Kateri Gullifor laughs now when she thinks about the big red flag she wisely ignored on the way to her career.
“I’ve never been one to be super well-oriented,” says Gullifor, a Teacher of the Visually Impaired and the only Orientation and Mobility specialist in Huntley Community Unit School District 158. “I mean, I could get lost in my own town when I first started driving.”
“They called it ‘The Drop-off Lesson.’ I remember being told that we were going to do that at the beginning of the class, and I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m going to be lost forever. This will never happen.’ But it was the best way to learn,” says Gullifor, a 2012 alumna of the NIU College of Education.
“We were out in DeKalb, in the community, under blindfold, for eight hours a week. Monday and Friday nights, we were crossing streets, completing routes. Professors would drop us off at an unknown location, and we had to find our way back to a specific location,” she says.
“Being so hands-on – literally putting us in the role of a person with a visual impairment – really enhanced my understanding,” she adds, “and made it so that I could empathize and understand how a student with a visual impairment is experiencing travel, community and movement.”
Eventually, Gullifor says, “you just started making choices, and then you make the next right choice.”
“You’re using sound cues. You can hear the downtown area, and whether you’re close to it or far away. You can tell by crossing the railroad tracks,” she says. “You use the clues that you know about the area to be successful.”
Gullifor now provides that same priceless skill to children and teens in District 158, where she currently serves nine students who range in age from first-grade through the junior year of high school.
And she’s extraordinarily good at it.
The Braille Institute named Gullifor as the nation’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, a recognition that brought camera crews from ABC’s Good Morning America to Huntley for an October story on the dire shortage of Teachers of the Visually Impaired.
“Kateri is very well deserving of this honor,” says Peter A. Mindnich, president of the Braille Institute. “She takes the time to understand her students individually and customizes instruction to fit their specific needs. She works tirelessly, showing love and dedication to her students, who thrive under her guidance.”
Just look at the case of one of her current students, who has battled severe anxiety over crossing downtown streets in Huntley with only her white cane and her ears.
“She rocks forward. She rocks back. She’s like, ‘I’m going to go.’ And, ‘No, I can’t,’ ” Gullifor says. “So we work on it. Over the last month, we’ve focused on the four-way stop. She was up to 21 leans, and this last time, she was down to two through consistent practice, exposure and building her confidence as a competent traveler.”
Practice is key, and Gullifor is patient and nurturing.
“I have students who are just starting to learn how to use a cane for travel who struggle with depth perception and might not always detect a drop-off or step-up,” she says, “to as complex as learning GPS, public transportation and lighted, busier intersections.”
One boy is learning basic route shapes – an “L” that heads two blocks straight, turns and proceeds another block before stopping, or a “Z,” that requires two turns – and how to retrace his steps.
“If he takes an L-shaped route somewhere,” she says, “can he reverse it the same exact way? Can he also understand that he can complete the square and get back the original point of his route? That’s his current goal.”
NIU’s immersive preparation continues to inform Gullifor’s practice.
“Most of our students are born with the vision they have, and for us to put on a blindfold and have no vision for eight hours a week, by no means did that level the playing field or have us be able to truly identify with vision loss, but I think it’s as close as we could have gotten,” she says.
“I had professors impress on us that, ‘You are not to take them off. That’s not the problem-solving ability our students have.’ They need to figure it out safely and grow in confidence.”
As she escorts students through downtown Huntley, or on their way home from the activity bus drop-off site, “my position is most always about two to three steps behind. They’re the leaders. They’re the ones executing the route. This way, I can truly know their skills,” she says.
“When you walk next to someone with a visual impairment, or in front of someone with a visual impairment, they’re using you most often as a guide – which is OK. It’s a strategy,” she adds. “But in order to teach independent travel skills, if I walk behind them, I’m seeing what they really know, and how comfortable, confident and safe their travel skills are. I’m also able to intervene if they’re choosing a risky time to cross a street. I’m able to stop them.”
Helping students to navigate their world is only part of her role, of course.
She’s teaching them about cooking, cleaning, socializing, recreation, technology, organization and more. She’s helping them explore colleges, connecting with them campus disability resource offices and linking them to official State of Illinois services.
She’s maintaining close and long-term contact with parents, hearing their concerns, addressing their specific requests regarding their students and even filming step-by-step demonstration videos for them to model for their students at home.
She’s also “pushing-in” with one of her high school students, attending his math and science classes to help him visualize what the teachers are writing on the board.
“I’m connecting the dots for him,” she says. “The total benefit of the push-in model is that I’m learning alongside him, so I’m at least as caught up as he is, and I can make the information that he’s not able to see accessible and meaningful to him so that he’s able to stay as caught up as his peers.”
Gullifor’s path toward becoming the Braille Institute’s 2019 Teacher of the Year began when she was in seventh-grade in McHenry. She was paired in a “Guardian Angels/Little Angels” program with a preschooler.
“My little buddy was completely blind, and she was the first blind person I met,” she says.
Years later, when Gullifor enrolled as a freshman at Illinois State University, she visited the College of Education’s booth at a majors fair.
As she looked at the information about programs in special education, learning behavior, vision and hearing, “the stars aligned – like, ‘Duh, that’s what I’m supposed to do.’ ”
“I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I didn’t want a classroom, and I didn’t want to feel tied to one age, or one grade,” she says, “so this was kind of the best way to have a diverse population of students to work with and a place close to my heart with the preschooler I met.”
Thinking of her young friend, Gullifor remembered “watching the way that she was similar to peers and different from peers, how she still fit in with a group of kids but at the same time had unique learning needs. She used braille, and she used technology, and she used a cane, but she still learned right alongside typically developing peers.”
Meanwhile, she recalled something else about those observations.
“She had a special teacher come work with her to meet her needs,” she says. “I thought that was very cool that she made such a big difference.”
After graduation in a bachelor’s program for the Teachers of the Visually Impaired, Gullifor planned to jump right into work. She got a part-time job at the Special Education District of McHenry County (SEDOM) – and a phone call from Gaylen Kapperman.
Kapperman, the longtime head of the College of Education’s Vision Program, encouraged Gullifor to enroll at NIU to earn her master’s degree in Orientation and Mobility. NIU was close, and the price – free, plus a stipend and health insurance – was right. She also could continue working part time at SEDOM while pursuing her M.S.Ed. full time.
Gullifor agreed, and soon was donning the blindfolds and grading the braille homework of classmates for her graduate assistant duties.
“When Kateri was a graduate student here,” a proud Kapperman says, “I remember that she was highly motivated and really earnest in her studies. She was a very serious student. She was always on target, working very hard to do the very best job she could.”
Now in her seventh year in the “awesome” District 158, Gullifor clearly loves her job just as much as she did on Day One.
“I enjoy the diverse population, the different ability levels. Every one – every one – of my students is unique. Their needs are unique. The goals they have are unique,” she says. “Every day is a different day.”
She appreciates being part of a district-wide team of teachers who are trusted by administrators for their recommendations on making curriculum and instruction accessible or on what types of assistive technology to provide for students.
Even more important, she says, is her opportunity to forge true partnerships with her students that span from kindergarten through their high school graduation.
Those years are fundamental for teachers to understand “the whole student” – their personalities, their individual needs, their specific goals – and to earn their crucial buy-in to make the education plans successful.
“Our students with visual impairments have unique needs that are more than just, ‘I can’t see that.’ They’ve got the social stigma of, ‘Well, I’m different than the kid sitting next to me,’ ” she says. “These students are dealing with a lot on top of vision loss.”
Gullifor is surprised, flattered and grateful regarding her national recognition, even if she’s not usually one for the spotlight. What means the most to her is that the nomination came from a student and his parents.
But she has discovered a voice of advocacy for her profession amid the interviews and the attention.
“It’s made me more outspoken. I’ve gotten my role out there and more well-understood by people, including my colleagues in the district,” she says. “I feel really good that it’s getting the word out there, making this a career path that others might choose by knowing that I exist. I’m honored to be the one to kind of spread this job description, how awesome my job is and how cool it is to get to do what I do.”
Mostly, though, Gullifor simply wants to teach: “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing,” she says, and through that work, to celebrate the accomplishments of others.
“The student I met in preschool works for Chase Bank now, in the Accessibility Department, helping them ensure their websites are screen-reader-friendly and that their services are inclusive to people with visual impairments. I have another student who is in college now, and she’s in the Triathlon Club,” she says.
“I am lucky that I get to build these close relationships that then extend beyond graduation,” she adds. “It’s very, very cool to watch the journey, and to be a part of the journey.”