Volume 79, Number 26 | December 2 - 8 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Helaina N. Hovitz

In addition to having only one hand, science teacher Homer Panteloglou of Lower Manhattan’s High School of Economics and Finance is legally blind. He just received an award for his teaching.

Being blind is no handicap for great teaching, he shows

By Helaina N. Hovitz

Though the Yankee parade was in full swing right outside the window, the High School of Economics and Finance’s marine biology class began without any hesitation. Homer Panteloglou, 38, paced up and down the aisle of his classroom. Nobody was talking, on their cell phones or doodling, even though the kids in the back could easily have gotten away with it. Because Panteloglou can’t see past the first two rows, he usually paces the room to make sure everyone’s engaged and on track.

Working with only one hand and legally blind in both eyes, Panteloglou refuses to slow down. In fact, he’s become one the most popular teachers in the high school, at 100 Trinity Place, near Wall St.

“He’s a little crazy, so we have more fun with him than with any other teacher,” said Gissette Guzman. “He’s not a regular teacher.”

He doesn’t write on the board much because he only has one hand, so PowerPoint has been a longtime teaching tool for him, even before other teachers started to incorporate it into their classrooms.

“You know what to do when you see a picture,” he told the class as he pulled it up on the projector. “Write the caption.”

He also teaches honors “Living Environment,” advanced-placement biology and “Introduction to Business.”

To begin a discussion about water, energy and motion, he asked someone for a water bottle. The students have learned to anticipate his antics by now. Cries of, “Oh, no!” and “What is he going to do now?” filled the room. Panteloglou took off his sweater, uncapped the water, spun around in a circle, and managed to get 10 students wet. This is one of many hands-on demonstrations he uses to engage the kids, who say that these methods make the class more interesting.

“The only thing I guess I do that’s unique is I’m not afraid to be myself in the classroom. I have a genuine passion for this stuff and I’m not afraid to show it,” said Panteloglou. “I don’t know if it’s one thing I do honestly, but it’s just the whole package, if you will.”

After class, kids stopped him in the hallway to give him hugs, shouting words of congratulations. He asked many of them specific questions about their personal lives.

“You didn’t go to school yesterday, and you’re telling me you missed my class today and you didn’t even go to the parade?” he joked with a student.

Caner Yildiz, a junior at the school, said students show up at Panteloglou’s class more than they do for other classes. And as for his handicap, it’s a nonissue.

“If anything, he uses it to his advantage, and it makes the class better,” Yildiz said. “He makes us learn, and he makes us have fun.”

Guzman, also a junior, has yet to take Panteloglou’s class, but she still sits in on his classes whenever she can.

“His handicap makes him unique because he’s the type of person who will always find a way,” she said. “Even though it might be difficult for him sometimes, he’ll find a way to make things work.”

However, she does notice some difficulties because of his vision.

“We see him having to hold the paper really close to his face,” she said. “It probably takes him twice as long to read and grade papers than it would any other teacher.”

“Typos are a commonality with me, especially when I’m hurrying,” Panteloglou said. “What people forget is that I don’t see the keyboard very well, and I can’t see the little squiggly line underneath unless it’s size 42 font,” he said with a chuckle. “They all correct me, and I say, ‘Hey, I’m making your English skills better this way.’ ”

Panteloglou keeps his voice down in the classroom.

“When they upset me, they know it, because I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” he said. “They’ll know, if it’s because of something they did or didn’t do, they genuinely feel bad about it and try to correct their behavior without me having to say anything or just by me giving them a look. If it gets a little heated where I’m having a bad day and they’re having a bad day and we’re yelling at each other, I have yet to have a kid not come back on their own and apologize to me. In many ways, they are my second family.”

Elizabeth Caesar, who is in her seventh year as a science teacher at Economics and Finance, said Panteloglou is always friendly, accommodating, happy and excited.

“He gets here early in the morning, and he goes home late at night,” said Caesar. “And he does it all with one hand. It’s fascinating to see him teach.”

She added that the students are so comfortable with him that he’s more of a father figure to them than a teacher.

“They all go to him for advice, even the seniors.”

“The kids and I have a rapport that’s unique, like they want me to be their parent,” said Panteloglou. “A lot of the kids come from homes where they don’t have that stable family environment, so at school, I try to help out a little bit.”

A fire drill interrupted class and everyone spilled out into the streets still swarming with people and police officers from the Yankee parade. Two former students rushed up to him and asked him if he remembered them, though they graduated back in 2001. He remembered instantly.

“Out of 13 years of school, no teacher has done so much for me,” commented one of the former students. “I never thought an adult could care so much, and I wanted to perform well because of him.”

Their rendezvous was suddenly cut short when another student became belligerent and started mouthing off to a police officer. The argument escalated, and several police ran to the officer’s aide. The student was handcuffed but then released.

“This is interesting,” Panteloglou told a reporter as he watched the scene. “You just came into the most insane day I’ve had in 12 years.”

The son of Greek immigrants, Panteloglou was the first member of his family to go to college. He was born with his vision impairment, and lost his hand when he stuck it in the grinder at his father’s pizza shop when he was 2 years old.

“I’m glad it happened to me at such a young age, because it was easier to adapt to than if it had happened when I was 13 or 14,” he said calmly.

After school, he runs photography, yearbook and sports clubs, such as hockey, softball and baseball, actually getting in the game and playing along with the kids. He also teaches guitar club.

Years ago, when he expressed his interest in the instrument to his friend’s father, he told Panteloglou, “What are you gonna do, surgically implant the pick in your arm?”

“I looked at him like, You’re a jerk,” said Panteloglou. “And then I thought about it and realized, I have the motion, so there’s no reason why I can’t do this. I went to my dad and we came up with concoction after concoction to get a pick to sit on my arm. And after about 50 tries with different materials, we got something that was stable and did the job.”

After the tedious process of finding a guitar teacher who was willing to work with him, he found himself writing songs and playing in a band, Synapses, in the ’90s. The band broke up when he began teaching.

“There was no way I could be a full-time teacher and go to a gig every weekend,” Panteloglou said.

He graduated with a degree in biology and went to a counselor to figure out his options. She told him that doing any kind of research might be an obstacle, to say the least.

“I thought about teaching, and that’s when she said to me, ‘How are you going to teach a kid to see what’s under a microscope, if you yourself can’t see what’s under the microscope?’ So that devastated me.”

A few years later the opportunity for his first teaching experience arose at Hempstead High, on Long Island, and after a quick marine biology lesson, he decided teaching was what he wanted to do.

His education skills were recognized last month at the first annual Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science & Mathematics, when Panteloglou received $5,000 for himself and $2,500 for the school’s science program. He was one of seven teachers in the city to receive the award, which is sponsored by the Fund for the City of New York.

While he has no idea how many other teachers with physical or vision impairments are currently working in New York City’s public school system, Panteloglou has heard about teachers who are blind and bring Seeing Eye dogs into the classroom. The Department of Education has 50 teachers with visual impairments on record in the New York City public school system, though a spokesperson said there could be other people out there who haven’t registered for visual assistance.

Panteloglou said that some “cute” stuff happens from time to time, especially due to his color blindness.

“I was talking to the kids one day, and I was looking at the fish hanging off the [classroom] ceiling, and I said, ‘It would be cool if I painted my walls blue, so I can feel like I’m in the middle of an ocean.’ A kid raised his hand and said, ‘The room is blue.’ I had no idea. It was blue for years and I didn’t even know it.”

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