At Perkins School for the Blind, teaching assistants are the ubiquitous backbone of the day and residential programs. Sydney Hopen is one of about 120 across campus, working with students one on one to provide direct care and develop independent living skills. In this “What I do” blog, she explains how her unique experiences at Perkins have inspired a passion for special education. This story was compiled and edited by Karen Shih.
Coming to Perkins helped me remember that teaching is not done sitting down – it happens in motion. I’ve been at Perkins for almost a year and a half. I just transferred to the Deafblind Program so I feel fortunate to have two experiences.
I first worked with around 12-18 Secondary Program students in Keller-Sullivan Cottage. My hours were from 2:30 to 11 p.m. When I arrived, I would read the log and hear from the staff what had happened throughout the day. Between 3 and 4 p.m. students would come back from class and start their evening schedule, which they pre-design at the beginning of the school year.
They cook once or twice a week. One of my students had this amazing palette. She would make a frozen mac and cheese but put in all these spices. With another one of my students, it could take an hour or two to navigate the kitchen. I was there to help read directions and guide them as they learned to use the appliances.
Then they’d do other chores, like setting the table or doing laundry. If it was shopping night, we’d go out to the local grocery store, working on budgeting and comparing prices and calories. That was the best – there are so many teachable moments. We try to do the most real life experience. They’ll most likely have a personal shopper in the future, so they’ll hold onto a cart to navigate the store. As much as possible, we have them grab the item from the freezer or aisles themselves.
When the students go to bed, we write notes and do a lot of cleaning up, organizing drawers and replacing braille labels that fell off during the day.
I’ve only been in Deafblind for three weeks, but I love everything about it. I’m in a classroom now, and every half an hour we switch the student we’re working with. I’m learning a lot about direct care, like feeding through g-tubes and helping students in the bathroom.
We’re teaching them to know when a shirt is inside out, how to tie their shoes and figure out their preferred mode of communication, whether that’s a communication board or tactile sign language.
My favorite part of teaching is working on independent skills. During class transitions, staff will sign, "Time for (preferred activity).” When a student’s body language shows how excited they are or they communicate their preferences to you, it’s awesome to see their individuality.
In the spring I took a sign language course here at Perkins – it’s free for every Perkins employee. The first time I did tactile sign language, I got this huge adrenaline rush. I thought, “I need to do this.”
I tell everyone all the time how fortunate I am to work here. The resources here are so incredible. There are so many opportunities to explore. It’s such a good base for someone starting out, to figure out who you are and challenge yourself.