Editor’s note: Teacher Appreciation Week is May 8-12, 2023. In recognition, Alexis Read shares about her beloved teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI).
When my family moved to North Dakota in the summer of 1982, I met an educator who profoundly impacted my life and career choices. Phyllis, a young and energetic teacher of students with visual impairments, taught me many life lessons that would make me the woman I am today. Along the way, we formed a deep friendship. I want to pay tribute to her here.
Perhaps it is strange to start with a color, but Phyllis taught me to appreciate red. I still associate red with TVIs! Phyllis had countless little red bags containing all sorts of treasures, including a red and white striped bag that she used when I was in first grade. I recall that one of those treasures was a game about the nine planets: yes, Pluto was still considered a planet in 1987. I don’t remember specifics about that game, but I definitely connected her favorite color with some of my favorite childhood learning experiences.
Another special color-related memory was when Phyllis played a bright orange guitar and sang one song that has stayed with me for many years. The song is called “My Hands on My Head,” a children’s song that whimsically teaches the names of the body parts. Often as I was growing up, I would ask Phyllis to play her guitar and sing this song because she sang it in a special way. Years later, I even tried to learn to play the guitar because of Phyllis. Sadly, this was a short-lived endeavor because I realized my musical talent was nowhere near that of my inspiration, nor would I be able to play that song as well as she could. Still, whenever I encounter an orange guitar, I remember the times Phyllis sang that adorable song.
Then there were the awesome mnemonics that I have never forgotten. Phyllis created these when I was in grade five and struggled with geography. My favorite mnemonic was “Some Mothers Hug Each Other.” This is another way to remember the Great Lakes. Another of her mnemonics was BASMO, for the Canadian provinces from British Columbia to Ontario. Although I couldn’t say where provinces like Newfoundland or Nova Scotia are located, I can still tell you the location of the BASMO provinces.
Lessons and Traditions
Phyllis taught me how to make frosted chocolate chip cookies in middle school. During this lesson, she introduced a recipe I can still taste. The skills she taught during that lesson and others helped me live more independently as an adult, not to mention them being fun and delicious. I appreciated those skill-based lessons and have plenty of others, too, including when Phyllis had her mother teach me to knit.
During our years together, Phyllis and I developed special traditions cloaked as learning experiences, but these are the times I treasure most in our time as teacher and pupil. In our hometown, there was a little pizzeria that served pizza, breadsticks, and soda. Many afternoons would find Phyllis and me there working on skills like ordering from wait staff, operating a soda fountain, and paying for the order. I can still taste the mouthwatering breadsticks from this place and the marinara sauce used for dipping. The most memorable lesson was learning to get my soda from the fountain. Contrasted to soda fountains now, this fountain had easily distinguished buttons that I could push to fill the glass with my selection. I could independently get my soda from this place, which was empowering.
It was not always the days full of smiles that had the biggest influence on me. One day in middle school, I walked into the vision room spewing negative self-talk. Phyllis listened to me for a few minutes and then wrote down all the negative things I said on paper strips. She placed each strip on the left side of the table. Once I had proclaimed all the negative comments, Phyllis began instructing in her gentle but memorable way. She took each negative statement and turned it into a positive comment. At the end of the lesson, my outlook was much improved. After that lesson, I had a much better attitude. I realized that even though life has hard moments, there is always a positive hiding beneath the negative.
When I was almost finished with middle school, Phyllis planned a career awareness lesson that changed the trajectory of my vocational plans. One afternoon, she took me to an elementary school where she worked with two children who had additional disabilities beyond blindness/ low vision. After observing this lesson, I knew I wanted to serve others in the vision field just as she did. I must thank Phyllis for helping me find this direction for my life’s work.
Years later, when I began working with my first student in the summer of 2003, I was tasked with helping improve self-esteem. I was inexperienced in teaching, so I turned to other teachers, including Phyllis, for guidance. Phyllis reminded me of the self-talk exercise I mentioned above. This inspired me to create my own teaching tool. My student’s self-esteem steadily improved after that, and I have Phyllis to thank for all of it.
I want to close by thanking Phyllis for the many special memories and lessons she has taught me. I genuinely appreciate all the hard work teachers do to help their students become successful adults. Phyllis was and is one of the best, and for that, I will never forget her impact.