Dyslexia: Challenging expectations…
As I stated in a previous blog I was not diagnosed with dyslexia until I was 34. I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had known. I wonder because if I had known my diagnosis I would have had a reason for why I struggled in English Literature A level. I would have known why I have to read information at least 5 times before it makes sense. I would have felt better about never getting an A in an assignment. I would have known the reason why my spelling was so ridiculously poor, why I never felt organised inside and why I always need to be early because if I am not early I might get behind and never be able to catch up. Knowing may have left me feeling less exhausted because I was trying to hide my feelings of stupidity and knowing may not have led to the lack of self confidence and self belief which still hangs over me… I think all these things and I feel angry, sad and let down by the system… but then I think if I had known what difference would it have really made and would I have achieved everything that I have, would my achievements be any different?
I achieved all my GCSEs, A Levels, BA hons degree, 3 post graduate certificates and diploma all without 1 minute of extra time. Whilst I found it hard and constantly fought like I was pushing 10 tonne weights up a cliff face on my own, it forced me to develop a resilience, determination and fight that would rival the best. These skills might not win in the hunger games but they would enable me to give my best, be equal with other competitors and would certainly see me put on a good show! Mostly because of the strategies I had learned, developed, employed and honed independently through the constant having to work hard, reevaluate my approaches, rethink what I had been taught and find ways to reteach myself what had been taught in a class that I had not managed to understand and make sense of or process any information which had been given to me.
Interestingly not one my teachers or lecturers ever mentioned or even considered dyslexia at any point of my 18+ years of education. They let me down badly, the system let me down badly… At the time though I had no expectations from the system, I had no expectations from my teachers or lecturers. I never once considered that they may have a part in my finding education difficult. I placed all the blame on myself and on me.
Now as an adult, parenting a dyslexic child my expectations have somewhat changed. My expectations on school and teachers are that they, at the very least, recognise his learning differences. That they find a way to give him the information so he can make sense of it and process it in a way that is meaningful to him. In a way he can understand and in a way that is conducive to his learning style. In a way that enables him to make progress in line with his above average ability and in a way that sees him fulfil his potential at a much earlier age than me. My son does not have a formal diagnosis yet, but he understands his areas of difficulty and strength. He is an expert on himself. He is 10. He will challenge his class teacher by asking to wear his his ear defenders to block out noise so he can focus on the information he needs to process or sit in a position where he is face on to the board and he will ask to have access to his spell checker if he needs it. He has a basic understanding of reasonable adjustment, not because he has read the code of practise, but because I or his tutor have taught him what he needs to make the best progress for him. We have taught him explicitly how to use and apply metacognitive approaches so he is able to constantly reflect on his learning style and continuously tweak and improve his provision to match his thinking. Please don’t read this and think that we have arrived at the destination and it’s all perfect because it is all far from perfect. Not all teachers are understanding or want to listen and not all adjustments needed can be made all the time. However when you consider his and my education they are miles apart and certainly moving in the right direction because our expectations are such that we can’t just place the expectation on ourselves, we have a part to play, we are responsible, but the responsibility has to be shared.
Against all odds the system which failed me didn’t stop me because of the expectations I had placed and continue to place on myself.
Education was the hardest slog of my life, but not once did I consider quitting. Quitting never once went through my mind. Quitting has never been an option for me because I literally saw education as a means to an ends. It was essential in getting me to the next place I wanted to be. My expectations I placed on myself were huge, massive and at times totally unrealistic but I knew where I wanted to get to and I knew that I would have to study to get there. That’s not to say at the age of 16 I knew I wanted to be a specialist dyslexic teacher, or consultant of special educational needs, or inclusion lead or primary school teacher. I did it all a step at a time. When studying for GCSEs these were a stepping stone to A levels. A Levels were the steeping stone to uni. Uni was the stepping stone to teacher training… Once I had taught for a bit I knew I wanted to specialise in something and my specialism in dyslexia took me to some post grads and a diploma. Then I wanted to be an inclusion lead so I did a post grad in senco accreditation. Each time I studied I focussed on the here and now, there was a purpose, there was a clear end goal. Importantly I placed the expectation on myself that I could do it. I put myself in the competition so I could cope with the knock backs. I could cope with the difficult times knowing I had chosen to do it, knowing it would be worth the pain in the end.
I wonder, knowing how schools work, knowing my teachers at the time of me studying A levels and how SEN was viewed 20 years ago if I had had a diagnosis of dyslexia at the time would they have allowed me to even start some of the courses I took? I have a feeling they might have encouraged a more practical hands on approach to learning. I am fairly sure, my English teachers in particular, would have written me off, because they had already more or less written me off and they didn’t even know I was dyslexic. In fact it’s fairly ironic that I have written a blog which has been massively successful because my English teachers at high school had no belief in me. They watched me grapple with trying to keep up in every lesson and watched me drown in an ocean of auditory tsunamis, tsunamis of words, language I couldn’t process or make sense of, books I found hard to comprehend. Tsunamis of having all the information in my head but not be able to connect the pieces together in an order which flowed or was able to make sense of. You’ll have to read my book if you want to know more about this, but they didn’t want me on the A level course, they didn’t believe I was intelligent and did not see why I wanted to go off to uni. Their expectations of me were nothing. They expected me to fail but I got an E! My expectations were that I would pass and that I would never give up. It was worth fighting because the 2 points the E provided sent me off to the uni of my choice!
Once I received my diagnosing qualification I started my personal mission of diagnosing as many pupils as possible. It was important to me that I was able to help others giving them something I never had. I needed to make them aware of their diagnosis and importantly understand their diagnosis so that they could make sense of their irrational feelings of stupidity, or disengagement or low self esteem. My expectations were that this would help them. The diagnosis helped many many pupils but there were a handful of pupils for whom the diagnosis was not necessarily helpful and whom the diagnosis back fired on me and them.
This handful of pupils and parents placed the expectation of the diagnosis that it gave them as an excuse, not to make progress, not to complete homework and not to read at home. Learned self helplessness. ‘I can’t do it I’m dyslexic, I can’t read quickly I’m dyslexic, I can’t learn my spellings I’m dyslexic. This was not my aim. This is not what I had hoped or wanted to achieve. This also made me a little angry. I had gone through my entire education not knowing. I had fought everyday in a classroom to keep up, I had not wanted these pupils to feel like me hence proving them with diagnosis if necessary, but my aim was never to provide them with an excuse. Never to make the parents feel like reading was point less because their child would never get there. The aim of the diagnosis was to be able to provide advice and support on strategies to best help them learn, maximising progress and understanding. The expectation should and must never ever be that dyslexics cannot achieve. I believe everyone of us has the ability to change the world, regardless of our learning needs, everyone of us can make a difference, can achieve their dreams and be successful… but you have to believe and have the expectations that you can get there.
I don’t have time for excuses, I don’t have time for quitters. We all have things we find difficult, we all have tricky times in our lives, we all could let these bring us down. I have time for people who find it hard but want to find another way. I have time for people who want to or need to stop for a moment to gather their strength, energy and self reflect to find ways to make it easier. I have time for people who see barriers but want to find ways to knock them down. I have time to help people overcome these difficulties but they have to want to help themselves. Please don’t think I don’t want to work with disengaged people because actually these are the people I thrive and long to work with because I love to challenge their expectations and find the route in! I live for the moment they start to belive but sometimes that can take perseverance and patience… if a person does not want helping then it is a battle best left for later, a battle left for a time when the person feels able to give it a try and is willing to accept some responsibility for the future. We have to share our expectations. This is a time when we need to play the game better than them! My expectation would be to never give up on them, but to search for another way in! We can ask for help, we can provide help we can support each other but we cannot fulfil each other dreams. We have to take responsibility for that alone, using the skills knowledge and resources avaiable to us.
My greatest strength but also my greatest weakness is my determination, resilience and ridiculously high expectations of myself. I aim for perfection, perfect and nothing less. Trouble is, it is pretty darn exhausting trying to be practically perfect all the time and trying to keep your feelings of insecurity, unease and busting an absolute gut to keep hidden. This is an expectation I placed on myself. No one else placed it on me and it is an expectation which has caused myself harm and hurt on many many occasions. I have learnt now to not always aim for perfection. If you aim for perfect you set yourself up to fail… I know where I want to go but I don’t necessarily aim for the end product I enjoy and learn from the process because it might take me somewhere that’s even better. My expectation has shifted… I learnt the hard way that perfect is not always what it’s made out to be, you don’t have to be the best and you don’t have to win every time. This does not make you any less, it makes you human. The expectations I placed on myself were just not realistic or sustainable long term! It’s all about that old cliche ‘balance’. You can’t have fun on a see saw on your own! You need someone there to be the opposite force, to be the one changing the energy, providing information on a new strategy that might help, that can move your thinking on, that can teach you a new skill or can give you energy and hope when you have none left. However only you can choose, believe and know if what you want to achieve is possible and only you know what you can realistically expect from yourself, how far you can push yourself and what you are truly capable of… Challenge others expectations of learning differences but most importantly challenge your own, don’t use them as an excuse or reason for failure, use them as a reason to drive you, use them to explore new paths and shape your future.
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