Kristin Grender’s (M.A. ′07, Orientation/Mobility for Children; M.A. ′09, Blindness and Low Vision Studies) passion for teaching visually impaired kids is crystal clear.
Before coming to Western Michigan University, she earned her bachelor’s degree in special education, as well as certificates in autism and transition, from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Both of her parents pursued roles in education, so going into teaching seemed natural to her.
“The hardest part was deciding what kind of teacher I wanted to be, as I’m interested in so many facets of education,” she told UW-Whitewater when she received the Distinguished Alumni Award for Community and Regional Service in 2019.
Almost half of Kristin’s special education students had a visual impairment in her first teaching job after graduating from UW-Whitewater. Her efforts to better meet the needs of these students led her to WMU, where she earned two master’s degrees—one in teaching children with visual impairments and another in orientation and mobility with children.
“I was dedicated to learning strategies and seeking out resources for my students,” she said. “I collaborated with our CESA’s (Cooperative Educational Service Agency) vision teacher and shadowed her work. After that I was hooked and decided to do my graduate work in vision.”
Western Michigan University was highly recommended to Kristin by vision professionals in Wisconsin. The University’s vision rehabilitation therapy and orientation and mobility programs are the longest-running programs of their kind in the U.S. Over the past 58 years, in close collaboration with state vocational rehabilitation agencies, WMU has been the nation’s largest preparer of vision rehabilitation therapists and orientation and mobility specialists.
In exchange for teaching students with vision impairment, Kristin received a grant that paid for her tuition at WMU. Since 2009, she’s been a TVI (teacher of the visually impaired) and O&M (orientation and mobility) instructor in the Watertown Unified School District in Wisconsin. She garnered the state’s Herb Kohl Fellowship for her contributions in the field of education in 2017 and received her National Board Certification in Education in 2020. She’s also the author of “White Cane Day,” a children’s book explaining the importance of Oct. 15, the day that celebrates the achievements of people who are visually impaired.
Yet with all these accomplishments, her greatest point of pride remains her students.
“I have many of them for their entire school career,” she said. “This develops a deep bond. I know them, their families and their friends. I enjoy watching their successes, whether it's learning a new piece of technology or gaining the confidence to attend a camp away from home. I do this for my students, and they always make me proud.”
The Foundation She Needed to Soar
Wearing low vision simulators and blindfolds in class was pretty common, and while this doesn’t deliver a complete picture of what it’s like to have vision impairment, it did provide Kristin with an appreciation and trust for the skills she learned.
One class at WMU in particular stood out for her. It was taught by the late Dr. Susan Ponchillia, a renowned scholar, professor and WMU alumna who touched many lives and elevated the profession of vision rehabilitation therapy.
“She hosted our class several times at her home by the river,” Kristin said. “She would prepare a lovely spread of food and provide lively conversation. Trips to Dr. Ponchillia’s home included lots of activity under blindfold. We learned how to clean, cook, sculpt, kayak and bike ride, all under blindfold.”
The best instructional practices Kristin learned through WMU’s Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies helped give her the foundation she needed to soar as both an educator and a researcher. Recently, she even took part in the Innovators Developing Accessible Tools in Astronomy (iDATA) project.
“Through my work with iDATA, I was able to take my students to Space Camp for Interested Students with Vision Impairments (SCISVI) in Huntsville, Alabama,” she said. “My work in this area led me to take part in the Embedded Teacher Program at Carthage College.”
“My students also hosted a ‘Dining in the Dark’ cafe for administrators and members of the iDATA team,” she added.
On Nov. 17, 2021, Kristin joined the Carthage College Microgravity Team in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a truly out-of-this-world experience. She participated in a Zero-Gravity flight and tested sound localization cues under low vision simulators and a blindfold. During the flight she addressed the following question posed by her students: “Can blind and visually impaired people navigate in weightlessness using sound signals?”
Always looking for opportunities to build and share her knowledge, Kristin most recently started a Mindfulness and Yoga Program in the Watertown Unified School District after completing a 200-hour certification course through Breathe for Change. She also currently teaches the Introduction to Vision Impairments & Methodology course through Concordia University in Milwaukee.
Circling back to her time at WMU, Kristin’s favorite campus memory is going to the dining hall with her rehabilitation class and dining while blindfolded. “I feel the conversation we had with each other during that dinner was so memorable, as it felt people were really listening to each other and not distracted with the busyness of the cafeteria around us,” she said.
Last but not least, she offered this advice for current Broncos: “Keep moving forward. The pressures of classes and work may feel overwhelming, but it’s worth it. Enjoy this time, because before you know it, this will all be a memory!”
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