The Gift of Being a Dyslexic Teacher

Written by Matthew James Friday
@thefridaystory

The Secret Disability: Dyslexia

Dyslexia creates suffering for many students but you rarely hear of teachers admitting to having it. Are teachers really still required, in the 21st Century, to be models of perfect, marble-made fonts of knowledge and effectiveness? I have tutored a small number of dyslexic trainee teachers but that was an exception to the norm. By sheer statistics alone, I must have worked and be working with colleagues who are struggling in secret. Why don’t they speak out?

It’s Time to Talk About Dyslexia

I always make a point of telling my students and colleagues about my dyslexia. On occasions I have been told, in hushed tones, not to tell too many people I am dyslexic, as if dyslexia is an infectious disease or a badge of stupidity or a barrier to being a good teacher. Quite the reverse. I have also had many beneficial meetings with parents in which they reflect on their own struggles with learning and gain a better understanding of what is happening with their child.

Certainly, having dyslexia makes you feel stupid at times, especially children as they struggle to read and write – the two fundamental definitions of achievement in our education system. Every dyslexic sufferer with have tales of being emotionally tortured at school – being made fun off by peers, the embarrassment of reading aloud; insensitive teachers, etc. (I will share my own later.) All the more reason to have teachers with dyslexia talk openly about it, to share coping strategies and to reveal the other bigger secret of dyslexia: it is a gift!

Dyslexia Means a Different Brain

People with dyslexia have different brain structures. Impairment with development in the logical-language left cerebrum hemisphere results in a strengthening of the creative-visual-imaginative right hemisphere. Hence dyslexic people are so often artists, musicians, writers, designers, etc. They literally ‘see’ the world differently.

One of the first things I do with a dyslexic student new to me is tell them about all the exceptional people from history with dyslexia: Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein are two amazing examples, but there are many other modern day actors, architects, athletes (a lot a’s!), singers, chefs and entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. Yes, dyslexia makes you different. But it also means you can be brilliant.

Watch What is Dyslexia from TED-Ed for an in-depth explanation of Dyslexia.

 

Defining Dyslexia

Before we go any further, let’s understand what dyslexia is. Here is a step-by-step definition* of dyslexia:
  • The word ‘dyslexia’ is Greek and means ‘difficulties with words’. That generalized definition is actually helpful because there are numerous difficulties and not all dyslexic people have the same difficulties.
  • Dyslexia is a “spectrum disorder” meaning that there is a range or spectrum of symptoms. Dyslexia is different for different people.
  • People with dyslexia commonly have difficulty with all or some of: phonological awareness, verbal memory, rapid serial naming and verbal processing speed; coordinating left, right, up, down, east and west directions.
           

My Dyslexia Story

At primary school I could pass a spelling test but make frequent mistakes in my extended writing. I mixed up letters and numbers and reversed letters – an indicator but also very common in young children’s development. My school reports featured the same comments: “Matthew enjoys writing but he rushes and makes many mistakes.” I could never see my own mistakes in my writing. I was not ‘rushing’. I had so much to say.

I loved writing almost as I loved reading. I was the first student to read the entire (admittedly tiny) school library. But I dreaded reading aloud. I literally trembled with fear. The black words would blur on the white page. I waited nervously for my turn and tried to read aloud slowly without loosing my place. I always made mistakes. I was always snickered at. My comprehension of the text was low so I had to work doubly hard at home to catch up. I was also easily distracted, drifting into a vivid imaginary world. It was not boredom or disrespect. Quite the opposite. I was so easily visually stimulated that my imagination would rush ahead with lively pictures.

At secondary school I was either an ‘A’ grade essay writer or have the paper rejected by frustrated teachers, as confused as me as to why I should be so inconsistent and unable to see my own errors. The worst moment was when my beloved secondary school English teacher declared me “stupid” in front of the whole class for repeatedly misspelling “Anthony” in an essay about a Shakespeare play. He retracted his earlier declaration that I was on track for a scholarship for Oxford University.

Diagnosis Happiness: Mild Auditory Dyslexia

I was twenty years old and I had started college study after a few gap years. The first essay I had written was returned splattered with red ink and harsh comments about mistakes. The familiar feeling of shame and frustration rushed back.

Luckily, a leaflet about dyslexia in the university library directed me to an educational psychologist and an assessment process that resulted in the diagnosis I had suspected for years: mild auditory dyslexia. With my dyslexia, I can hear what is said but I instantly feel the information flittering away in my mind. It is like having leaking holes in my brain. It was a huge relief to know what was wrong with me. I was different, not stupid.

The Gift to Teaching with Dyslexia

Leaping ahead fifteen years, I now find that having dyslexia is a gift to me as teacher. It gives me:

The Challenges of Having Dyslexia Continue

There are of course challenges that come with dyslexia. I have difficulties with:
1. Remembering facts, sequences, dates and lists. Three tasks or facts is about my limit;
2. Being easily distracted, which can appear rude or inattentive;
3. My short-term memory can be poor and I can easily forget what people tell me, especially instructions.
4. Anxiety when overloaded by instructions;
5. When I feel overloaded, my brain feels physically weighed down and fuzzy with too many images and thoughts buzzing around;
6. My dyslexia is not constant. Some months or weeks it is worse, others better. It seems to rise and fall in line with my moods and is exaggerated by stress.

Coping with Dyslexia, Not Curing

Dyslexia is not a disease, so it cannot be cured, only coped with. Some of my copying strategies are:

Read about features in k3000+firefly developed for coping with dyslexia.

 

Time to Inspire

Dyslexia has not stopped me reading avidly and, alongside teaching, being a professional writer and storyteller for children. I am a widely published poet and I tell stories at international festivals around the world. Dyslexia should not stop you doing what you love, learning new skills and surprising yourself.

As teachers, it’s our job to inspire, encourage and empower all out students, why aren’t we doing it with each other? I urge secret sufferers to be declare their dyslexia – your students will be inspired. I challenge colleagues to support teachers with learning needs and celebrate their bravery. I challenge you, the reader, to think differently and better about yourself. Your dyslexia makes you different, undoubtedly, but it also has the capacity to be brilliant. You see the world differently and the world is much, much better for it.

What challenges does dyslexia create for you, or you students? Share your story.

*Sources:
1. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Dyslexia/Pages/Introduction.aspx
2. Nicola Edwards (2004) My Friend Has Dyslexia, London: Chrysalis Children’s Books.

 

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