Tasks such as writing and alphabetising can be time-consuming and tricky, but children learn more helpful lessons when we are honest about the challenges we face in life than when we try to conceal them
What is it like to be a teacher with dyslexia? I have been staring at that question for 20 minutes now, and, despite being a teacher with dyslexia, I’m not sure I know the answer. I think back to my first ever observation, where I was so nervous I think I was actually shaking, and the first bit of feedback given to me was:
“You made a spelling mistake on the board. Then corrected it and apologised saying it was due to your dyslexia. This wasn’t an appropriate thing to share with the class. You must never tell a class that you have problems with literacy.”
If this was a film, the camera would have zoomed in to show my shocked and disbelieving face. I am the kind of teacher who believes in sharing something of yourself with your class. Telling me not to do this would make my job very difficult indeed.
Without this context, it would appear that I had no good reason for spelling errors or similar mistakes I might make. More importantly, I would lose the chance to be a positive role model to children in my classroom with similar learning difficulties.
The best thing I ever learnt to do is to ask for help
The power of telling a child with dyslexia that you not only understand the problems they are having, but also have similar difficulties yourself, is enormous. Why ever would I want to give up the opportunity to give a child hope that, even though they find writing or reading hard (as I did), it will get better with practice and strategies.
Moving forward in time, at another college, I was asked if I would mind being on a poster for the learning support department. They wanted staff to be positive about their dyslexia, and offer role models for how people could enjoy successful careers despite this label. I thought this was quite lovely, and I was very proud to help deliver such a positive message.
In a practical sense, my dyslexia makes writing very difficult. I especially struggle to find words on the page if I am searching through a document, and alphabetising anything takes me hours.
I think I spend most of my adult life working out ways to make the tasks that I find hard more manageable.
In terms of planning, this means I tend to work far in advance, so as not to leave myself under pressure to perform difficult or frustrating tasks at the last minute. Giving feedback on student work can also take extra time, so I find it important to pencil in blocks of time where I give myself permission to focus on doing that.
The best thing I ever learnt to do is to ask for help. Other members of staff, both admin and teaching, have been absolutely wonderful in supporting me. From proofreading communications with parents, to helping me organise files, I have often been overwhelmed by the way in which others will go out of their way to help me. It has shown me the real positives to being part of a learning community, not just another member of staff struggling on my own.
In terms of coping in the classroom, I think that being honest and your authentic self is important. I do not see my role as ‘teacher’ to be a totally perfect knowledge-possession machine. I see my job as to nurture those in my classroom, and to help them make the most of their potential. I see no shame in asking classes to help me spell words.
In fact, this has often proven to be a very useful learning tool for students as they assist me, for example, with some of the technical language from The Iliad. Keeping a dictionary in the classroom has also proven useful. In my current school the children have iPads, and they are more than happy to help me look up a word so they we can learn it together.
I used to feel very defensive about being a dyslexic teacher. I had a challenging time at school myself, but I think in the long run this has made me more empathetic towards the students – making sure that they are never made to feel by me as I was by my own teachers. I think that as an experienced teacher, I am able to embrace my dyslexia as a difference that makes me unique, rather than a problem that makes things difficult.
Rachel Jones is a speaker at the Sunday Times Education Festival on 18 & 19 June 2015