McKay School alumna Jan Pfost Zollinger was named Braille Institute’s 2014 Teacher of the Year for her work at the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind, where she has taught braille for 39 years. In 2004 she was named a Distinguished Educator of Blind Children from the National Federation of the Blind.
A volunteer experience as a student at BYU awakened her interest in teaching special children and redirected her entire career. The following passage describes her life-changing experience in a sociology class.
It all started in the fall of 1973 during my first year at BYU. It was all so exciting and new. I walked into my sociology class the first day, not knowing that day that I would be changed forever. I was awed at all the students in the class. We were in the Joseph Smith Building, and there were 500 or more in the class. I had attended Ricks College the year before and felt so blessed to be at BYU.
The instructor started the class with this plea: “We have a blind student in this class and he could not get the text in braille. Is there anyone in the class who would volunteer to read the book to this student? Please come and see me after class if you are interested.” I sat in class that hour and could not think of anything else. I did not know anything about the blind. I had never even met a blind person.
As I sat there my heart started beating, and I strongly felt that I should volunteer to do this. I was hoping that not too many people would go up and volunteer. I quickly went to the instructor after class was over and expressed my desire to read the sociology book to the student. I was surprised that no one else came forward to volunteer. I was the only one. The instructor introduced me to Jerry. We made arrangements to meet and have reading sessions. Needless to say, we both did well in the class.
One day Jerry said to me, “Have you ever thought about teaching the blind?” I said, “Where would I need to go to learn braille and how to teach the blind?” He responded, “Right here at BYU!” I was shocked. I quickly changed my major and was introduced to Ruth Craig, a braille instructor, who I grew to love and admire. I wanted to mentor her passion and love of braille and blind people. I think Sister Craig would be pleased with what I have done with the knowledge she gave me so many years ago. I am the teacher [I am] today because of her influence and love.
Having had no prior experience with braille, Zollinger struggled with concepts and skills that were new to her. She worked out some of her own ways to learn.
Braille was difficult for me, but Sister Craig continued to encourage me to learn, never giving up on me. In my struggle, I compensated with learning the contractions with music and movement, etc. I believe I struggled with braille so that I would be a better teacher. I knew how it felt to not be able to remember the contractions because there were so many of them. I started creating fun, innovative ways to remember the different groups of contractions. I used all the arts to reinforce their usage and rules. These techniques have proved to be very effective in teaching blind children and adults who want to learn braille.
Although Zollinger had always wanted to be a teacher, she says that her life might have been very different if she had not volunteered in her sociology class that day. In 1976 she earned a bachelor’s degree in special education from Brigham Young University, with certification emphasis in exceptional child/visual impairments. Using arts had been invaluable to her in learning braille herself and in teaching it, so she extended her education by attending Lesley University, an institution recognized for its programs in both education and the arts. She received a master of education in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in integrated teaching through the arts in 1997.
Zollinger’s love for teaching has shaped her life and given her more opportunities to volunteer.
I have loved teaching children to read braille and have met many wonderful blind people and coworkers. When I teach braille I know that enthusiasm is the key to success for blind children. I believe there is gold in every student. Blind children can become literate adults and be successful in this world. I take my job very seriously. It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together. Braille and teaching are my passions. I am truly a blessed person to have found such joy in all these years of teaching.
I often think of what would have happened in my life if had I not volunteered that hot fall day. You never know what direction your life can take. I believe our kind Heavenly Father puts opportunities in our way every day to strengthen us and guide us.
Zollinger and her husband, David Rolland Zollinger, have three children: Holly, Jodi, and Jacob.
Writer: Sarah Stoddard
Contact: Cynthia Glad (801) 422-1922