Huntley teacher helps students with visual impairments navigate world

Huntley teacher helps students with visual impairments navigate world

  • Kateri Gullifor, who works with students with visual impairments, was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute. Here, she's working with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens on his Braile reading. Gullifor has been a vision itinerant with Huntley Community School District 158 since 2013.

      Kateri Gullifor, who works with students with visual impairments, was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute. Here, she's working with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens on his Braile reading. Gullifor has been a vision itinerant with Huntley Community School District 158 since 2013. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted11/11/2019 7:03 AM

For Kateri Gullifor, the best part about teaching is that "aha moment" students have when they finally learn something new or master a skill.

Working with students who have a range of visual impairments presents a unique challenge.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"A lot of my teaching is so relationship-based," said Gullifor, a vision itinerant and orientation and mobility specialist with Huntley Community School District 158. "Listening and being someone they can talk to ... if you don't have that relationship, they don't have that trust in you."

Gullifor works with District 158 students across all grade levels, supporting them in their regular classrooms and one-on-one, integrating technology, tactile graphics, tactile visual images and Braille.

Kateri Gullifor was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles whose mission is to eliminate barriers to a fulfilling life caused by blindness and severe sight loss. She works with students across all grade levels.
  Kateri Gullifor was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles whose mission is to eliminate barriers to a fulfilling life caused by blindness and severe sight loss. She works with students across all grade levels. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

"It's not easy," she said. "It's a code. Braille is like shorthand. Knowing each of the 26 letters, 150 contractions or short forms, and then being able to fluently use it. There's a lot of challenges with it, but it's pretty amazing to see it come together for a student so they can use it successfully, comfortably and rely on it as a way of access."

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Gullifor provides vision services for 10 students at Huntley High School alone and is the district's only orientation and mobility specialist. She was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles whose mission is to eliminate barriers to a fulfilling life caused by blindness and severe sight loss.

"There's a lot of people who don't understand vision loss," Gullifor said. "I try to connect (students) with mentors or another student who is visually impaired so they have that emotional connection, so they can have a support system."

Kateri Gullifor works with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens using accessibility programs on his laptop and iPad. Gulifor was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute.
  Kateri Gullifor works with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens using accessibility programs on his laptop and iPad. Gulifor was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Every year, the Braille Institute recognizes teachers of the visually impaired for their hard work, dedication and innovation.

"Kateri is very well deserving of this honor," said Peter Mindnich, Braille Institute president. "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."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Gullifor was nominated by Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens, her most visually impaired student whom she has taught since fifth grade.

"It's so humbling," Gullifor said. "It's just so gracious that a student and a family thinks that highly of me to be nominated for the award."

Owen is legally blind, suffering from a juvenile form of macular degeneration -- he can't see through the center of his eyes and must rely on his ears more.

"He has excellent auditory skills," Gullifor said.

Gullifor assists Owen with his honors chemistry and pre-calculus classes. He uses an iPad tablet with an Apple pencil to write instead of pencil and paper.

Owen is an extreme case. Most of Gullifor's vision-impaired students either use magnification to see print, sit closer to the front of the classroom or use assistive devices. Some students have a degenerative medical condition and some are stable.

Kateri Gullifor works with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens Thursday. Gulifor was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute.
  Kateri Gullifor works with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens Thursday. Gulifor was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

"That's the part I love the best -- everyone has unique needs, unique challenges, and I have to problem-solve how to meet those needs," she said.

Gullifor was drawn to teaching at an early age. In seventh grade, she was paired with a blind preschooler as part of a student mentoring program called Little Angels. The experience had a profound impact on Gullifor and she became close with the student's family over the years.

"I was like a guardian angel. She was completely blind," Gullifor said.

Years later, during a major showcase at Illinois State University, Gullifor recognized her true calling when she came across the booth for special education.

"A light bulb went off," she said. "That was like my 'aha' moment ... I completely connected the dots between my longtime desire to become a teacher and the experience with my Little Angel. I said to myself, 'Of course! This is exactly what I'm supposed to do!'"

Kateri Gullifor works with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens on a Braille writer.
  Kateri Gullifor works with Huntley High School junior Owen Cravens on a Braille writer. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Gullifor earned a Bachelor of Science degree in special education from ISU in 2010, specializing in teaching students with low-vision/blindness, and a master's degree in orientation and mobility. She went on to teach that same student she had been paired with in preschool during the student's junior and senior years in high school how to travel safely and efficiently within the community.

She briefly worked with the Special Education District of McHenry County.

Gullifor said the best part about her job is she gets to support students from an early age, throughout their learning journey in school and even after graduation.

"Classroom teachers don't have that," she said. "They don't get to follow their students the way I do. That's a perk to me -- long-term relationships."

Curriculum vitae

Name: Kateri Gullifor

Age: 31

Town: Twin Lakes, Wisconsin

Job: Teaches students with visual impairments at Huntley Community School District 158

Education: Bachelor of Science in education with a specialization in low vision/blindness, Illinois State University; Master of Science in special education with a specialization in orientation and mobility; early intervention vision specialist graduate certificate, Illinois State University

Work experience: 10 years in education, seven with District 158 as a vision itinerant and orientation and mobility specialist. Previously taught students with visual impairments for the Special Education District of McHenry County.

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