by Gudrun Brunot
I have worked in various capacities for roughly 45 years. In Sweden, where I was born, the educational system is somewhat different, but I became certified to teach English and French in 1975 and was hired to substitute for Mr. Thorstensson, who was being hospitalized for heart problems and needed time off. Was I scared to death? Goes without saying. The problem was that so were other people, including Mr. Thorstensson, who reportedly experienced increased heart rates when he heard that a blind person would be subbing for him. How’s that for extra baggage — I caused the man heart palpitations in the hospital by my mere presence in his classroom. Apart from that, my baggage was light enough, for I had no braille copies of the textbooks, of course. So, slate, stylus, and a small notebook, in which I wrote down all the names, and a bigger one with that day’s assignments. Days before I was to start, I had a reader record the first sections (texts and exercises), so I’d be able to give the students tasks to do.
It’s easy enough to envision the problems you’ll encounter as a blind teacher, but the resources, that’s harder to predict — you’ll just have to hope there will be some. There were: first of all, the students, willing to step up to the blackboard and write words and phrases down for me, and, before I became familiar with the layout of the school, gallantly escorted me back to the teachers’ lounge after class — especially the boys.
Secondly, the staff — the secretary who dictated assignments onto tape, so I could hammer them out in braille the evening before class; the janitor, who made copies of assignments I’d typed out, and at times corrected my typos. I used the Optacon to read through what I’d typed, so I could find the errors and instruct him: “Bertil, would you please change that ‘W’ to an ‘E’ in sentence 8, first word…”
Third, Mr. Robertsson, friend of the man with the racing heart, who also recorded assignments for me and oriented me to the locations of the classrooms I was to work in.
Just as each individual student has a personality with assets and quirks, so do classes. Each class had its own identity: the good-natured but rowdy technicians with ants in their pants who needed to be immediately engaged in written exercises unless I wanted chaos in the room; the studious natural scientists who would not hesitate to take advantage of the fact that I could not visually supervise them during a test; then, the smart, humorous, and lovable one. I could go on, but you get the picture.
How did I deal with cheating? For the tests, once I discovered there was a problem, I brought it up with the headmaster, and we decided that another teacher would be present during the test, and I informed the students about that and why. No big scenes. Then, there was Kenneth, to whom I owe eternal thanks. I was checking on their vocabulary knowledge of a certain assignment and asked Kenneth: So, what is the Swedish for “bowler?” He answered “Hard,” which was the first part of the multi-word definition. I asked Kenneth again — same question, same answer. “Kenneth,” I said, “if you’re going to read from the book, please read the entire definition.” The group gasped, but this established me, in their eyes, as someone you couldn’t fool. I don’t know that I deserved that reputation, but it was there, and it served me. Thanks, Kenneth.
One lesson I learned the hard way: When you write down all the students’ names, make sure you go over them with some frequency, so you don’t accidentally leave one student out of it. One afternoon, Mats walked up to me and, with some embarrassment, asked to talk to me. “I haven’t been given a single question the entire time so far.” He was clearly troubled by having to tell me that. I immediately thanked him profusely and apologized most sincerely and addressed questions to him from then on. Things like that should never happen, and I’ve become obsessive about that issue forever after.
At the end of the term, I finally met Mr. Thorstensson, recovered by then, heart rate under control despite my presence. He attended one of my lessons, so he could be reassured that no student had collapsed and no classroom had exploded because of me. I outlined the grades I was going to give each student, and he felt they tallied well with what he expected them to be.