Thanks for helping Heath – and all of us – find these solutions. Keep ’em coming, everyone! 🙂

  11. Kendall Childs says:

    Hi . . . I did work with a teacher who was completely blind. She had a teaching assistant and the district provided her with teaching materials in Braille. She was knowledgeable about her subject area, English, and she did not put up with foolishness in her classes. I have taught both middle school and high school English and each level has its challenges. I have also taught at our district’s alternative high school which I loved. Find a way to connect with the students, but you do not need to be their friend, and you will have a wonderful experience. I have never been bored. Welcome to the club.

  12. Great advice, Kendall. It really is all about connecting with students and – it’s true – there’s never a boring day. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  13. Hi everyone. I’m sorry to take so long to check out the blog. I was out of commission following an accident and this is the first chance I’ve had to check it out. Anyway, I thank you all so much for your comments, advice and stories. You all have great ideas and I’m more encouraged than ever that I’ve made the right decision to become a teacher. You guys rock!

    With much thanks and appreciation,


  14. Our pleasure, Heath! So glad these stories and words of encouragement are here for you. Good luck with your assignment and let us know how the semester goes. We’re rooting for you! 🙂

  15. Hello Laura,
    I just ran across your channel on YouTube and I love it! I am in my student teaching semester at the moment! I am loving my first placement; however, my second placement is in the inner-city. I don’t feel comfortable driving down there. That placement starts mid-March. Would it be unprofessional if I ask to switch and stay at the district I’m in now? I can see myself teaching in this district after I graduate. I’ll never teach in the inner-city due to my anxiety with driving there.

  16. So glad you found my blog, Allie! Your question actually raises more questions than answers from me, I’m afraid. I’m no therapist, but I’m thinking you may want to ask yourself what it is that’s specifically causing your anxiety. Is it the traffic? The loss of time to commuting? Lack of experience with the community that feeds into that assigned school?

    As a general rule, I don’t let fear rule my decision-making. I feel the fear, but then do the scary thing anyway. And who knows? You might love that new school…or you might hate it. Either way, you’ll have a valuable experience, one that I’m guessing your university has specifically designed to help guide your journey. Maybe it’s time to chat with your program advisor? I’m sure you’re not the first person to fall in love with their first placement. Hope this helps! Be brave. You’ll find your path. 🙂

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