'How my stammer made me a better teacher'

Stammering has defined the education and career of teacher Abed Ahmed. But far from considering it something that has had a negative influence, he says that it has made him a better teacher – and the lessons he’s learned can help you, too

Abed Ahmed

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From the age of 4, I struggled to speak and couldn’t say my first name. To this day, I find it difficult to introduce myself to new people.

They say that your disability should never define you. But I think that my stammer has defined me.

What may surprise you, though, is that I think its impact has been, on the whole, positive. Despite the challenges, I believe I am a better teacher because of my stammer. And my experience could help you, too: both to improve your teaching and to support pupils with a stammer.

Stammering can be classified as a disability as it can have “substantial adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” (Equality Act, 2010).

Research suggests that up to 5 per cent of children and 1 per cent of adults stammer. This means it’s highly likely that you’ll have pupils and even staff in your school who stammer, though they may hide it so that you don’t know.

I’ve had many challenges in my life since the age of 4. Being bullied and mocked about my stammer is something I still face, even at the age of 23. Being asked, “Oh, have you forgotten your name?”, or being told, “Oh, that took you a while to say that?” can understandably make you feel stupid and embarrassed.

I have faced challenges at work: for example, sometimes hearing a pupil mock my stammer – though I should say that 99 per cent of my pupils understand my struggle and are very supportive.

Also, I can’t seem to contribute much in meetings where everyone is seated next to each other: I don’t know why, but my fear of getting stuck on certain words prevents me from speaking – it’s something I am working on. However, I can speak in assemblies with 180 pupils and it’s not a problem. Yes, it’s weird. I cannot explain it.

But I don’t think these things have held me back. Rather, my stammer has made me a better teacher. Moreover, my experience could make you one, too.

As a teacher with a stammer, I have found myself developing certain professional and personal traits. I have found that the best teachers are those who have mastered the art of listening and who give their students time to express their thoughts, feelings and views. My stammer has forced me to adapt in this way – it has been overwhelmingly positive.

I’ve learned to listen more than I speak. I give pupils a chance to explain the reasons for their actions or behaviour and I have found that pupils really appreciate it when you give them a chance to express themselves. And while they explain their perspectives, I usually have the time to assess the situation and then choose the right words to reply.

That’s another thing I’ve developed: I reflect before I utter any word, so I tend not to say things I regret. As a person who stammers, I will most likely stammer more if emotions such as anger or stress overcome me. To communicate in the way I want to, I need to remain as calm as possible. Again, my stammer has forced me into the most productive way of teaching,

Both of these things should be standard practice for teachers. I feel lucky that my stammer helped me recognise them so early.

Stammer support

I also feel proud that I can help others who stammer – and help teachers support those who stammer.

I don’t want any pupils to go through the same struggles, so I’ve created my own stammer support sessions in my school. I am currently working with seven pupils who have a stammer and I am trying to increase their confidence. My sessions have included drama and theatrical role play, interview practice and tips and advice on how to approach people. I hope I act as a general supporting figure to give students a voice and empathise with their struggles.

Alongside these sessions, all my pupils are receiving speech and language therapy from an external therapist who comes into the school on a weekly basis.

So, as a teacher with a stammer, what do I advise other teachers to do to support their students with a stammer?

* As a general rule, treat a pupil with a stammer the same way as you treat pupils who do not. We don’t like to be treated differently.

* Never finish their sentences. Always listen to what they have to say and not the way they are saying it.

* Being patient is important. The more anxious we feel, the more likely we will stammer even more. It can be tempting to say things like “spit it out”, but that’s the worst thing you can say to a person who stammers.

* Don’t tell them to breathe slowly or to take their time – it just makes us feel that we are not capable of speaking for ourselves.

* Show them that you are always listening. Ensure you keep natural eye contact at all times. We like to know that we are being listened to.

* Ask stammerers what you can do as a teacher to support them. Try speaking to that pupil more than before, even if it’s before lesson or in the canteen. Every bit of conversation will help them. This will hopefully encourage them to speak more, which is what we want.

* Always encourage them to take part in speaking activities – but you should certainly ask them beforehand, so you know what they’re comfortable with.

These are just a few things you can do to support a child who stammers. If in doubt, you should speak to your Sendco or your local speech and language therapy team.

To all the stammerers out there – young and old – please never give up on your dreams. I did not let my stammer stop me from being a teacher. If I can do it, then so can you.

My therapist, who is now a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University, taught me that the quicker you accept your stammer, the better things will get – she was right.

Visit stammering.org for more information


Abed Ahmed is a maths teacher at Holte School in Birmingham. He tweets @stammer_teacher

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