By Muhammad Waheed
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A normal work day for Matt Mescall usually takes place in a gym or classroom at The Maryland School for the Blind, where he teaches adapted physical education and health to blind and visually impaired students.
Mescall said that he starts the day by coming into class with a plan and objectives, strategies on engaging his students, creating a safe learning environment and making necessary adaptations to the day’s activities. Mescall said he works hands-on with his students and then also takes part in after school activities like sports practices.
Mescall, who is 30-years-old, is not visually impaired, but spends almost every day around blind and low vision students. Enrolling in an advanced volleyball course while attending the College at Brockport, State University of New York, as an undergraduate student allowed Mescal to find his path of becoming an adapted physical education teacher by making important connections and taking a career-changing trip to Alaska.
Mescall said that his first experience working with a visually impaired student was hiking a mountain with a camper in Alaska at Camp Abilities, a blind sports camp.
“We all do these things that are very normal to all of us, but then you throw in some obstacles or some challenges you got to figure out how to overcome them whether it’d be a hiking trial or having to climb a rock just to go to the top of this mountain and so you learn to adjust on the fly,” Mescall said.
Mescall’s first exposure helped him figure out why he wanted to go into teaching adapted physical education.
“I think it was probably the relationships,” Mescall said. “The bonding with all of the students, having fun with them, seeing the joy of them and maybe something taking for granted. I go hiking all the time and I love it, but then you have these kids who don’t get the chance to do it all the time and so they are grateful one for having the opportunity, but then you know seeing them realize that they can do these things.”
Establishing trust is a major factor in working with visually impaired students while building relationships, Mescall said.
“If you can trust me and I can trust you and if you can trust me they can do all of these things so I just really enjoyed that aspect of it,” Mescall said.
Justin Haegele, a graduate assistant at the College at Brockport during Mescall’s undergraduate years, was looking for a student to go to Alaska for Camp Abilities, Mescall said.
“Everybody’s like, ‘You’re kidding, your joking,’ and nobody agreed to go with him, but he was being very serious,” Mescall said. “He wanted someone to go with and so feeling bad for him I raised my hand and said, ‘I’d go with you’ and not really knowing who this guy was.”
Raising awareness for Camp Abilities, disability sports and blind athletes was the main purpose of the trip, Mescall said.
Haegele gave advice on being open with students, Mescall said.
“I would say coming at anything, any student, any group of people with the idea that you have a set of knowledge that you’re going to bring and that you’re going to be able to share and that they have a set of knowledge that they’re going to be able to share and so you have to give and take,” Mescall said. “You have to give some of the knowledge you have and you have to take some of the knowledge that they have.”
Advocating for blind athletes, visually impaired students and having a positive attitude were other pieces of advice Haegele has taught, Mescall said.
Haegele is a best friend now, Mescall said.
Experiences at the College at Brockport taught basic foundations of physical education and why it needs to be included in everyone’s life regardless of abilities, Mescall said.
Interning at the Perkins School for the Blind and working in Connecticut provided various experiences of working with visually impaired students, Mescall said.
Mescall said he had different options when applying to become an adapted physical education teacher.
“Weighing my options ahead the option to go to a well-established or I had the option to go to a place that was a blank slate that we could really kind of take some ideas and run and build our program from the ground up and so knowing it’d be a lot of work, but wanting to really have a bigger impact, a bigger footprint I chose to go to The Maryland School for the Blind,” Mescall said.
Haegele, currently an assistant professor of health and education in the department of human movement sciences at Old Dominion University, said that Mescall was not qualified for Camp Abilities Alaska.
“I think sometimes we make decisions without understanding why we make the decisions and I think he made the decision to come up without really having any idea what he was about to get himself into and I think that we as a like a group are very lucky that that decision happened because of all the great things that he’s done since then,” Haegele said. “I don’t think he was overly qualified. He might’ve been substantially underqualified at the time and he still did it which speaks to who he is and you know the type of work that he does.”
Beyond teaching Mescall coaches blind sports including beep baseball, goalball and track and field. Mescall also now directs Camp Abilities Maryland which is hosted by MSB.
The Maryland Adapted Physical Education Consortium named Mescall the Teacher of the Year for adapted physical education in October 2017.
Lauren Lieberman, professor in the department of kinesiology at the College at Brockport, said that Mescall’s friendship with Haegele and the trip to Alaska really put Mescall on the path of becoming an adapted physical education teacher.
Lieberman taught Mescall while he was an undergraduate student at the College at Brockport.
“I can totally see him being an administrator at a school for the blind,” Lieberman said. “I just think that there are not many people like Matt who are extremely honest, who truly care about the kids and don’t care about being recognized as much. He likes to champion his colleagues and the people around him and you know he’s the most genuine, thoughtful, caring and talented teacher I’ve met.”
A trip to Alaska turned into a life-long friendship also leading to a well-respected career for Mescall. Mescall’s focus on building relationships with his students can be seen with his friendship with Haegele. Sometimes doing something to help someone like Mescall going to Alaska with Haegele can launch an individual into the right career direction. Relationships are important to build and that is exactly how Mescall got to where he is today.