As a teenager, Jeri Hile spent her summers volunteering at a day camp for visually impaired children. She had no idea then that nearly two decades later — after spending several years doing technical drawings for a living — she would pick up a newspaper and see an ad that would change the course of her career.
Hile, now a teacher of the visually impaired at Shawnee Mission Unified School District 512, is being recognized for her innovation and creativity in teaching by the Braille Institute, which has named her the 2018 Teacher of the Year for Excellence in Braille Instruction.
“This is a huge honor,” Hile said of being named Teacher of the Year.
It was the early 90s, and Hile had spent several years working as a drafter. She picked up a local newspaper and saw an ad about becoming a braillist.
“As a teenager, my mother was huge into volunteering,” Hile said. “That day camp really got me interested in it (braille).”
She received her braille certification in 1992 and began volunteering in the Kansas City area. Hile became a braillist for Shawnee Mission USD 512 in 2002, and in 2007 began teaching visually impaired students. She serves the entire district and works with general education teachers so that visually impaired students are successful in a traditional classroom.
“It is a great job,” Hile said. “My whole goal is that they (students) will be independent and have all of the skills, knowledge and confidence so they can live the life they want to live.”
This year, Hile will watch proudly as three of her visually impaired students cross the stage to receive their diploma. One of those students is a talented musician, Hile said.
Hile received her master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in visual impairments from Missouri State University. Her bachelor’s degree is from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She also is a certified orientation and mobility instructor and is a member of the Kansas State School for the Blind Advisory Board.
Peter Mindnich, president of the Braille Institute, called Hile “an innovative educator who promotes braille literacy through creative lesson plans and technology.” She uses mathematics – which is her specialty – to help students think logically and learn everyday skills, such as financial literacy.
It can be difficult to find the time during a school day to teach those everyday skills, so Hile and another teacher started a cooking club that meets once a month after school. Visually impaired students learn skills like how to properly use a knife and how to boil water, which can help them feel more comfortable in a kitchen setting.
When Hile isn’t in the classroom or helping students after school, she often can be found on her sailboat with her husband, Frank Pennington. She also enjoys spending time with her two daughters, gardening, reading and exercising.
While Hile loves her job, sometimes teachers of the visually impaired can feel isolated because there aren’t a lot of people working in her career field in Kansas, she said.
Some teachers of the visually impaired can spend a lot of time traveling between schools, districts and even counties to serve students.
“It’s nice to know teachers of the visually impaired are getting recognition,” she said.
Any teacher of the visually impaired in the United States and Canada can be nominated for the award by their peers, students or others, according to the Braille Institute’s website. The organization began the Teacher of the Year award program in 2005.
Hile was nominated by one of her colleagues, according to the Braille Institute. Nominations, which were due this year by March 30, had to include letters of recommendation, classroom samples and a curriculum vitae. The Teacher of the Year is selected by the Braille Challenge National Advisory Committee.
Hile will be recognized on June 15-16 in Los Angeles at the Braille Challenge National Finals. Two of Hile’s students are expected to compete at the finals. Besides receiving an all-expenses paid trip to the competition, Hile also will receive a cash award and a BrailleNote Apex Notetaker.
Jacinda Danner, a teacher of the visually impaired and mobility specialist at Matanuska-Susitna Borough District in Palmer, Alaska, served as the 2017 Teacher of the Year. For a complete list of names, visit https://www.brailleinstitute.org/braille-challenge/teacher-of-the-year.
The Braille Institute, based in California, is a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate barriers caused by blindness and severe sight loss, according to brailleinstitute.org. The organization is funded by private donations, and all services are offered to students free of charge.
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