Letters to Parents: A Classroom Teacher’s Perspective

A teacher pointing to her smart board with a list of behavior expectations.

The Fear of New Beginnings  

The start of a new school can be exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time. For parents of children who are blind or low vision, excitement often gives way to fear, anxiousness, and uncertainty…and understandably so. This past school year, I was blessed to have two students in my class who received low vision accommodations. Let me be honest: in my 30 years of teaching, I had never had a student with ocular albinism. The anxiousness and uncertainty began with me. How could I best serve a child with a need I knew so very little about?  

Opportunities to Grow  

Walking into the school year, I wanted to learn more about ocular albinism and how I could help my students navigate the school environment with success and confidence. My desire went beyond an opportunity to grow my skill set as a teacher; I knew I had an obligation to make valuable connections with these families and their children. After all, parents are the child’s first and most important teacher.  

Building a Support System  

My first task was learning as much as possible with very little lead time. Before beginning the school year, I excitedly read the latest research articles, looking for suggestions on how I could support my students’ education. Albinism is a genetic disorder, and there is currently no cure. One of my parents shared the NOAH Ed U – National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation website as a starting place for learning more about the challenges my students had lived with their whole lives. Families who are facing the realization that their child will navigate the world differently and may never have the same access to activities as a sighted child can leave parents anxious and at a loss for how to advocate for their child. One of the best things a teacher can do is partner with families to learn from them and become a resource for them.  

Partnering with Families  

Partnering with families of students with identified needs must be collaborative, and communication must remain open. Unless a parent happens to be a fellow educator, parents are not generally experts in developing curriculum. However, parents are always the experts in knowing their child’s specific needs and must be free to communicate those needs to their teacher. Only then can the child’s best interests be met. Keeping an open line of communication with parents is essential.  

Technology and Access to Learning  

In my class last year, access to technology and other resources was important in ensuring our students could access their education most effectively. Our simple strategies last year including sharing all read alouds through Google Documents. Additionally, I embedded videos shown to the whole class into assignments via Canvas while having the students with blindness or low vision mirror them onto the classroom TV screen for whole-class viewing. The main priority was to ensure that we did all we could to “level the playing field” for our students by removing any barriers that might make learning inaccessible or difficult. That should ultimately be the aim of every teacher/parent team: to continue to find new and innovative ways for our students to succeed.  

Student Choice – Selecting the Right Tool for the Task  

It is amazing to watch how quickly students excel when they choose what tool is best for the job. This can even be a goal in a child’s Individual Educational Plan (IEP). When students can advocate for themselves, they learn the power of their voice. Vision differences do not mean there has to be a loss of opportunity, learning, or excitement.  

“White Cane Day” – A Day of Learning and Excitement  

One of my most treasured memories of the school year came at the suggestion of one of my parents whose child had ocular albinism. Together, we organized a “White Cane Day” for the school. Students learned about a blind/low vision diagnosis and what that means; they heard from a Paralympic goalball athlete who delivered a powerful message about overcoming obstacles in life (regardless of their nature). He was legally blind and delivered a message of hope and resilience.  

Additionally, each student got to experience the world without using their sense of sight. They were blindfolded and learned to walk with a cane while being led by a sighted classmate, maneuvering through an obstacle course. Our students with blindness or low vision had the opportunity to teach their friends that, except for how they see the world, there is no difference between any of our students.  

Students also had the opportunity to view books written in braille and play with braille Lego. What my sighted students learned that day will hopefully continue to grow within them – respect for their classmates and compassion to advocate for themselves and their friends. The students’ comments about the day made it clear they had begun to understand empathy and how strong and resilient their friends with blindness or low vision are.  

Reaching for the Stars  

Being a teacher is often a lot of work, but it is also a gift. My biggest takeaway from the experience of having these two students in my class came as I grew to know these students as two remarkable young people. Their vision did not correspond to a loss of excitement, a love of learning, or discovery. They nourished friendships. They met challenges with enthusiasm and pride in accomplishment. I had high expectations, and the students understood that their teacher believed in them and their ability to meet every challenge…and they exceeded my expectations.  

Next Steps for Parents  

Partnerships between schools and families are vital for every student, especially for students with individual needs. As your child matriculates through each school year, your expertise will continue to grow, but your child will have a different teacher each year. At the beginning of each year, a teacher will feel anxious and uncertain about how they can best serve your child with a need they know so little about. Just as you had to learn how to navigate your child’s diagnosis, your child’s teacher may not have much experience with your child’s specific needs. Be patient, be proactive, and be positive. Likewise, you can be the advocate your child needs. By working together, you can help ensure your child can conquer challenges with resilience.  

As teachers, we strive to give students our best because they deserve nothing but our best. They really are our future – our very bright and promising future.  

 About Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is a general education teacher at Lafayette Meadows Elementary, Southwest Allen County Schools, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Feel free to direct any questions/comments to [email protected].