A Small Change of Direction

Ok, so it turns out I’m the world’s least dedicated blogger. 17 months have somehow passed since my last post and I’m ashamed to admit that my once so potent desire to provide a helpful incite into life as a blind teacher has sadly not come to pass. The combination of a heavy work load, a deep dislike for airing one’s life laundry in public and an enduring case of laziness has resulted in this blog coyly taking its place on the long list entitled “projects I never got round to finishing.” Sad really, not least because aside from educating me in the ways of education, the PGCE year opened my eyes to the pervasive stereotyping and downright discriminatory attitudes that exist, not just towards visually impaired people but with regards to disability in general.
I can’t begin to summarise a whole year’s worth of experiences, or indeed reduce an apparent epidemic of stereotyping into a few lines. However I will say that teaching itself I found to be creatively fulfilling and masses of fun. The children I encountered were wonderful without exception and on the whole the course itself whilst at times hard work and challenging, was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life so far. However, it is honestly no exaggeration to say that by far the greatest challenge and certainly what I expended most of my energy upon was negotiating the corrosively negative opinions a large number of people demonstrated towards my status as a blind teacher. The explicit prejudices of a few, combined with the so called harmless stereotyping of many lead me to concede that a devastating amount of people have a tendency to focus upon what people with disabilities can’t do rather than the many things they can.
Now might I just state, I am no way insinuating that these attitudes only exist within education institutions, this is something I have encountered throughout my life in many different settings and with a great diversity of people. However, I believe that the seemingly “different” nature of a teacher being blind meant that during my PGCE year, I encountered more than the usual helping of raised eyebrows and unsavoury comments. On the whole, I was treated by members of the public and some professionals with a certain air of caution, as though at any moment the classroom could be trashed, a child could fail to flourish or perhaps just accidentally fall out of a window, all on account of me not being able to see. Of course there were many wonderful, supportive and nonjudgemental people too, however I spent the best part of the year wading through demoralising attitudes and trying to address assumptions which seemed to be ingrained in so many.
Being told I would struggle to get a job no matter how good a teacher I was as employers wouldn’t want to “take the risk”; being told how i was lucky no child had come to harm in class under my supervision; when conducting a successful lesson, being told “I assume your assistant planned that; being informed there are some jobs “some people just shouldn’t do” … I honestly could go on but I struggle to succinctly account for the comments and in some cases, actual dirty looks that were sent my way. All of this may have been slightly more tolerable had I struggled with the course, or found teaching to be difficult. However, all of this negativity stood out as being even more outrageous as I was actually pretty good and consistently assessed to be of a high standard. I really do wish I’d committed to this blog as my time on the PGCe enlightened me as to how much work there is to be done in order to challenge these ways of thinking not just in relation to teaching but in general.
So why am I bothering to revisit this now?
The familiar feelings of exasperation and anger I experienced during the PGCE year have recently been re-awoken, however this time with a new intensity. This is due to the arrival in my life of a mysterious, beautiful and completely enchanting tiny person, a person it is my job to look after forever.
Since announcing my pregnancy and subsequently becoming a parent, I have faced a new onslaught of people keen to announce their concern or general distaste towards my family planning decisions. A taxi driver when seeing my bump asked me if I thought it was “wise” to become a parent. My partner has been informed that he will have to be a very “hands-on dad” as I won’t be able to do my share of the child-rearing duties and even some friends have anxiously wondered aloud how on earth I’ll cope. All in all, it has once again been brought to my attention what an appallingly shoddy view many have of blind people. This is not ok!
My frustration and general despair at this reoccurring situation has evoked in me a sense of evangelical duty. I feel the urge to take to the streets, banner aloft and shout in the most raucous voice I can muster “blind people can be responsible, capable, fully functioning human beings too!” Alas, my poster paints were expended during my PGCE year and shouting is bad for the vocal chords, so once again I turn to this blog to assist me in spreading the message. However, in addition to detailing the experiences of a blind teacher, I wish to also provide some incite into life as a blind parent. I guess its not really to dissimilar, I have after all signed up to perhaps the most challenging teaching role of all. One thing will be different though . this time I promise I’ll be better at posting.

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A journey to School

It is Monday. It is cold. I am running late. I haven’t had time for any breakfast. I am, in short, in a right mood.

Now although these opening statements may give the impression that our tail is doomed, there is one saving grace to this story. Being blind means that I have kindly been granted a taxi which takes me to and from school. This is funded by the disabled students allowance (DSA) provided by Student Finance England. (A brief note, I believe our oh so benevolent current government are doing away with this allowance at the end of this year. If you are reading this post after 2016, funding is still available however I believe that universities themselves will now be asked to foot the bill, contact the disability adviser at your university to ask about this). Anyway, access to this makes my life so so so much easier as I don’t have to spend months prior to placement navigating public transport and learning a potentially complicated root. I simply call the contracted taxi company, quote my account number and await for my chariot to arrive. Brilliant!

This particular Monday, my chariot arrives in the form of a green Skoda. I hear it pull up, move forward towards the engine sound and await the driver’s greeting.

“Ya can’t take that f**king dog in here!”

I would like to say that this is the first time I’ve been received in this manner. however, unfortunately this is a fairly common replacement for the more traditional  “hello” which one may have come to expect by way of a greeting. Indeed, this has happened so often that I am now prepared. . I explain to the driver that it is illegal to refuse a guide dog unless he is in possession of a certificate of exemption due to a severe allergy or similar medical condition. After a good few minutes of arguing on the pavement and a phone-call to the taxi office, he most graciously, with use of minimal expletives, finally agrees that Maggie and I can get inside the car.

i get comfortable and settle myself for the 20 minute drive ahead. I am confident that the interchange on the pavement will have secured me a journey passed in surly silence. I am wrong!

“You must be devastated!”

I spend a few moments trying to make sense of this statement. “I’m sorry? Devastated about what?” I ask.

“About being blind!”

Again, I wish I could say this is the first time it has been assumed that I spend my life wading threw the inevitable sea of tears which acts as some sort of permanent moat around me. Unfortunately not. I explain to the driver that I spend most of the time feeling positively elated at what a wonderfully great life I have. He doesn’t believe me.

“Nah! You’ve got to be devastated! Do you live at home?”

Again, I don’t quite understand this. “I live in my home.” I offer.

“Nah, nah, with ya ma and da.” He clarifies and Again, having become used to this question I explain that I’ve not lived with my parents for some time now. Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide the answer he is after.

“How?” He asks incredulously.

Toying with the idea of going into the ins and outs of student accommodation allocation, the packing of bags and the signing of housing contracts ten years ago, I settle for saying “I moved out.” He is not satisfied.

“Have you got a nurse then” he enquires.

Now I do not wish for this blog post to take up to much of your time, so with this in mind I will provide a summery of the chat that follows. I explain to the driver that I am not in need of constant medical attention: yes I have a boyfriend and no he isn’t blind: Yes, I would be able to tell if he charged me substantially more than the metre reads: yes, I do get out and about, in fact I’m traveling to placement now: it is a PGCE placement.

“What?!” The driver nearly crashes the car. “You’re going to be a teacher?! How bloody dangerous!”

Now you must understand that, unlike the previous interactions I’ve described above, I am not yet used to this particular assumption. I must admit that many people have expressed confusion at the prospect of me becoming a teacher, however my newness to the profession means that I am still shocked by it. Indeed, this particular taxi driver is not the first person to express alarm at my career choice. I have spent a great deal of time over the past seven months justifying myself and reassuring members of the public that their children, as well as their friends / neighbours children, are not going to be put at risk due to me becoming a teacher. Indeed, some course colleagues and teachers themselves have, with varying degrees of well-meaning curiosity, asked me to explain how on earth I am going to effectively and safely educate children.

Now, I do not want this post to suggest that I have faced nothing but negativity with reference to my career choice as this is completely inaccurate. I am constantly grateful for the overwhelming support and warmth which has been demonstrated by most people. However, I feel that if this blog is to give an accurate account of the barriers blind trainees may face, it would be negligent of me to fail to acknowledge that some people possess an inability to imagine a teacher to be anything other than sighted. And why is this? My instinct says that the sheer lack of blind educators has created a public perception that a teacher needs to be able to see. There are certain jobs which traditionally have always been considered to be occupations suited to the visually impaired and if, on the Monday morning described above, I had told the taxi driver that I was a piano-tuner or telephonist, I doubt that would have prompted much of a response.

So, if you have stumbled across this blog and you, like many others are unsure as to how a blind teacher may be able to successfully operate, I invite you to read on. I understand that visually impaired educators are pretty thin on the ground and I hope the posts that follow will provide some insight as to how it all works.

A Second Attempt

In an unintentionally pertinent way, this Easter weekend has come to symbolise more than just one resurrection. Whether it be down to a recent listening to the Stone Roses most seminal track, or a motivational conversation with Jo, I have decided to take to the laptop keys once again and give this blog thing another go.

So, a brief update –

I am still a PGCE student, still blind and still highly disorganised. I have spent the past seven months attempting to spread knowledge, joy and a great deal of dog hair around the classrooms of the north east. My spare room is submerged under an array of children’s books, crayons, cardboard planets, giant punctuation symbols, masks, pretend pizza slices, puppets, novelty hats and assorted detritus which I am unable to discard for fear it will one day prove to be useful. My fancy-dress collection has increased exponentially and I would now include “laminating” within a list of my hobbies / interests, if ever it was requested of me to compile one. In short, I am having the best time!

However, the reason I have decided to revisit this blog is not to tell you all about the fantastic time I’m having. Indeed,  i have been motivated to begin writing again as I am constantly being told by my family, friends and colleagues that my experiences as a visually impaired prospective teacher may be of benefit to others in my situation. So, (hopefully in a more committed fashion than the last), I intend to give some insight into what it is like to be a blind trainee teacher.

Pre-Pedagogy Panics and Preparations

If I could offer any advice to those who are about to embark upon a PGCE programme, or indeed any programme,, it would be to, in the weeks prior to starting, give yourself plenty of time to get everything in order so that you are just ready to get up and go with minimal stress and maximum rest. This is what I intended to do. Honestly I did, I have evidence, my to do list read as follows …

1 Tidy whole house

2 Hoover all house

3 Clean whole house

4 wash all clothes

5 Iron all clothes

6 Organise all clothes

7 Create a meal plan for the week ahead

8 Buy ingredients for said meal plan

9 Cook a variety of nutritious meals to freeze for packed lunches

10 Make sure all pre course tasks are complete

11 Buy new folders, file dividers and plastic wallets

12 Arrange pre course work in folders

13 Choose an outfit for first day

14 Get hair done

15 Get dog groomed

16 Buy a backpack

17 Buy an array of beauty products to have a relaxing pamper night prior to first day

18 Have a relaxing pamper night.

Now I admit that this list is a little excessive and anybody with a remotely interesting life probably would struggle to find the time to conduct all of the above tasks in the thorough manner which I myself intended. That said, I really would recommend making sure your house is fairly tidy, that you have all the things you need ready the evening before starting and that you give yourself some time to relax the night before. What I would not recommend is the following course of action which I regretfully ended up taking …

1 Realise there are two days before term begins

2 Write a long and unachievable to do list

3 Begin to conduct a laundry operation that keeps you up till 1 AM … (at least next year’s bikini is pressed and ready for some beach action)

4 Set your alarm for 4 AM so that you have enough time the next day to do some house work

5 After an hour of hitting snooze get up in a bad mood and commence bleaching the bathroom

6 When organising your completed pre course tasks into their brand new folders, suddenly realise that you’ve forgotten to complete one of them

7 Realise that completing a timeline of your life requires assistance … call a friend

8 Fuelled on herbal tea, create a pretty damn impressive timeline with Anna

9 Go home and realise that you are to exhausted to pamper yourself or pack your bag for tomorrow … collapse on the bed

10 Wake up an hour later and realise you haven’t printed off a piece of work … call a friend

11 Learn that Jo can’t find her printer cable owing to having moved house recently

12 Set alarm for 4 in the morning to give time for getting ready, making lunch, packing the bag you haven’t bought and getting to the office early enough to print out your work before teaching begins.

It would appear that I had already learned something before even beginning the course. I need to get organised.

A Brief History Lesson

Now before I launch into this post, I feel I should issue a disclaimer.

Firstly, in sharing this information I am not looking for sympathy or in any way trying to make out that I’ve had a rough time of life. I am simply detailing some of my background so that you can gain some context for the posts to come. I am on the whole a very jolly person and although some of this history section may not be that cheery, I promise it’s just a small part of a very happy and fulfilled life.

Secondly, our tale is set in the north of England, so where one may traditionally refer to the female parental figure as mother or mum, I shall be using “mam”, or on occasions of particularly heightened emotion, “me mam.”

At the age of two, me mam and dad noticed that I was having difficulty when moving around the house. After a long spell of hospital visits I was diagnosed with a condition known then as Still’s Disease which is today referred to as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA). Basically I had inflammation in my ankles, knees, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck and jaw which meant it was painful and difficult for me to move in these places. Shortly after this diagnosis, my parents also noticed that I was having difficulty focusing my eyes. Again, after many hospital visits it was ascertained that the arthritis had also caused inflammation in my eyes and as a result I had contracted a condition called Uveitis which was causing me to lose my sight. Despite several attempts to save my vision, laser surgery and the removal of cataracts, by the time I was five years old I was registered blind and had zero percent vision in both eyes.

Now it would be a lie to say that my condition didn’t cause me some problems. Arthritis can be quite painful and when I was young I had to undergo lots of hospital treatment, extensive physiotherapy and several changes in medication in order to try and make me as comfortable and mobile as possible. Being blind quite naturally threw up some challenges too. I wasn’t able to attend my local school as they didn’t have the facilities to support me. I therefore attended mainstream schools in two neighbouring cities. I studied alongside sighted children however these schools had the facilities to support me with my individual needs. I learned braille at a young age, developed independent living skills during mobility lessons, learned to touch type and to use a screen-reader on a computer. In short, school staff, as well as friends and (most notably) family, encouraged and supported me in becoming a capable and fiercely ambitious person.

Fast forward to today and I am an independent and happy 27 year old. I have a wonderful support network, access to lots of assistive technology and the most amazing, beautiful but excessively furry guide dog called Maggie. My arthritis is stable and my eyes cause me little to no pain. Of course my condition means I find some things more of a challenge, or that I have to go about them in a slightly different way to most people, however I have yet to find a situation without a way around it, (except perhaps watching sub-titled films, nightmare! Unless of course one wishes to learn twenty or so different languages just on the off chance of one of them cropping up at the cinema)

So there you have it, my brief history. I must confess that I find it strange to be writing all of this information as, although it clearly impacts my day to day life, you may be surprised as to how little I actually think of myself in these terms. I felt it important however to give some context to the posts to follow and to ensure that anybody reading this blog doesn’t get confused and report me for regularly taking a dog to school.

Everybody! I’m Becoming a Teacher and Doing a Blog!

Despite being a lady who generally prides herself on her mystique, nonchalance and all round subtlety, I can’t help but fear that this post’s title may have somewhat given away my intentions here. In case however my above proclamation has not sufficed in silencing your inquisitiveness, I will delve a little further.

My name is Laura. I am 27 years old. I enjoy singing, watching children’s television, eating birthday cake, wearing brightly coloured clothing, making craft projects of dubious quality, dancing badly, performing plays on the landing and constructing small models of household objects out of Play Dough. I have a talent for mimicking Disney princesses, a strong aptitude for remembering names and I can quickly pick up popular songs on the piano providing their composition does not exceed 4 chords. Several years of working in the social care sector has ignited in me a love of working with young people and this, teamed with my previously mentioned interests, has led me to conclude that teaching is the career for me. … I am set to begin a PGCE in primary education in two weeks time. Hurrah!

Now, with the “becoming a teacher” bit of my post covered, I shall proceed to the “doing a blog” part.

Other than this blog being a way to share experiences, gather thoughts and reflect on my practice during my course, there is one huge factor which played a part in it’s creation. At the risk of doing a “big reveal!” or appearing to lack sensitivity, I feel the best way to tackle this next piece of information is to just say it. I am blind. I won’t go into much detail about this here as I plan to do a specific post on this. Suffice to say that when researching teaching as a career I found it difficult to identify any blind teachers. It was even more tricky to access any support resources designed for visually impaired educationalists. Whilst voicing these frustrations in an exceedingly good pizzeria, Anna, Jo and Lucy, suggested that it might be a good idea for me to start my own support tool by way of this blog. I agreed.

SO, in short, I wish for this blog to examine the experiences, challenges, practicalities and amusements undoubtedly faced by all students studying a PGCE but perhaps with a different slant. I would love it to be useful to other visually impaired prospective teachers. I would also love it if it can begin to address a few stereotypes / misconceptions people may have regarding blindness. Overall though, I don’t wish for this blog to solely be about visual impairment. I hope it to primarily be an honest, informative and holistic account of the life of a PGCE student. Any feedback, comments or questions would be gratefully received.