Blindness should not be a barrier

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Stephanie Noirard's ambition is to teach and her passion is Scottish literature, so here she is. Eleanor Caldwell talks to the French language assistant with a difference

For Stephanie Noirard, studying for a Masters degree in English cultural studies from Lyon University meant the opportunity to follow her passion: the works of Scottish writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid.

Now she is the French assistant at Grange Academy in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire, and she is very much enjoying living and working in her favourite writers' home country.

In school Stephanie is kept busy supporting teaching colleagues and discovering interesting ways of presenting her language. Like all language assistants, she works for 12 hours a week, teaching a total of 15 periods to a range of classes. Out of school, she likes nothing better than attending her weekly karate class, has a lively social life and enjoys exploring her new neighbourhood.

Unlike most of her counterparts, however, Stephanie is blind.

Her original idea was to apply for an assistantship in Orkney. "But it seemed a bit mad once I thought about the complications of transport," she says.

Once appointed to Grange Academy, Stephanie made a preliminary visit with her mother to get to know Kilmarnock and the school. She felt it was important that her mother was happy with the arrangements and just as important to introduce herself to the staff. "I got the most wonderful welcome from everyone," she says.

She enjoys working with the pupils, either team teaching a full class or leading small groups. She prefers to stand in front of a class, seeing this as commanding more respect than sitting, and is not phased by the possibility of bad behaviour.

"If someone is trying to cheat and look up their notes when I have told them to shut their jotter, I can hear them," she says calmly, "and I just tell them not to."

Stephanie is anxious to make lessons fun and has created a stock of materials using her own Braille laptop computer. She has topped up existing course-based materials with new worksheets of her own and is proud to have found new ways to produce good word searches.

"I managed to add footballers names to one, which was really popular with the pupils," she says.

Principal teacher Iain Wilson is full of praise. "Stephanie is a first class assistant. She has a great rapport with the pupils and the staff," he says.

Mr Wilson and other colleagues are on hand to guide Stephanie through the bustling school corridors, but Grange Academy has a visual impairment unit so there are already markers around classroom doors and along the walls of some key areas.

Headteacher Fred Wildridge has some visual impairment himself and so he understands the limitations it brings. He is an enthusiastic supporter of languages and is delighted to have Stephanie, as well as a Spanish and a German assistant in the school. He sees the three assistants as equally beneficial to pupils' language learning and believes the school is fortunate to have such broad provision of native speaker support.

Stephanie and her German and Spanish counterparts lodge with a family. She feels she has the best of both worlds this way: experiencing the Scottish way of life plus the support and friendship of the other young teaching assistants.

The family has made their computer compatible with Stephanie's Braille laptop, making lesson preparation easier, and the other assistants lend a hand when she wants to add any fancy graphics to her worksheets.

Stephanie regularly walks to Grange Academy. This has only proved problematic on a few occasions when groups of children have gathered at strategic points along her route. "I need to keep to my bearings and it can be difficult if anyone is in the way," she says. "I just steer around them though, because I can hardly bash them out of the way."

Stephanie has a high regard for the Royal National Insitute for the Blind.

She says guide dogs trained here are regarded as top rate and she wouldn't discount the idea of getting a Scottish dog in the future.

Her ambitions continue to be shaped by her spell in Burns country. She hopes to do a PhD in Scottish literature and has her sights set on the Sorbonne or Grenoble, or possibly a Scottish university.

Ultimately she would like to teach at a university. However, were she to teach in schools, shesays she would rather be a French teacher in Scotland than an English teacher in France.

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