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Morgan Hill
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May 22, 2022

Teaching with the senses

If one would walk into the B109 classroom at Ann Sobrato High School about 9 a.m. any given Monday through Friday, one would see the typical classroom: a teacher pacing back and forth in lecture-mode, asking her students questions, her students taking notes and listening attentively.

It’s the model for the perfect classroom. Except, then one notices the guide dog, lying peacefully by the teacher’s desk in the corner of the room.

“Clap your hands once if your group is ready to present,” said Sage, to gauge by sound how many students were prepared instead of raising their hands.

Sage, 44, a social studies and psychology teacher at Sobrato, in her second term as president of the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers and 2009 Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce’s Educator of the year, has retinitis pigmentosa – a degenerative disease affecting the retina that in her case led to her blindness. She was diagnosed when she was 16 and was legally blind by 21, when she was a senior in college.

The disease however, hasn’t stopped her in pursing her dreams of becoming a teacher.

Like any teacher, she knows where her students are sitting in each row and has memorized all of their names, and their voices. There is no hand-raising in this classroom, she calls on them, turning herself to face where they sit and if they have a question they politely shout it out.  

“I cannot think of a more rewarding profession than this one,” said Sage.

Sobrato principal Debbie Padilla said Sage is one of the “teachers of the year” for a reason.

“Our students look forward to taking her classes because they respect her and know that she will hold them accountable for reaching her high expectations,” said Padilla. “Theresa loves students, is passionate about teaching and models excellence daily.”

Fine-tuned teaching

Without the detail of knowing that Sage can’t actually see her students, no one would know otherwise.

With the saying that teachers have eyes in the back of their head, knowing what students are doing even when they aren’t looking, Sage similarly has fine-tuned hearing that still reveals when students are not focused or misbehaving.

“They’re always surprised when they’re unwrapping their food and I say, ‘put your brunch away.’ It’s plastic, I can hear the wrappers,” said Sage, laughing. “They often will tell you (about me) ‘She has really good hearing.’”

Junior Jasmine Caskey, 16, who takes Sage’s AP U.S. History (nicknamed APUSH) class agrees that Ms. Sage does in fact, have good hearing.

“I like how well she interacts with students even though she is blind,” said Caskey, who said she enjoys taking the class.

Mark Chamberlain, 17, also in her APUSH class says most notes are taken at home with assigned reading. Given that it is an advanced placement class, most students take their own notes in class rather than wait for the teacher to put notes up on the board or overhead projector.

“We talk about a lot of different and interesting things in class, there’s a lot of discussions,” said Chamberlain.

Persistence pays off

Sage has been teaching with the Morgan Hill Unified School District for 17 years. She taught at Britton Middle School until Sobrato opened in 2004.

It was about that time that she began using guide dogs, from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. Her third and current dog, Gannon, guides her nearly everywhere.

Although in the classroom, Sage does not need his assistance so he takes naps during her lecture in his doggie bed; probably the only one in the entire school allowed to sleep during class.

Sage’s first attempt at landing a teachers job straight after college (she mostly attended San Jose State University) ended in disappointment nearly 20 years ago.

Sage, who grew up in South San Francisco and attended school there, wanted to return home to the area to teach where she was once a student.

“I wanted to go home because that’s the system that I got out of,” she said.

Yet after she applied, she received a letter from the South San Francisco Unified School District.

“They sent me a letter telling me basically that they didn’t want to hire me because I was blind,” said Sage. “Yeah, it was awful.”

Soon after she applied to MHUSD and interviewed with the human resources department. At the time, Sage could still see fuzzy blurs and shadows, although she was legally blind. At the end of the interview, the woman asked her if she had any questions.

“And I go ‘Oh well I just wanted to let you know that if you have concerns about me being blind, let me answer them. I can tell you, I have books on CD, I have talking software. I have things that I can put up on the screen’ … I didn’t want to not get the job because she didn’t want to ask any questions about it.”

The interviewer then began flipping through her paper work; she had no idea Sage was blind. Regardless, MHUSD hired her and she’s been here since.

“It’s a great district to work for. I have three kids and a husband here, it’s a great place to raise a family,” she said. “My siblings live near here now. My mom lives and works in Gilroy now. So you know, destiny I guess, right?”

Sage has three children, 14-year-old daughter Fiona currently attends Sobrato as a freshman, Nick, 21 and Jenna, 22. All three have gone through the local school district although she has not had her children in her own classes.

Superintendent Wes Smith has said before at a school board meeting that it’s a good thing another district didn’t hire her because MHUSD got the opportunity to have her in this district.

“Theresa is a teacher in the truest sense of the word – she is a child advocate whose courage, dedication and sincere concern for the well-being of students immeasurably benefit our community,” said Smith.

Sage, who doesn’t read Braille, has a computer program for her laptop and the computer in her classroom that when she puts her cursor over a word, it will read it out loud.

She also has a reader at home who reads her students’ essays out loud to her and Sage then tells her what comments to write for her students.

During class, Sage also has a teacher’s aid, Tracy Carvana, who helps correct tests, pass out papers, monitor the classroom or answering the simple “How much time do we have left?” Carvana has been working with Sage since 2007. When asked if there were any challenges working with Sage, she replied with “Reading her mind,” the two laughed.

With Sage’s two figurative hats that she wears as both teacher and president of the MHFT union, she works long hours, sometimes 12 or more in a day.

A typical day

A typical day begins with getting to work about 7 a.m. She teaches three classes in a day, APUSH and two Sociology classes titled “Sociology: Marriage, Sex and Family.”

In one particular class period, the students were preparing to take home ‘baby’ – a project where students are parents for three days with a realistic-looking, technologically advanced doll that cries, coos and even needs to be fed and diaper-changed.

Each doll is programmed and will print out a report saying if the student correctly handled the child.

“It’s a fun project,” said Sage of the class.

After finishing teaching about noon, she takes time to prepare for the next day of classes.

If she gives students assigned reading, she too is re-reading the assignment. About 1 p.m. she’s off to the MHFT office to work on union work as president.

On some Tuesdays, she attends the MHUSD school board meetings with Gannon and Terri Knudsen, Sobrato’s librarian and MHFT secretary.

At board meetings, Gannon knows his roll to take Sage to the podium when she speaks. Otherwise, he lays down loyally by her side, taking the occasional nap. He’s been known to snore. “He has a tough life, huh?” said Sage.

“He’s pretty smart but I have to know where things are,” said Sage.

For example, if she’s going to the restroom, she has to know to turn left out of her classroom.

She listens for things such as lockers and the sound the breeze makes as she walks around campus. She knows the layout of the school in details. When she taught at Britton, she could get along fairly well without a dog.

Guide dogs are trained to stop at the end of curbs, without stop lights that make noises to alert the blind. Sage said she “reads traffic,” listening for which direction it’s going and when the cars have stopped before crossing the street with the help of Gannon.

Sage has kept her previous two guide dogs Hilda and Shubert: all three dogs are black labs, hence the nickname at her home The Black Dog Ranch.

Sage’s favorite part about being a teacher? Her answer will probably be one echoed throughout the district.

“I love helping students and feeling like I made a difference,” she said with a smile.

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