Dyslexia and Me: Reaction to The Guardian’s Secret Teacher

Yesterday, The Guardian posted an article online called Secret Teacher: we are too quick to label children who aren’t perfect. I have shared it on social media to see reaction from the dyslexic community, but I thought I would write a response in the blog to the article too.

Knowing where to start with this is difficult. I have given my opinions on social media already, but rather than copy and paste, it is probably best to dissect the article rather than a gut reaction.

Firstly let me note that I am neither a parent nor a teacher, but I have been through the education system as an undiagnosed dyslexic who asked for help on more than one occasion. 

“You don’t want to be in 4J, you’ll get dyslexia.”

This has been the standing joke in our staffroom for years, owing to the teacher’s over-zealous approach to diagnosing any child not brilliant at reading as “dyslexic”. She’s a great teacher who is passionate about children and who gets good results (which could be why she needs to find a reason for anyone not making the grade under her watchful eye). However she is a labeller – one of the many idealistic adults who can’t bear to believe a child is less than perfect unless it’s because there’s something wrong with him or her that’s nobody’s fault.

I have mentioned this in the blog many time, so I am covering old ground. My mum spoke to a number of my teachers both in primary and secondary school raising concerns that I may be dyslexic. The teachers were the opposite of the teacher in 4J and their reaction to my mum was ‘she can’t be good at everything‘. I assume that means that my mum was labelled as a ‘pushy parent‘ who wanted the ‘perfect child‘?

Personally, I feel that if the teacher of 4J has concerns with a student s/he should be able to raise concerns without feeling bullied by the teachers in the staffroom with their ‘standing joke. However, unless the teacher has training as an educational psychologist, it is not his/her job to label the child, which could be damaging if their ‘diagnosis’ is incorrect. Instead the teacher should be able to raise the concern and have the child assessed so that the correct diagnosis and support is given.

The fact that teachers are joking about ‘getting dyslexia‘ upsets me too. I personally don’t find that funny in the slightest. I don’t have a disease or an illness and the more people joke about ‘getting dyslexia‘ the further we push back the progress on understanding what dyslexia is and what dyslexia isn’t, especially for those who perhaps don’t have an understanding of dyslexia that read this article.

Diagnosis and Assessment

First, the diagnosis is often performed by someone with no skills, qualifications or expertise – a well-meaning colleague, an over-concerned parent, a kindly friend. The only requisite is that they have access to the internet or have seen a TV programme about the condition in question. Second, it is upsetting and insulting to people who battle with genuine problems that others casually assign themselves and – most of all – because we as teachers are increasingly forced to pander to them.

First, I agree with the frustration of diagnosis with no skills or qualifications. However, the teacher in 4J has expertise in teaching children everyday and probably has for a number of years. As for parents and friend’s finding information on the internet or on a TV program… Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees and perhaps the child is good at hiding some behaviours at school which is more obvious to a parent. For example, I have blogged before about dyslexia and personal hygiene in the past that a teacher will not necessarily see in their classroom but a parent will be well aware. Dyslexia isn’t just about reading and writing either and I think a lot of people forget this.

If teachers aren’t being taught the signs to look for with neurodiversity then perhaps it is up to parents, well-meaning colleagues and kindly friends to point out that there may be something that the teacher and school is overlooking as to why the child is struggling with aspects of schooling.

Second, I understand why the Secret Teacher feels it is ‘upsetting and insulting’ when children are misdiagnosed by parents or teachers, but would it not be far better to rule out the concerns by having the child assessed? After all, they could be in the same boat as my mum who was ignored by teachers but was absolutely right that I am dyslexic!

The bit that turns my stomach is ‘teachers are increasingly forced to pander to them‘! That is no attitude to have! Parents’ naturally have concerns about their children and their well-being. Perhaps if there weren’t so many stories, like my own, where children were missed in school there would be less of a concern that their child isn’t just another person who slipped through the net. And though I was told when I went back into education at 25 that schools were getting better at spotting neurodiverse children, my experience at college and university suggests otherwise. I met a lot of people who were only being assessed and diagnosed in their late teens and 20s.

Legitimacy, ‘Smart’ dyslexics and Slipping the Net

The Secret Teacher discusses being a special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco) teacher and confesses to not knowing everything. And though the Secret Teacher says that they welcome concerns, but I don’t think that s/he is being fair mentioning ‘genuine struggle‘ when already making sweeping statements about teachers, parents and kindly friends. As much as I understand that not all children will take to certain subjects as well as others is this attitude to who is and who isn’t genuine going to rule out the ‘smart’ dyslexic kids or the kids who have adapted their strategies? I was a general-credit student in school, a smart dyslexic kid who slipped the net. I was in the second top group for reading in primary school. In secondary school I was only in one foundation-general class, which was English, though I sat the general-credit exam and received top marks in Standard Grades.

With the Secret Teacher already discussing parents wanting the ‘perfect child‘ do parents, like my mum, with children who are passing classes and achieving in exams ignore their concerns and put it down to their own paranoia? Should my mum have ignored her concerns because I was a general-credit student? Or perhaps if I had been recognised as dyslexic and given the support sooner I could have achieved more than what my grades suggested. Being ‘smart’ doesn’t mean that you aren’t struggling with the education system.

Family Traits

I’ve heard all sorts of reasoning (usually unrelated to assessing the child’s abilities and needs): “It runs in the family”.

Actually, dyslexia can and does run in families. Many parents of dyslexic or ASD notice that after their child has been assessed and diagnosed that they have similar traits that went undiagnosed. I know of siblings that are neurodiverse with similar but different diagnoses, I’ve read so many accounts of this in dyslexia support groups on social media but also in the book I have been reading about Asperger Syndrome. And why wouldn’t it? Being neurodiverse isn’t some sort of disease or illness! If we inherit eye colour, height etc from our parents, why wouldn’t be inherit neurodiversity too?

A lot has changed since my parents were at school! A lot has probably changed since I was at school too. There is better assessments and better understanding of neurodiversity (though we’ve still a long way to go). The parents of these children may have slipped the net themselves when they were at school. Perhaps we need more studies into this aspect of neurodiversity and better assessment. I am the only one in my family who has been assessed, but that doesn’t mean that I’m the only dyslexic/dyspraxic in my family, it just means I’m the only one who has been assessed!

How to Move Forward

Perhaps part of teacher training should including how to look for the signs so they have a better understanding of not only the needs of individual children but of how to make education accessible for all. We can’t all be good at everything, but assuming that a parent coming forward with concerns over a ‘smart’ child who is struggling with aspects of learning shouldn’t be dismissed as a ‘pushy parent‘. Not all parents want their angel to be some sort of unrealistic perfect that the Secret Teacher is discussing! If teachers and parents work together over concerns then maybe their would be less cynicism when things do go wrong.

I have read in load of places online that there are large cues of people waiting for assessments from educational psychologists. I also know that these can be costly, as my school refused to have me assessed and told my mum it’d cost her £500 if she wanted to take her concerns further. I understand that teachers are overworked and underpaid, so lets take the stress off of teachers when it comes to labelling kids and get a trained educational psychologist in every school, or perhaps one for every 10 schools in one region. Getting kids assessed early stops the other labels that fly around, like the ones I was given in school: lazy, daydreamer, stupid.

A new approach to teaching would be beneficial too! The focus should be on inclusion not exclusion. Some kids learn better with repetition, some with visual aids, some with tactile etc etc. These different learning techniques should be brought into the classroom to benefit all the students in the classroom, not just those with different learning needs.

The class I thrived in was History in 3rd and 4th year in secondary school. We did have to do reading and writing, my memory of dates and names was more my area of struggle though. However, it was the making of posters, watching videos both historically accurate and Blackadder (the last episode of Goes Forth related to our project on WWI), the silly voices my teacher put on and the songs he used to sing, the visits to museums etc! I have to say, we were very lucky to have such an awesome teacher who embraced all these different teaching methods. I really wish other teachers at school had been as resourceful when teaching us.

From my point of view, through my eyes as a dyslexic who slipped the net, a change in the education system is far more important than worrying about labels. If I hadn’t been given my label of dyslexic after my assessment I wouldn’t have received DSA at university to equip myself with the correct tools to support myself through my degree. I feel it’s the education system that ‘disables‘ students by not creating an inclusive environment. I struggle writing with paper and pen as my hand can’t keep up with my thoughts, but give me a keyboard and a computer screen and I’m writing away! Being able to write by hand is great for taking notes and writing letters and I don’t think we should take it out of teaching, but I have yet to work in a job where computers were not key for any extensive writing.

I think that schools should have more subjects that are less academically focused. Not everyone thrives in English or Maths classes but with subjects like plumbing, catering, painting, hairdressing etc surely it would benefit a far larger amount of students who may have otherwise seen themselves as failures and boost these skills in the job market. I don’t think the attitude of sending kids to do these subjects at college is good enough! By then a lot of these kids will be turned off to education, so why not incorporate them into schools at an earlier stage? Give kids the choice to expand on their positive traits and the skills that they can take with them into a positive career path rather than failing them and seeing them added to the queue at the Jobcentre.

Change is needed within schools, but I think the Secret Teacher is looking in the wrong place to where change should come from!

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Posted on June 21, 2015, in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Excellent piece, couldn’t agree more!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. teresa robinson

    well said ! I love your last comment : change is required , we need to allow EVERYONE to dream to reach their star ! no matter what ,
    Progress should be measured to the individual not to the mean score of the classroom intelligence !

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Being ‘smart’ doesn’t mean that you aren’t struggling with the education system”

    I love this quote and while I have absolutely no experience with dyslexia, I agree about the education system needing a revamp. While it doesn’t relate to neurodiversity as such, you may be interested to see Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education.

    He talks about how people have different ways of learning, as you mentioned above. There is a wonderful story he tells about a young girl who was constantly distracted because all she wanted to do was dance. I can’t do it justice in text. If you can spare 15 minutes, you might appreciate his talk.

    Anyway, great post. It’s been way too long since we spoke 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Natasha Pester

    Yes absolutely! My son’s school/senco has proved that by very early support and the willingness to adapt things to my son without an official name or diagnosis, he can achieve. This move towards one style of assessment fits all is the school system’s making, not the parents. I am very grateful that his difficulties have been taken seriously at a young age but they aren’t really his difficulties they are the school’s. Trying to fit a wonderful square peg in a round hole!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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