Changing the world one teacher at a time
For 95 years, Perkins has been teaching international educators how to improve blindness education in their home countries
By Brian Messenger
Susana Crespo’s letter has seen better days.
It is wrinkled, folded at the corners and taped together on one side. But despite these marks of six decades gone by, her message remains unblemished.
On June 14, 1954, Crespo wrote to Dr. Edward Waterhouse, director of Perkins School for the Blind. The young Argentinian teacher had ambitious plans for the Institute for the Blind in Cordoba, where she worked. But first, she needed the kind of training opportunity that only Perkins could provide.
“I would like to do something to improve my poor and young institute, and that is why I am very interested in knowing everything about the blind and their education,” she wrote.
Crespo was accepted into Perkins’ Teacher Training Program and went on to graduate in 1956. Her time at Perkins helped launch an influential career that spanned half a century and touched the lives of countless children with disabilities across Latin America. Crespo, who died in 2000, is part of a proud lineage dating back 95 years.
Perkins began training teachers of the blind in 1920 in partnership with Harvard University. The first international teacher trainees – from Japan and the Netherlands – arrived on Perkins’ campus one year later.
Today, the Teacher Training Program is known around the world as the Educational Leadership Program (ELP).
Every September, educators from developing nations come to Perkins School for the Blind for expert instruction, hands-on teaching experience and leadership training. Every May, they return to their home countries eager to make a difference in the lives of children with blindness, visual impairment, multiple disabilities and deafblindness.
“We’ve trained so many educators over the years who went on to have a huge impact,” said Cafer Barkus, former ELP coordinator and a 1972 graduate of the Teacher Training Program. “We owe a great deal to the leadership and staff at Perkins from nearly a century ago, who had the insight to start something so special.”
Origins of the ELP
The collaboration between Perkins and Harvard was the first of its kind.
Founded in 1920, the “Harvard Course,” as it soon came to be known at Perkins, was the only formal training program in the United States for teachers of the blind. The brainchild of Perkins’ third director, Edward E. Allen, the program combined rigorous study at Harvard with experiential learning inside Perkins’ classrooms.
Student life in those days was vastly different than today. Daily chapel service was a staple. Students wrote braille by punching raised dots in paper with a slate and stylus. Classes were segregated by gender, including carpentry and small engine repair for boys and nursing and sewing for girls. Teacher trainees lived on campus, working closely with students and staff.
The Teacher Training Program’s reach grew as the decades passed, with trainees flocking to Perkins from all over the country – and all over the world.
The 1930s saw graduates from Chile, Egypt, India and Turkey. The following decade, the first teacher trainee arrived from China. In the 1950s, Perkins’ campus again echoed with the sound of new languages and accents, welcoming educators from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
Trainees like Crespo found the program transformational. Just months after her graduation in the spring of 1956, Crespo sent another letter to Perkins’ director.
“The experiences I have had at Perkins will never be forgotten and my future work in Argentina will be always influenced by what I learned there,” she wrote.
Jan Van Dijk of the Netherlands, a 1964 teacher trainee, said his time at Perkins sparked immense personal and professional growth. He went on to become a leader in the field of deafblind education and has enjoyed a 50-plus-year career that continues today.
“I arrived at Perkins as a country boy and returned home as a man of the world,” said Van Dijk. “And the impact on my career was great. At home I was now considered the expert. It gave me motivation to meet such great expectations.”
Several major changes in the latter half of the 20th century would reshape the Teacher Training Program into its modern incarnation.
In 1953, Perkins transferred the program from Harvard to Boston University, and in 1966 to Boston College. That partnership continues today.
Then, in 1989, the program shifted its focus solely to international teacher training with an influx of financial support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. With this came the name change to the Educational Leadership Program. The first all-international ELP class received their diplomas in the spring of 1990.
Since that time, more than 250 educators from 70 countries have graduated from the ELP. Together with the estimated 1,300 teacher trainees that came before them, this network of professionals has helped children with visual impairment around the world. Using the skills they acquired at Perkins, they returned home to launch innovative new schools, advocate for laws that guaranteed equal educational opportunities for all children, serve in influential government positions and change outdated cultural stereotypes about people with disabilities.
Many participants also forged strong bonds that endure today.
Susan Summersby still keeps in touch with members of the Teacher Training Program Class of 1983. The New Jersey native has travelled on summer break to Norway and Germany to reconnect with fellow classmates and share experiences. As a young American graduate student, Summersby said the chance to learn alongside colleagues from across the globe was invaluable and eye-opening.
Today, as the transition coordinator at Perkins’ Deafblind Program, Summersby watches with pride each year as new ELP participants get their bearings and gain confidence.
“I feel a sense of community with them,” she said. “It wasn’t called the ELP when I was younger, but we all went through the program and we all share a common bond.”
Daring to Dream
It’s become a tradition. Each autumn, ELP Coordinator Marianne Riggio calls the new class into a conference room and writes two words on the board: DREAM BIG.
Their eyes light up.
“We want our ELPs to dream big – to really think beyond the resources they currently have at home,” said Riggio. “This can be hard to do, especially for people living in a developing country. But once they get a hold of the idea they really do get excited. It’s empowering.”
These days, ELP participants aren’t just teachers of the blind. It’s not uncommon to have university professors, physical therapists and child psychologists come to Perkins to learn.
The program also now has a greater emphasis on leadership development. In addition to coursework and hands-on learning, ELPs practice grant writing, attend industry conferences and visit international humanitarian agencies.
“A big piece of the ELP is confidence building,” said Riggio. “We really want to form strong, interdisciplinary teams of people working around the world.”
At Perkins, many ELP participants are exposed to a full range of special education programs for the first time – from early intervention and preschool to services for adults.
Riggio said this experience helps raise expectations for what is possible back home. This “big picture thinking,” as Riggio calls it, often serves as a mental spark. Slowly but surely, they begin thinking and acting like leaders.
“I think participants come to Perkins with the talent,” said Riggio. “But the ELP gives them that added confidence to go out and change the world.”
After graduation, the newest members of this educational fraternity return to their home countries armed with an ELP diploma, expert training – and big dreams.
But their relationship with Perkins doesn’t end there. By fostering a tight-knit global network of experts, Perkins ensures that graduates become valuable partners in its mission to ensure every child receives a quality education and, with it, an opportunity for a better life.
For recent ELP graduates like Suha Al-Musa of Saudi Arabia, Class of 2014, being a part of this community only bolsters her belief that she can make a major difference. “I’m not alone – I have Perkins on my side,” said Al-Musa. “Now I am confident that I can help children with disabilities reach for the sky.”