Sandy Springs resident Tracy Fitch hopes a recent honor will bring more attention to teachers who educate blind students.
Fitch was named the 2021 Teacher of the Year for Excellence in Braille Instruction.
The Braille Institute said they picked Fitch for her 15-year career working with students who are visually impaired. They also honored her for leadership outside the classroom and ingenuity in integrating assistive technology in her work.
Fitch, a teacher with Marietta City Schools, has served as a Centers for the Visually Impaired mentor for the state of Georgia. She is also a board member for the Georgia Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of Blind and Visually Impaired, and she has helped with a host of state programs such as the Georgia Regional Braille Challenge.
Two of her students in Marietta City Schools made the Braille Challenge Finals in 2020.
Her other accomplishments include publishing a children’s novel that focused on the story of a student who is blind.
Teachers of the blind often are itinerant teachers, meaning they go from school to school, Fitch said. Georgia has a school for the blind in Macon, but most students get taught within their home school districts, she said.
“We work with students with mild visual impairments, all the way to total blindness. There’s … a very large spectrum of kids that are mildly visually impaired, where they just have a little bit of a visual impairment where even after glasses, they still can’t see well, but they read print,” Fitch said.
Some can read regular print with magnification, while others need large print. Still others have severe vision loss, needing Braille to read.
In addition to levels of vision, students may have different levels of intellectual functioning also.
“We serve students that are in regular academic classrooms that are either top grade level or above grade level learners. But we also serve students that we often call complex needs, because often they have more than just one disability going on,” she said.
Any visually impaired child is taught what they need to access the curriculum in all classrooms. That might be teaching them to use a magnifier or iPad to enlarge things.
“We also teach them how to read and write in Braille. We also teach them the technology that they can use to access Braille,” she said.
They are taught how to use technology like her fifth-grade student who competed at the Braille Challenge. He uses a Braille Note, which she said is like an Android tablet but with a Braille keyboard and refreshable Braille on it. Little “pins” pop up to form Braille characters, one line at a time.
“He’s able to read Braille electronically and do everything that he could do on a computer on this Braille device, basically, and read and write all of his assignments,” Fitch said.
The teachers of the visually impaired are responsible for the Expanded Core Curriculum that covers nine different areas. Those include compensatory skills needed to learn academic subjects. Braille and other reading tools are part of that teaching. They also help with social skills, independent living skills, recreational leisure and all the areas that make sure the students can be independent and successful when they get out of school, she said.
The long-term goal is to prepare the students and give them all the academic, social and independent living skills necessary to graduate from high school and compete with other students for college education and jobs.
“They can pretty much do anything except for they can’t be in the military. They can’t fly a plane or drive a truck. They may be able to drive cars when they ever get self-driving cars on the road. But there’s only a handful of things that kids who are visually impaired can’t do,” Fitch said.