Written by Katie Cuppy
originally posted April 5, 2016
“Ms. Katie, may I please pet your dog?” a quiet voice inquires, accompanied by a patient little hand on my shoulder.
“Yes, you may, thank you for asking!” I say, beaming down at the first-grader and rewarding Gabrielle. “Now, have you finished your Daily Math yet?”
While not every exchange in my first/second grade practicum class is this simple, I am surprised at how quickly the students adjusted to having Gabrielle and me in their classroom. I must say, I was a bit nervous about our new placement this semester. Not only was I concerned about how Gabrielle would respond to a classroom of over 20 six- to eight-year-olds, but I was particularly nervous was the layout of the classroom itself.
The classroom is huge, almost like they knocked down a wall in between two rooms. It is also a Montessori-style classroom, meaning students work on the floor with rugs and clipboards, instead of sitting at desks. That means a couple dozen children are at Gabrielle’s level at all times!
A typical day in the classroom is always interesting, because I am always doing something different. Some days are busier than others, but a typical day involves me and Gabrielle moving around the classroom, working with students in small groups or individually. Every student is working on something different, so I am always on my toes.
One student asks me if I can help with reading. Gabrielle and I visit her rug, and sit next to her on the floor, as she explains what she needs to do. I listen to her read a short story aloud, then help her problem solve to answer the questions on her worksheet. I praise her for the wonderful progress she has made.
A group of four students ask if I can help with their science experiment about soil. I stand at a low table with them, with Gabrielle at my feet. They experiment with getting the soil wet, and feeling the difference between various types of soil, and then we head outside to clean up. When we get back inside, I use a method of questioning that I learned from my corresponding university courses.
Another student eagerly shows me a magazine article about a service dog. I can hear him smiling as he tells me about the picture in the article, and how that dog is wearing a harness just like Gabby! I smile too, because he made that connection, meaning his critical thinking skills are improving greatly. The students amaze me everyday, but what really surprises me is how natural all of the students are with Gabrielle.
On the first day of school, my mentor teacher let me introduce Gabrielle, and talk about what she does. “Gabrielle is a very special dog,” I explained. “She isn’t a pet dog like a lot of you have at home. She is a guide dog, which means she has a special job. I can’t see very well, so Gabrielle helps me out. She makes sure to look out for things I could trip on, and she guides me around them. She knows a lot of words and commands, but it’s really important that she only listens to me, because she has to keep me safe.”
I smiled and petted Gabrielle, as we sat in a large circle surrounded by students. “Ms. Katie, would you like to demonstrate to the class how you walk with Gabrielle?” my mentor teacher asked. “Absolutely!” I stood up from my spot in the circle and grabbed Gabrielle’s harness handle. “Gabrielle, forward!” She guided me forward for several steps, then stopped at a giggling group of students. “Good girl! Gabrielle, right!” She turned to the right, and followed the circle around until we found our spot again. I heard a couple of gasps and exclamations of “wow!” echo around the classroom. “She’s so smart!” a little boy said. I encouraged the students to ask me any questions they have about Gabrielle. They seemed apprehensive at first, but soon, questions came flooding in.
I still get questions every day. What students don’t know is, I love when they ask me questions about Gabrielle and my visual impairment! I love how they are still young enough to act on their curiosity, instead of making assumptions or censoring themselves in fear of offending me. Of course, I am a teacher, so I love educating, but I think there’s something special about teaching children about disability from a young age.
In the classroom, I hope to teach students how to be better writers, and how to execute a math problem properly, but I also hope to teach them that disability is not something to fear or pity. I want them to know that blind people can be teachers. I want them to know that people with disabilities can be anything they want to be. I want them to grow up knowing that people with disabilities can succeed in society just like anyone else can, as long as they are accommodated and accepted. I want to ingrain this in their beautiful, growing minds as much as I can, because I do believe it is a chain-reaction.
If students grow up in a world where disability is normalized, maybe they won’t grow up to be a business owner who denies access to a blind person and their guide dog. They won’t be the cab driver who speeds away as soon as they see their passenger is disabled. They won’t be the employer who doesn’t hire a person because they have a disability.
I am not saying that my presence in a classroom is going to solve all of these problems. At best, it may spark a conversation about disability, or maybe show students that people with disabilities can accomplish tasks just as their peers who are able-bodied can. I can only hope it has a lasting effect on their outlook of people who are visually impaired, and people with other disabilities.
At the very least, I hope the students I spend time with will know proper service dog etiquette. I want them to know that you should always ask before petting a service dog, and that distracting a dog from their work is unacceptable. I want them to understand that service dogs are part of our society, and their handlers have the right to access public places with them just like anyone else does. I want them to know how much a service dog enriches people’s lives and see the beauty in the relationship between a service dog and their handler.
Regardless of what I teach my students, I embrace every moment I spend in the classroom. I couldn’t be happier with my experiences as I grow as a teacher and a learner, and I am so grateful to be in such an accepting and supportive environment. And through it all, having Gabrielle by my side makes my days complete. She helps me wake up at 5:00 in the morning when we have to go to our practicum classroom. Gabrielle gets me through those hard days when I have an exam, two papers, a group project, and a lesson plan due. She makes me laugh when nothing else can. She makes a simple walk home from class feel like euphoria. She guides me everywhere, whether it’s an elementary school classroom, the university library, or on a field trip to the observatory. Gabrielle helps me in so many ways, and I couldn’t imagine my life without her. I have no doubts in my mind that she is going to help me be the best teacher I can be!