HOLIDAY — Andrea Schleicher glanced up at the bright fluorescent light in the Gulfside Elementary conference room and wished aloud that she could turn it off.
She'd rather it be darker so second-grader Sierra Poth can't use her residual vision while practicing her Braille and keyboarding skills.
"We're preparing her," Schleicher said, for the possibility that Sierra's already bad vision deteriorates to the point where she can no longer read or write in the usual way.
But when you're a traveling teacher, you take what you can get. So Schleicher simply resorted to teasing Sierra when she sneaked peeks as she practiced her skills, prodding the girl to quickly and correctly identify the letters she was practicing.
This is the kind of work that Schleicher loves.
Though it has its share of frustrations, teaching the visually impaired allows her to think creatively, experience new things daily and help children who truly need assistance.
"I just think I have the best job, and I'd like other people to know about it," she said.
The state of Florida would like to see more people interested in the field, too. Just 540 teachers statewide are certified in the specialty area, which has been on the Department of Education's critical shortage list for several years.
In Pasco, six teachers for the visually impaired work with about 120 students in 75 schools.
Schleicher has one main focus: She helps children who have limited vision learn to succeed in their mainstream classrooms as best they can. She teaches them how to read Braille, use a monocular for distance vision, walk with a white cane, even organize their desks.
"Part of the goal of what we do is really give the kids a lot of intensive training early on, so once they hit middle and high school they don't need us quite as much," explained Schleicher, who's based at Seven Springs Middle and works in 10 west Pasco schools.
Sierra's mom, Debbie Poth, said she has seen the value in Schleicher's efforts over the four years her daughter has worked with the teacher.
"Her schoolwork has picked up. Her Braille is much better, even though I forgot her homework at home," Poth said, while watching Sierra get organized to go into school. "She understands a little bit better and she's able to explain to the kids why she wears her glasses, why she has her cane."
The effort improves her self-esteem as much as her abilities, Poth said.
Amy Bowles, Sierra's classroom teacher, shares in the praise of Schleicher.
"I couldn't do it without her," Bowles said as Schleicher helped Sierra get her homework out of her backpack. "She helps (Sierra) stay on task, helps her stay organized, keeps her going and focused. She doesn't come on Fridays, and I can tell."
On a recent morning, Sierra ran her fingers over a talking Braille board, pressing down each time she found the letter P or the letter O. The computer dinged to register every time she pressed, and it counted her correct and incorrect responses. She got 15 of 16 correct.
Schleicher applauded Sierra's success, as well as her ability to move her hands properly over the raised dots. Sierra said she enjoys working with the teacher she calls "Ms. Andrea."
"It's fun because I get to see her every day except for Friday," Sierra said.
After spending 45 minutes with Sierra, Schleicher loaded up her car trunk and headed to Mittye P. Locke Elementary, where she met with first-grader Austin Stafford.
Austin's primary problem is distance vision, and he needed training with his monocular, a small telescope he holds up to his eye to see things farther away.
Schleicher collected Austin from his classroom and took him to the media center, where she placed a whiteboard about 20 feet away from the boy. She wrote words in large, dark print and asked him to find the nouns on the list.
Austin adjusted the barrel of the monocular and discovered the nouns: car, dog and cat. Then he wrote a sentence using the words.
Schleicher printed another list, but this time with a slight difference. On just one word — pencil — she wrote smaller letters a little closer together. When Austin came to the word, he struggled.
"Pen," he said, arriving at pencil only when Schleicher prompted him by saying it was what he was writing with.
"What are the last three letters?" she asked.
He squinted. "D?"
"Remember," she said. "We talked about turning it a hair to really fine-tune it."
She rewrote the letters a bit darker.
She sounded out the word until he came to "C-I-L."
"We've got to work on that fine tuning," Schleicher concluded, suggesting Austin take the monocular with him to Publix or Wal-Mart to practice using it.
Schleicher, 53, has taught the visually impaired for the past 26 years, first in Pinellas and now in Pasco schools. She talks to high school students about getting into the field, which she "fell into" herself after working at a camp for the blind and loving it.
You get to work with the same kids year after year, seeing them progress, getting to know them and their families. Sure, she acknowledged, education is hitting a rough time, and teachers need to do more with less these days.
Still, she said, "It doesn't stop me from liking what I do. … I love working with the kids."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.