Adjusting to the Unexpected
Educator’s Vision Impairment a ‘Non-Issue’ in the Classroom
“You know who else likes to read?” a student asked Mark Phelan ’90 not too long ago. “Who?” inquired the teacher willing to play along.
“My … mom!” crackled the student as the classroom exploded in laughter. “The kids were dying,” Phelan recalls. “They were laughing on the floor.”
While he might not know the punch line – a reference to a Cartoon Network series, and apparently appointment television for 8-year-olds – Phelan understands his students sometimes need to be kids.
At Lenape Meadows Elementary School in Mahwah, N.J., Phelan works with special needs students – usually second- and third-graders – who are striving to overcome a variety of learning disabilities, including dyslexia. It is not uncommon for his students to be one or two grade levels behind their peers, struggling to learn to read and write, as well as comprehend math.
“I try to use humor when I teach,” he says. “I know that it’s a lot of work for these kids, and they know it, so we should make it fun, too.”
Fellow teacher Jenn Koby explains that Phelan has developed a great rapport with his students, keeping them upbeat with his sense of humor and creativity.
“He definitely tries to connect with them,” Koby says. “He makes an impression.”
With nearly 20 years in the classroom, Phelan also knows the routine he maintains is his students’ best bet to succeed. “The students have to have order and structure,” he explains. “They have to know all the rules. They have to have consequences. You have to be consistent and follow through because they are going to test you.”
Phelan has been tested once before – though to a greater extent – when his vision began to deteriorate unexpectedly as a Scranton undergraduate.
As a result of Stargardt disease, a hereditary juvenile macular degeneration that affects eyesight, Phelan’s vision went from 20/20 to 20/200 in the span of 10 years, costing him many freedoms he previously enjoyed.
“It was shocking, and it was terrifying,” he recalls of his vision loss. “It just kind of came out of nowhere, then got progressively worse. It was a completely life-altering event.”
After graduation, the Queens, N.Y., native eventually landed a statistical analyst position in a New York City department store. He soon realized that his poor vision demanded a shift in his life.
“I couldn’t see the numbers I was entering and analyzing,” Phelan recalls. “I knew then I had to do something different. I always wanted to teach, so I went back to school to get a master’s in special education.”
While the classroom fulfilled him more fully than business ever did, the career change wasn’t without its challenges. After first teaching blind and low-vision students, Phelan moved into a high school special needs position, but it wasn’t a good fit.
“I was still pretty young, and I was sensitive about my vision,” he recalls. “I felt that some of the kids, only some, were not exactly nice about my vision impairment. They could be pretty obnoxious about it. I was hurt by the experience, but it was also a growing process for me.”
Phelan soon transferred to Lenape Meadows Elementary where he found the sense of comfort he sought. “My disability means nothing to my students,” he explains. “They don’t even notice it. Being here has really helped me to accept it and handle it. It is a non-issue for us.”
With his vision impairment, Phelan faces daily obstacles in his personal life. He can’t drive a car, which means he carpools to work with other teachers. He has difficulty reading small print, so he uses special computer settings and projection devices to increase font size.
“Every day is hard,” he says. “I can never forget about it. I have to rely on others.”
He maintains as active a lifestyle as possible, swimming three times a week, while also running, biking and skiing when he can. “I am fortunate that my vision problems haven’t kept me from doing what I enjoy, and I haven’t harmed myself yet,” he laughs.
Phelan credits his wife, Lisa Donoghue Phelan ’90, as well as his children, Sam, 13, and Alaina, 10, for their endless support. He also thanks Patrick J. Sweeney, Esq. ’90, Joe Hubert ’90, Maureen Sullivan Gonzales ’90 and Kate McGarry ’90 for being incredibly loyal friends as he adjusted to his vision loss after college.
“They handle it well because it is all they have ever known,” he says of his children. “They have always helped me. And I hope that this experience has made them more compassionate. Hopefully, they can see the help that I need and they won’t be quick to judge others.”