Today, I’m so happy to welcome Beth to the blog to chat about her career as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired [TVI]. She had a prolific, 33-year career, but what I’m very excited and grateful for is that Beth wasn’t just a TVI… she was my TVI!
I began school in grade two after being diagnosed with cancer and becoming totally blind, and from grade two to grade twelve, Beth was my constant advocate, teacher, and champion. I’m excited to share her perspective today.
Rhianna: Before we chat about your work as a TVI, tell me a bit about you. What are your hobbies? How do you fill your time now that you’re retired?
Beth: I love reading, hiking, traveling, knitting, swimming, listening to live music and exploring birds and photography. I belong to a photography club and to MARS (a rehab centre for birds and animals) and the Rocky Point Bird Observatory. I have been taking zoom classes on birds and wild animals. I also do some artwork, including taking classes with Chinese artist, Richard Wong. I belong to the local Retired Teacher’s Association and meet with them once a month. My family is very important to me and I keep in close touch with my son and his girlfriend in Ottawa and my brothers and sisters and their growing families as well as my deceased partner’s daughter and son and their families. So I’m pretty busy and enjoying retirement!
Rhianna: Why did you decide to go into teaching, and in particular, teaching students with visual impairments?
Beth: When I first started university, I wanted to help people, especially children, so I got my degree in psychology with some education courses. I started out working as a Social Worker in Lillooet and Lytton. I took extra courses in counselling and I think I was good with people, but I felt there wasn’t a lot I could do because of government policy. It was quite sad and stressful at times dealing with abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and poverty. I liked going into the schools so I decided to try elementary school teaching and went back to university. I was hoping to be a counsellor in elementary school because again, I wanted to help individual kids rather than deal with a whole classroom, but the job I got was teaching kindergarten through grade three for emotionally disturbed children which also included family counselling for the Ministry of Health in Burnaby. That was even more stressful, so I looked at the special education programs at UBC [The University of British Columbia] and I felt a connection with the Vision Teacher program. My aunt’s uncle, Charles Crane, was deafblind, and had donated all his braille and audio books to UBC to set up a library for blind students. Also, one of my early babysitting jobs had been with a baby boy who was blind and an amputee and a great little guy. I loved the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. Anyway I talked to the instructor and she encouraged me to take the training and the rest is history!
I’ve worked in about a dozen communities in BC–Terrace, New Westminster, Prince George and Campbell River, and travelling to nearby small towns, as well as Los Angeles. I’ve never regretted that decision!
Rhianna: What was your favourite part of the job, and what aspects were more challenging?
Beth: My favourite part of the job was getting to follow individual students through the years. I loved getting to know them and have a small part in making their education and development go well. I wanted to try to make sure they had the best chance for success and happiness, and that they developed their full potential. I tried to help make sure they didn’t miss out because of their visual impairment. I also loved getting to know their families and developing a relationship with them. I also loved it when teachers and other school staff felt that they had good support from me and that included the educational assistants and braillists.
The most challenging part was that I was pretty much on my own to figure out how to solve problems that came up, mostly from technology. I liked that though. Sometimes, I just needed to get the answers from SET-BC or from PRCVI [Provincial Resource Centre for the Visually Impaired] from technology staff at the school or district, from an internet search or from other specialists or the companies who sold the technology. And sometimes, I was happy that I figured things out myself. Another challenging aspect was that my bosses kept adding to my job because they figured that I had too few students, as they compared me to a teacher in a regular classroom or a psychologist who just tested students and then moved on to others. I had to travel a lot and in the last year, I was working only 3 days a week for two school districts, so I spent a lot of my own time doing the job. I don’t think there were many people who understood what I did until they had one of my students and gained a bit of an understanding and appreciation.
Rhianna: Why is teaching young students to read Braille important to set them up for success?
Beth: I always felt that it was so important that blind children who couldn’t read print learn to read and write in braille. Listening and speaking are important tools for understanding language but they can not completely replace the written (brailled) word. Spelling and grammar can not be learned auditorily. They can be enhanced but there is no replacement for physical contact with language. Personally, I can’t remember a new word until I see it in print a few times. The latest example for me is the word “cassoulet,” a delicious meal I had to look up in print before I could remember it!
Rhianna: But it’s not all about braille. Can you give us a snapshot of a day in the life of a TVI? Lots of the work is behind the scenes–what did you do?
Beth: There was a lot to learn in Braille to be able to keep a step ahead of my students. This involved learning how to teach Braille and coming up with my own ideas to make it fun, help with any problem areas and Learning formulas in Math, Science and Music as they came up. Later, I learned the changes to the Braille Code with Unified English Braille [UEB]. I learned the technology for producing and reading braille which involved not only producing it myself and helping the Braillist with their production but also learning the devices my students used and keeping up to date with new things. There was a lot of problem solving with the technology, either by myself or finding the right people to help.
But like you said, that was only part of the job. I spent a lot of time meeting with teachers, parents and/or other staff, individually and in teams, answering emails and phone calls. There was a lot of paperwork,–I wrote up assessments and educational plans for every student, interpreted eye reports from eye doctors, wrote up daily school visits, applied for fuel assistance and attended conferences. There was a lot of driving!
I had various roles in the BC Vision Teachers’ Association including being president for quite a few years and I was the Vision Teacher Rep on the PRCVI Advisory Committee for a long time. These all included more report writing! I was involved in organizing four provincial conferences for those in this field of teaching which involved lots of planning, writing funding applications, recruiting speakers and helpers etc. I was also the Set BC Coordinator in Campbell River for many years. I enjoyed doing extracurricular activities such as planning and attending social and recreational activities for my students–Christmas crafts, sports days, Orientation & Mobility with the instructors, going skiing and doing blind hockey and more. I signed on to work at CNIB summer camps and I took students to the National Braille Challenge and Space Camp for the Visually Impaired which were lots of fun. I took low vision students to eye exams and clinics and learned and provided them with technology and devices. I spent a lot of time getting and returning items to PRCVI, applying for special projects and for purchases.
Rhianna: What advice would you give to fellow or up-and-coming TVI’s?
Beth: The main thing is to enjoy the students and laugh with them! Look for their strengths and weaknesses and provide stimulating activities with positive reinforcement for both. Look for their interests but also try to expose them to lots of different things in and out of school. Visit lots so you can provide suggestions and/or advice and support as things come up. Do everything you can to support the Braillists and classroom teachers because they spend the most time with the students, even if that means putting your job on hold while you do the Braillist’s job so they can take a day off, helping in a class so they can produce braille, or going on field trips with a student’s class!
Rhianna: You were my TVI for 10 years. What is a special memory from our time together?
Beth: I have lots of great memories of time with you, Rhianna! You were so much fun to teach braille to. You had a great sense of humour and even laughed at my jokes! You were very athletic and I enjoyed taking you to ski with the Disabled Ski program – I made my colleagues jealous when I could sign in with “Gone Skiing!” instead of listing all the schools for the day. I remember the O and M trips around town, including going for ice crean cones. And I chuckle when I remember assisting you to play tag and you got angry with me whenever you got tagged! But then I helped you tag someone else. All the recreational activities were so much fun, including camps, crafts, a couple of trips to Vancouver for the symphony, workshops, art classes, etc. I remember Ripley, the guide dog in training I organised to visit you in elementary school; He looked so proud walking with you in the halls! And when you graduated from high school I felt so proud of you and I will never forget the lovely dinner, flowers and gift your wonderful family surprised me with!
Rhianna: Thank you for sharing! It’s been wonderful getting to hear about everything that went into being a TVI, and in particular, all the ways that I never knew you were advocating for me and setting me up for life after high school. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I do now, so thank you, thank you, thank you! Those memories bring back lots of fond ones for me as well. Thanks for doing everything you did for all those years, for me and your other students. The impact is tangible and so invaluable to helping me become who I am now.
I’m grateful to Beth for sharing her perspective and wisdom as a TVI with us. I hope you found it enlightening and encouraging. And I’m so grateful to her for being by my side all those years and pushing me to become the best person I could be [even though that “push” was uncomfortable at times!. Thanks, Beth!
Did you learn something new from Beth? Let us know in the comments!
What a gem of a teacher, advocate and friend!!! I can’t even imagine such an energetic, skilled, inovative teacher. This was a fabulous interview. I can hear you laughing, playing tag as a kid. Between her skill and your determination to learn, you have become a gift to the world yourself.
Yes, she is! I didn’t realize it back then [which I regret], but now that we can talk openly about our perspectives and I have the ability to put myself in her position, I know I wouldn’t be who I am without everything she did for me. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview!