Tuesday 25 June 2019

Woman (26) left blind after brain tumour surgery defies the odds to train as teacher

Being left blind at 20 after surgery for a brain tumour did not stop this teacher pursuing her ambition to work in education, writes Katherine Donnelly

Claire Shorten teaching a geography class in St Mary’s Holy Faith, Glasnevin, Dublin. Photo: TONY GAVIN
Claire Shorten teaching a geography class in St Mary’s Holy Faith, Glasnevin, Dublin. Photo: TONY GAVIN
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Excited and assured - some initial tummy butterflies aside - Claire Shorten is like any trainee second-level teacher making the big leap into classrooms this term to gain the practical experience necessary for her professional qualification.

But unlike the rest of the estimated 1,000 students who have just started the two-year, post-graduate Professional Master of Education (PME) (Post Primary), Claire is blind.

The 26-year-old Dubliner is a rare example of a working teacher who is fully blind, and the first fully blind student to undertake the PME in Maynooth University (MU).

It was while she was a first year undergraduate in Maynooth, in 2011, that Claire unexpectedly lost her sight, following surgery to remove a brain tumour.

Understandably, she was very upset at first. She had to re-learn how to do everyday tasks, stopped driving and questioned whether she could ever be a teacher.

But while the surgery, the recovery period and adjustment to life without eyesight interrupted her studies, the can-do attitude Claire brings to her life meant there was no obstacle to her fulfilling her career ambition.

School Principal Bernie Bourke
School Principal Bernie Bourke

Her confidence was restored during a training course with National Council for the Blind Ireland (NCBI) in 2012-13, and she dismissed the notion that she couldn't be a teacher. "I just thought to myself, 'Of course I can if I want to, I'm not going to let anyone tell me I can't'."

She returned to Maynooth in 2014, restarting in first year with a new combination of subjects.

Claire graduated last month with her BA in Geography and History, and went straight into the PME, a combination of work experience and study.

In the past few weeks, she began her placement at the 770-pupil St Mary's Holy Faith school in Glasnevin, Dublin. Her routine is two days a week teaching history and geography there, and three days in Maynooth.

"It's all going absolutely brilliantly," says Claire. "The kids don't take any heed that I am blind, although they are very helpful. The staff are amazing. It is what I have dreamed of. After so long waiting, it is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. I love every minute."

Even teaching such a visual subject as geography presents no issues and she brings with her the benefits of her learning experiences in NCBI, such as the value of touch.

"I have always wanted to be an interactive teacher," she says.

In the classroom, Claire uses presentation tools such as Powerpoint, as necessary, to display images, such as maps or diagrams "and once I know what the picture is, I can explain". As concepts become more complex, she will create 3D models.

School principal Bernie Bourke says the first time she spoke to Claire on the phone, she "just knew" she had the makings of a great teacher. "She is innovative, bubbly, motivational. We are delighted to have her," she says.

The principal taught for years in Rosmini Community School, Drumcondra, Dublin, which is closely associated with the National Education Centre for Blind Children, and from the outset, was "very comfortable" with the idea of having a teacher who is blind.

Beyond Claire's skill in teaching, she already sees the extras her new trainee is bringing to the school. She recalls when Claire entered a classroom and raised her arm to illustrate a gesture: "She said to the pupils 'there is no point doing that, I won't see it'. All the communication is verbal, that is how they connect."

Because of the way Claire has dealt with adversity, the principal sees her great capacity to inspire pupils. "The kids have great respect for her - they see her and admire her. She is living proof that everybody can achieve their goals."

And, that, she says, is the "message we want to get out; It's about having faith in themselves, and hope".

Maynooth University has a strong record in enrolling students from under-represented groups and according to Prof Sharon Todd, head of its Department of Education, they are "quite used to students with different disabilities, but Claire is our first fully blind student".

Claire's return to MU in 2014 prompted discussions between the education department and the college Access Office and, apart from some obvious practical supports, such as particular software or the need to provide class material very early, they were very much guided by Claire as to what she required.

"We decided just to approach Claire and ask her what works," says Prof Todd.

In return, she says, what Claire brought to Maynooth is "a very nice way for us to interrogate the way we do things. We have to be a bit more reflective about how we teach our own students - it's about being inclusive".

Prof Todd hopes the lessons they are learning, and sharing, as teacher educators will spill out into the system as their students take up teaching roles .

As an example, she says "even when we are using visual material, just to to describe what is happening - it is not such a big thing".

While an undergraduate, Claire lived on the university campus, but is now back at home. In anticipation of her placement, she had worked out her two-bus route from Ballinteer on the southside of Dublin to Glasnevin on the northside, and was satisfied that it was "very easy". However, as part of the ongoing college supports, Maynooth provides a taxi in the morning for the cross-city journey, while she travels home on public transport.

Lecturer Angela Rickard, course leader for the first year of the PME programme, says Claire is an ideal candidate for her chosen career. "The minute you meet her, you realise this person is perfectly capable of teaching. She demonstrates the kind of qualities we would look for in a teacher. She thinks about what will work, what her strategy will be for certain students."

Rose Ryan, Director of Access at MU, says "the key to Claire's success is herself - she is passionate about her subject and the characteristics she has will make her a wonderful teacher".

Because it is important children see themselves reflected in their teachers, she believes Claire will be great role model and will effect change.

This year, Maynooth has about 700 students with disabilities, including 23 with visual impairment, 18 with hearing impairment and more than 100 with mental health difficulties. The college is currently involved in a major project called 'Turn to Teaching' to promote diversity in the profession by reaching out to under-represented groups.

Irish Independent

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