Teachers are known for having eyes in the back of their heads, and Kyle Conley is no different.
Even if he can’t see.
“I may be blind, but I’m not deaf,” says Conley, 25, a substitute teacher at Monroe Junior/Senior High School in Monroe, Ohio. “I know when something is going on that shouldn’t be.”
Conley, who has been blind since birth, graduated from Wright State in 2014 with a degree in music education. He was the first blind student to do so.
He’s been playing violin for 16 years and would love to teach middle school orchestra full time. To get his foot in the door teaching, he became an independent contractor with the Educational Service Centers of Butler and Warren counties, which supply substitutes for 17 different school districts including Edgewood, Fairfield, Ross, Lakota, Middletown, and Hamilton.
Sub jobs are given on a first-come, first-served basis, but Conley never takes a job at the last minute, because he likes to prepare. He asks for lesson plans to be emailed to him in advance from the teacher. He then loads those documents onto a flash drive that he uses with his BrailleNote, a small electronic device that translates everything into Braille.
“Once kids have had me, (seeing the BrailleNote) is second nature, but when students see it for the first time, they think it’s the coolest thing,” he said.
Teaching middle school is definitely not for wimpy kids. But Conley has an affinity for this age group.
“They’re not too needy and not too crazy. They’re just a fun bunch of kids, and I’m a kid at heart,” he said.
It’s a rapport that Brian Powderly, the principal at Monroe Junior/Senior High School, has seen first hand.
“There is so much going on in the junior high world – hormones, growth spurts, differences among the students’ maturation and physical development – and when you find someone who has the personality to work with them, it’s a gem,” Powderly said.
Conley has also subbed at Crawford Woods Elementary and Garfield Middle School, both in Hamilton.
Not every district has been so welcoming, however.
Shortly after he started subbing in 2014, Conley received a copy of a letter sent by Fairfield assistant superintendent Roger Martin to Tom Isaacs, superintendent at Warren County Educational Services, requesting that Conley have a sighted assistant with him in order to teach in the district.
“We told him he needs an aide or someone to assist him to protect him and the educational process,” said Gina Gentry-Fletcher, Fairfield Schools spokeswoman.
But Conley said he doesn’t need that help.
“I want people to see the ability and past the disability,” said Conley, who is a 2008 graduate of Fairfield High School. Conley’s attorney, Robert Klingler, confirmed that Conley has filed a charge against the district with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The charge also includes Ross and Lakota school districts. However, Conley and Klingler are hoping for a negotiated resolution
“I think school districts need to be educated about what a blind teacher like Kyle can do,” Klingler said. “He loves teaching. He loves his students, and we ought to be supporting all of our different teachers.”
Exhibit A can be found right next-door in Indiana.
Kathy Nimmer, a teacher at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, was Indiana’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award in 2015.
And, yes, she’s blind.
Conley’s biggest classroom challenge is the same as any other teacher’s: keeping his students on task.
“I tell them exactly how I run the ship,” Conley said.
When it comes to misbehavior, he finds most of the kids police each other, and sometimes inadvertently rat themselves out. A student he had last year thought she could get away with keeping her cell phone out during class. Then it rang. According to Conley, when he asked her to bring the phone up to him, she slammed it on his desk and he invited her to take it to the principal’s office.
“I heard she was so mad at getting caught that she threw her cell phone in the hall,” Conley said.
Conley, who relies on Uber or rides from family and friends to get to his sub jobs, always prefers to explore the layout of a building by himself first, using his cane. Once he’s familiar, he might decide to bring Alpine, his yellow Lab guide dog.
“The first time Kyle subbed for us, I was concerned about him not bringing his dog, because I wondered how he’d do without that support,” Powderly said. “But when I met him, he gave me his mantra about being the most independent blind person I’ll ever meet.”
In August, Conley began pursuing a master’s degree in music education through an online program offered by Tarleton State University in Texas.
If there’s no lesson plan, Conley likes to (gasp!) talk to his students, and while sometimes the topic is blindness, more often it’s about current events or the Reds. Conley is a huge fan; he’s also sung the national anthem onfield at a Reds game for the last nine years.
“If we’re working on a specific topic, there’s no time (to chat), but if it’s just busy work, we can have that interaction,” said Conley, who has subbed in eighth-grade language arts, social studies, and math classes at Monroe as well as middle school choir classes.
“The kids really gravitate to him and want to help him,” Powderly said. “He has that ‘it’ factor, and he’s having an impact on our kids in more ways than they can recognize.”