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The Gift of Being a Dyslexic Teacher

Matthew James Friday

International School Teacher, Literacy Consultant and Professional Storyteller
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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 with (and perhaps am presently working with) colleagues who are struggling in secret. It's time to talk about dyslexia.

6 Facts About Dyslexia

So what's dyslexia? Here is a quick definition:

  1. Dyslexia is a "spectrum disorder," meaning that there is a range or spectrum of symptoms.
  2. People with dyslexia commonly have difficulty with all or some of:
    • Phonological awareness
    • Verbal memory
    • Rapid serial naming
    • Verbal processing speed.
  3. Dyslexia has no link to intelligence, though many people feel "stupid" and ashamed at school because they struggle with literacy skills -- the cornerstone of how we measure ability.
  4. Dyslexia is one of the most common learning difficulties. It is estimated that one out of ten people in the UK have dyslexia.
  5. While language has a role in prevalence, dyslexia affects people all of ethnicities.
  6. Commonality in families has led scientists to identify six genes that may cause dyslexia. (My brother has severe dyslexia, and my father has all the symptoms, though when he was at school, those symptoms were put down to laziness or stupidity.)

One of the happiest days of my life was being diagnosed with mild auditory dyslexia. I was 20 years old and 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. 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. It was a huge relief to know what was wrong with me.

With my auditory 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. At primary school, I could pass a spelling test but made frequent mistakes in my extended writing. My school reports featured the same comment: "Matthew enjoys writing, but he rushes and makes many mistakes."

I have always struggled with my listening skills. I am easily distracted and often drift into an imaginary world. Though an advanced private reader, I hated reading texts aloud in high school. The words blurred on the page, and I felt intense anxiety at the thought of being laughed at. My comprehension of the text was low, so I had to work doubly hard at home to catch up. The worst moment was when my beloved English teacher declared me "stupid" in front of the whole class for repeatedly misspelling "Anthony" in an essay about a Shakespeare play.

The Attentive Teacher

Leaping ahead 15 years, I now find that having dyslexia is a gift to me as teacher. It gives me:

  • Valuable insights into the challenges students face with literacy.
  • The motivation to pay particular attention to the children who find paying attention difficult, who are "daydreaming" or distracted.
  • The desire to devise special strategies and activities for students, which I can pass on to parents.
  • The impetus to educate parents and even deal with their own learning needs (most of the dyslexic students I've taught have at least one parent who admits to having similar problems).
  • The opportunity to act as a role model for students struggling with confidence, emphasising the increased capacity for imagination, visual learning, and creativity that comes with dyslexic brains.
  • The chance to show children that some of history's greatest artists, leaders, and inventors were dyslexic (this helps relieve some of the pressure and shame that students feel).
  • The urge to make sure that my lessons have a visual element, which is useful for all learners, especially ESL students.
  • The ability to prove that, like me, you can have dyslexia and still be a prolific reader and writer.

There are of course challenges that come with dyslexia. I have difficulties with:

  • Remembering facts, sequences and lists.
  • Being easily distracted with teaching.
  • Anxiety when overloaded by instructions.

Some of my coping strategies are:

  • Using spell-checkers and proof readers for everything.
  • Writing everything in a notebook before I forget and become anxious.
  • Layering my lessons with prompts so that I can remember the sequence and content.

If it's our job to inspire, encourage, and empower all of our students, why aren't we doing it with each other? I urge secret sufferers to declare their dyslexia -- your students will be inspired. I challenge colleagues to support teachers with learning needs and celebrate their bravery. It's time to talk about dyslexia.

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MGeoghegan's picture
Principal at Nichols Middle School

This is a sensational article that all teachers should read. It is powerful, personal, and (to use another P) proactive to help teachers with their practice in supporting all students in their classroom. Thank you, Mr. Friday.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Tremendously practical and inspiring

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

As the mom of a kid with dyspraxia, I so appreciate it when adults are transparent of their disabilities and differences. It helps me show my kiddo that while dyspraxia is something he *has*, it isn't something he *is*. Thanks for this!

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

Wow, I really felt inspired by your post and admire your approach to being a role model for your students. This is what struck a chord with me: Are teachers really still required, in the 21st century, to be models of perfect, marble-made fonts of knowledge and effectiveness?

My opinion is no. When teachers and students build connections, they also learn and teach one another better. Wouldn't it make sense, then, that a struggling student would relate better to a teacher who openly shares their own struggles, versus one who appears 'picture perfect'?

Most importantly you are righting the wrongs of your old teacher, who showed no empathy and didn't understand that it wasn't a matter of unintelligence! You are passing on the message to your students and that's extremely powerful.

Shane Freeman's picture

As a dyslexic, dysgraphic, dysnomic, dyscalculic, history teacher I couldn't agree more. I have a BA and masters in history and teaching certification. "I can't" and "Its too hard" are profane phrases in my classes.

Kelly Miller's picture
Kelly Miller
Special Education Teacher

Really nice article. I really felt inspired while reading this post. This article should be read by all special needs educators.A teacher who himself is dyslexic offers insight into the challenges children face in school for dyslexic students
Despite the difficulties dyslexics experience, they often thrive when challenged.

Tony's picture

I am not a teacher but I agree 110%! I didn't find out until later in life I was dyslexic, but when I did a whole new world opened up to me. I created a website to share the tools that I use daily. The 1st tool and the most important tool "I Will Never Be Ashamed" I with the help of some dedicated individuals are starting a nonprofit called Billy's Quest to help provide "Free or inexpensive tools and to bring Awareness,because dyslexia is only a disability if we allow to be with the technology available today there is no reason one more child has to suffer from the shame and pain that dyslexia has caused so many!

Candice Martinez's picture

I am so relieved in reading this! I was thinking that I had to give up this profession as well.
I have dyslexia and I am moving into student teaching. I was essentially by a professor told that I am not going to make it as teacher, but I am determined to do so! I have struggled all through my college career with it. After visiting my DSS office I found out I am not the only paraprofessional who struggles with learning disabilities who needs additional coaching with instructional delivery! So once I master and become better I want to set up a support group and offer coaching to other students as well. I am not going to let my learning disability to take one more thing away from me, as it ready has.

Martha Landon's picture

As a Mom of a dyslexic son who just changed his college major from Elementary Ed/Special Ed, I wish I had found this earlier.He told his academic advisor a year ago he was dyslexic. Two
months ago she told him the he needed to ' change your major' during a field experience with his peers overhearing her outburst as well as 5th graders. What prompted her outburst? He didn't verbally respond quickly enough to her probing questions regarding a paper he was having difficulty completing for her class concerning Mathematical misconceptions. He was ashamed and 'felt stupid' in front of his peers and went and changed his major within a week to Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism management. After this semesters grades are submitted I'm emailing her and the department Dean my dismay and a link to Mr. Friday's article.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Martha, what a horrible situation for your son! I am so sorry. If he is passionate about teaching, he certainly should do all he can to pursue it. His own experiences in school could help him have such a big impact on his students, especially as a special ed teacher. I hope he looks at every possibility, and that he is happy in whatever path he chooses!

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