Read this carefully: dyslexia can make you a better teacher

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh explains how what might seem to be a major handicap in teaching can actually be apositive experience.

Every public performer suffers a variation of the same nightmare. You stand there before a sea of expectant faces but you just cannot deliver. Louise Anderson, an art teacher at St Thomas More RC High School in North Tyneside, says that's how it is when you're a dyslexic teacher and you first get your class list.

"I got this list with all these names," she says." And I couldn't read and pronounce them."

It's not that she can't read. It's just that a page of text is daunting, and something she'd rather tackle in her own time in private. Now, with confidence in her ability to do her job, she gets one of the pupils to help her - someone who is delighted and empowered by the knowledge that this excellent teacher, capable of the most exquisite work and with a gift for passing it on, has learning problems of her own.

Anderson is the classic example of dyslexia: the problem was unrecognised in her early learning years, and she was continuously having to prove herself.

Then, eventually, she was mentored, taught and encouraged by people who understood her problem.

At her primary school in Scotland, dyslexia was never mentioned. "I went to extra reading with the special teacher. My parents were quite concerned, but the head said I was a just a bit slower than the others and needed extra attention."

In high school, some light started to dawn, but only dimly. "The English teacher saw that my sentence structures weren't right. He sent me to the SEN department and I saw the educational psychologist. They said I was slightly dyslexic, but not to worry. Even then, the word didn't get round all the teachers, so in maths I was in the bottom set with the kids who didn't want to bother. As a result I failed my maths."

Determined to get into higher education, she went south of the border. "I went to an open day at Sunderland. They accepted me straight on to the degree in art and design, specialising in stained glass and photography." Art course or not, there was always going to be reading and writing to do, and it's clear she had to work very hard. "It was a struggle, but they were absolutely the best for support.

"It was not until university that I was properly tested by the Dyslexia Institute, who found I was, in fact, severe. The university gave me all I needed and backed me up 100 per cent. I had a word processor, a regular appointment with a personal tutor to look at my written work, and a counsellor."

She got a good degree - a 2:1 - which gave her great satisfaction after her school experience. Teaching came into the frame when, as a student, she did a session as artist-in-residence in a primary school. She then enrolled on the PGCE course at Sunderland and spent much of her time at St Joseph's RC comprehensive in Hebburn, Tyne and Wear. There she worked with head of art Steve Wells who, as luck would have it, turned out to have reading and writing problems of his own.

"I've never been formally diagnosed as dyslexic," he says. "I was educated in the Sixties, a classic case of a child who was verbally bright but I had real problems when it came to writing anything down."

He believes that, in common with other bright children, he simply found ways of working round his difficulties. "It was mainly by doing things over and over again. It took me ages to write anything - I always seemed to scrape through with essays and so on, just beyond the minimum mark to pass, which I found frustrating."

There was certainly little in his schooling to help. "One thing that's clear to me now is that we were taught in a very didactic way. If you didn't fit in, then tough."

Through his whole career Wells has sought the difficult route, taking a succession of further degrees and diplomas. "I forced myself to do academic work. I wanted to practise writing. If you don't have to do it, then you don't."

This, then, was the head of department who looked after Anderson in the final stages of her PGCE course. "I knew we had to make sure she qualified because she had masses of potential," he says.

He immediately spotted her dyslexia. "I could see all the classic signs I had seen in myself: a real fear of writing, worrying about the essays she had to write, hesitancy to read in front of the class. I talked to her about it and when she said she had difficulties I was able to say 'Well, so I have I'."

It was the reassurance she needed. "The relief came across her face - the recognition that someone understands. I told her that it's not a problem, it just means we have to work out ways of dealing with it, and if we can do that, it will never be a problem again."

Wells helped her with practical ideas that he's worked out over the years. "I got her to build up a bank of sentences which would describe children's attainment - a whole series that she could fall back on. I gave her frameworks for writing."

Now in her second year, Anderson continues to be well supported. She's been given voice-recognition software, for example. "The special needs department have been so supportive I last year when I was struggling to write my reports, our special needs co-ordinator said I should have come to her before."

The striking thing about both these teachers is the empathy they have with children who have differing learning needs. Wells sees it in terms of realising that children learn in different ways. "You have in front of you lots of children with lots of learning styles. That means you have to teach in different ways. The less able child is particularly dependent on the kind of teaching they receive. If the teacher is not sympathetic to their learning needs, they are not going to fulfill their potential."

Anderson, too, talks of trying to present material in a range of ways, "making it easier and accessible, so children are using all their functions and not just sitting and listening".

Wells has carried this quest into his work as a senior examiner in GCSE art. "I wanted to make my exam papers more readable so that students would know exactly what they were asked to do, regardless of reading age. I increased the type size, for example, from 12 to 14 point."

Both teachers exhibit huge understanding, not just for dyslexic children - nor, indeed, just for children with learning problems - but for all children in all classrooms. In Wells's case, 23 years into his career, it is now a burning passion. "I have to find ways of making my subject accessible to all the children, whether gifted or with educational problems. I am charged with that responsibility, and I will do that whichever way I can."

At Sunderland University, where Anderson studied to be a teacher, lecturer Barbara Riddick, researcher into dyslexia, recognises the empathy which the dyslexic teacher brings to the work. "They say it's made them better teachers. They talk of empathy and motivation. As one of them said, though: 'It would be nice to have that understanding without being dyslexic'."


Every dyslexic person does some covering up, and teachers feel more vulnerable than most. Steve Wells recalls learning assembly readings off by heart, and both he and Louise Anderson have always avoided blackboard writing, or prepared it in advance and carefullly checked it.

But a dyslexic student needs to be open about the problem if he or she is going to get financial and practical support. The Disabled Students Allowance is worth significant sums - pound;4,155 as a one-off grant for equipment, and a general allowance of up to pound;1,385. There's also a non-medical helper's allowance of up to pound;10,505 a year to pay for a reader or a typist.

So the advice is to be upfront about dyslexia on the application form. Equal opportunity legislation means it shouldn't affect the application process.

Getting the local authority to play ball, though - they have to approve the allowance - can be difficult. Lindsay Peer, education director of the British Dyslexia Association, says: "Local authorities are very different in attitude. It's an unfair situation in that it depends on where you live. And some universities will intervene with the authority, where others don't."

Louise Anderson is in no doubt about being open. "I put it in my support statement when I applied both for my university place and my job.

"I had a friend who was a primary head and she advised me that people would respect me for being open and honest."

At her job interview, her head expressed some concern about writing reports to parents, but this, too, has been a matter of care and support. "Don't bottle it up," she says. "Speak to somebody. I was lucky, I had Steve, but you'll find somebody you can trust, somebody who'll take five minutes to help you."

Are all education departments as supportive as Sunderland? It's not easy to tell. Barbara Riddick has researched the area but still finds it difficult to get the true picture.

"The departments are between a rock and a hard place," she says. "There's emphasis on numeracy and literacy skills and extra tests and, on the other hand, there are human rights and equal opportunity issues."

What students and their parents can do, clearly, is use the Sunderland level of support - the mentoring, the counselling, access to IT - as a benchmark for asking questions in other places. Riddick says: "One of the most helpful things is having as a main tutor or mentor someone sympathetic to dyslexia or even dyslexic themselves."

And dyslexic teachers should remember they are not alone. Wells says: "In the art world especially there are probably more teachers like myself than would care to admit it. We find alternative ways of expressing ourselves. A lot of young people have an art teacher as a favourite teacher, and I think that's why - I think they see bits of themselves there."

British Dyslexia Association 98 London Road, Reading RG1 5AU.Helpline: 0118 966 8271 Email: info@dyslexia Web:

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