A teacher who herself is dyslexic offers insight into the challenges dyslexic students face and the strengths they bring into the classroom. By Liz Ball
Dyslexics are lifelong learners. We often share an insatiable curiosity and commitment to figuring out the world around us that is unique in its intensity. We are not only compassionate about learning—we are driven to analyze and critique the world around us—to turn arguments inside out, then right-side back again. This, after all, is what dyslexics do well. We see the world from a unique perspective, and we are compelled to share our perspective with others. This is why we make great teachers.
I can still remember the name of every single teacher I ever had starting in nursery school all the way through 12th grade. This is hard to believe, considering I was severely dyslexic, and school was a traumatic experience for me—often inexplicable and unpredictable. It played out before my eyes in ways I couldn’t decipher. Letters and numbers floated and jumped around on the page in front of my eyes, while other children sat happily at their desks reading and writing and spelling what I assumed were perfect little sentences. I could see the letters strung together on the page; I knew they spelled words, because I had memorized many of them to deceive my teachers into believing I could actually read. The truth was, I had no idea how to read. Matters were only made worse by the fact that I had a twin sister who was not dyslexic, who often sat happily by herself reading beautiful little books with colorful pictures and intricate plots.
Meanwhile, my entire childhood seemed to be spent deciphering this mysterious code—attempting to master the skill called reading that seemed to come so easily and automatically to my classmates. For hours on end, I sat with my mother, teachers, and privately paid tutors laboriously sounding out words, attempting to recognize and pronounce the letters that spelled out the text on the page. I developed insomnia and migraines by the time I was nine. But I never gave up.
The fact that I remember the name and face of every teacher I ever had is a testament to the incredible school I attended—where every student was treated with respect, and a love of learning was kindled and nurtured with enthusiasm. Thankfully, the school I attended also believed in a multisensory approach, strict phonics for struggling readers, and hands-on, project-based instruction with lots of art. Not every dyslexic child is as lucky.
For most dyslexics, school is inherently painful—a dreaded environment that serves to repeatedly embarrass the dyslexic student and squelch her self-esteem. This is because teachers often teach through reading and writing—and nothing about language is automatic for dyslexics. We are constantly engaged in the process of pulling apart the linguistic pieces we are presented with in order to make sense of their whole. We can (and often must) see every perspective or possible method to solve a problem before we can truly understand it for ourselves.
This prevents us from seeing and understanding things automatically. But it also provides us with a multilayered map of how one has come to a conclusion, solved an intricate problem, or written a persuasive paper. Our own downfall actually becomes an asset in the classroom. This is because dyslexia prevents an automaticity that can be detrimental to teaching. After all, one must be able to see the individual steps, the varied perspectives and possibilities in order to explain the nuances and specific details of the subject at hand. Good teachers and students know this. Great ones live it.
After years of struggling in grammar school, I finally learned to read. But it never became fully automatic for me. To this day, I cannot actually understand what I am reading unless I am alone in complete silence with no distractions. This is because reading and writing and thinking and learning are not passive endeavors for dyslexic people. They require huge amounts of physical and mental energy. Foreign language and college-level calculus were also extremely difficult for me because they both involved intricate code breaking at a depth and speed that simply stretched the limits of my dyslexic brain. I did eventually find success reading and writing the English language, thriving in my college-level literature and philosophy classes. After college, I pursued graduate degrees in Boston requiring obscene amounts of analytical reading and writing. It was painful, but I loved nearly every minute of it.
Teachers often don’t realize that students who struggle to learn enjoy it the most. Despite the difficulties dyslexics experience along the way, we often thrive when challenged, becoming even more intrigued and curious when faced with seemingly unsolvable puzzles. We are especially invigorated when our unique perspective is recognized and valued. After all, without the tenacious commitment to solving the mysteries and complexities of the written text, we would never have made it past kindergarten because we would have given up on that first mysterious, inexplicable, and unpredictable code we call language. It is often the case that dyslexics share an insatiable appetite for learning. And luckily for the rest of the non-dyslexic world, we savor our time in the classroom both as teachers and as students.
Liz Ball graduated from Carleton College with a major in philosophy. She received her Juris Doctor from Boston University, and lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children. She teaches at The Foote School in New Haven, and is currently writing her master's thesis on Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the first female architects in Connecticut.