by Beth Sennett
“She’s not dyslexic. I’ve seen her sat reading a book!”
I realise I probably wasn’t meant to overhear this comment from a work colleague but I did find myself smiling at the remark. It sums up to me many people’s perceptions of dyslexia and probably explains many of the misconceptions and barriers I’ve come up against throughout my life.
I had never been a high achiever at school and my reading accomplishments never stretched much beyond ‘The Beano’. However, thanks to the positive attitude of my parents, I never felt inadequate. I remember coming home from school and proudly telling my mum I had achieved 2 out of 10 on this week’s spelling test, “Well done” she said, “that’s 2 more than you knew last week.” So I strolled through school being ‘happily average’.
My journey with dyslexia really began at University. Expectations were raised and the workload was vastly increased. It was taking me much longer to complete assignments than other students and I was becoming increasingly frustrated every time I picked up a book. I remember one afternoon spent reading the same chapter over and over and yet still not having a clue what it was about. I distinctly remember that particular book meeting with a rather grizzly end when it collided (several times) with my bedroom door!
As my Teacher Training course progressed we started to learn about Special Educational Needs. I began to recognise many of the difficulties I had been experiencing and approached the University for advice. I began working with a support tutor who, after conducting a screening for dyslexia, offered additional tutoring and support editing my assignments. I began to learn how to plan and organise my essays and how to make my writing clearer and more precise. Gradually my written work was finally demonstrating my knowledge. I eventually left with a 2:2 grade and achieved a 1st for my final dissertation.
I began my first teaching job in 1999, working in a school in Portsmouth. Over the next 6 years I gained experience of working in schools in Hampshire and Bristol. Although I continued to be aware of my dyslexia, I never felt like it was affecting my job. In fact I often considered it to be a strength; especially when teaching phonics and reading. Unlike many of my peers I didn’t just know that literacy was difficult, I understood why.
In 2005 I was offered a temporary contract in a Southampton school. Two terms later I was ecstatic when my contract was made permanent. However, this period was the first time in years that I again began to feel the weight of my dyslexia. The introduction of a Creative Curriculum meant that all teachers were now planning independently. I suddenly found myself drowning in paperwork. I was working late into the night, desperately trying to keep up with my peers who were all smiles and enthusiasm about the new curriculum. I was afraid to admit how much I was struggling through fear of being deemed incapable. I knew that my dyslexia was at the root of my difficulties but I still did not have the confidence or feel that I had the right to ask for special treatment.
This was a difficult year for me but I gradually began to revisit some of the strategies that had been so helpful to me at university. I devised planning formats on my laptop that I could adapt and change on a weekly basis. This not only reduced the amount of writing each week but also helped me to ensure I had included everything I needed on my planning documents. I became obsessively organised about my resources, cataloguing and labelling everything. This allowed me to access things so much easier and interestingly made me feel a lot calmer and increased my effectiveness. I gradually managed to regain the control I had lost.
In 2008 I gained the role of Year Group Leader. In spite of the additional workload, the organisational techniques I had learnt during the previous years proved invaluable and as a consequence my confidence soared. I also began the first year of my Threshold application, receiving very positive feedback.
However, the following year provided even more challenges. The school introduced two new initiatives: Letters & Sounds and Assessing Pupils Progress, both of which vastly increased the work load yet again. For the first time in my teaching career I finally realised I needed to ask for help!
I spoke to my Head Teacher about my dyslexia. I told her about some of the difficulties I had experienced over the years as well as the current difficulties I was having. Sadly however, the response I received was not positive. I was immediately stripped of my Year Leader position, being given the explanation that management did not wish to overload me. I found myself being asked to hand in paperwork for inspection by my Head Teacher which would be returned to me with numerous ‘corrections’. Most upsetting of all, my observed lessons were suddenly being deemed ‘inadequate’. In 2010 I was handed a letter informing me that a meeting was to be arranged with HR to discuss my “professional capabilities” with the distinct possibility of beginning disciplinary proceedings.
Everything I had worked so hard to achieve over the past 15 years was crumbling around me and I had no idea how to hold onto it!
My life took a turn for the better when a friend recommended that I contact a Dyslexia Assessor called Philip Roseblade. Philip, who is a member of HDA, was able to confirm that the difficulties I had been experiencing at work were due to dyslexia and was also able to offer many additional insights into the effects of my dyslexia. I realised that I had so much more to learn about the condition that had not only affected my education but was now influencing my career. I spent the next few months researching dyslexia, speaking to other dyslexics via internet forums as well as reading up on employment law and the Disability Discrimination Act. I became fascinated with how dyslexia seems to influence so many aspects of a person’s life from their career choices down to how they organise and carry out day to day activities.
Eventually, with Philip’s incredible support and the backing of Occupational Health (who informed my Head that she needed to halt any potential disciplinary action and immediately put in place the support measures outlined by Philip), I was in a position to fight back. However, due to the stress I had been under throughout the year I made the difficult decision to take a break from Education and take a stab at something that I had always wanted to try. Bus driving!
In spite of the amusement of many of my friends this; admittedly quite random decision, has turned out to be one of the best I have ever made. Finally, I have found myself in a job where my dyslexic attribute towards good people skills is giving me an advantage. I am also fortunate to be working for a company who are keen to support their dyslexic workers. Within my first year I have been given additional time for driver training and route learning and have received incredible support through Access to Work. In addition to all this I have been extremely fortunate to have a manager who has the same desire to understand learning disabilities as I do. She was honest enough to say to me on my first day that she did not know much about dyslexia but encouraged me to tell her if I was struggling with anything and what I needed to help.
My manager’s openness leads me to consider that perhaps as educators we have become too closed minded about Learning Disabilities. Perhaps a small amount of knowledge can lead to misconceptions.
Despite my journey with dyslexia it is only now that I feel I have begun to understand it and even now I know that I still have so much to learn. In September, I started a course at Helen Arkell with the goal of qualifying as a dyslexia tutor. I wish to eventually work with older children and perhaps adults. If I can give them some insight and understanding into their own dyslexia and enable them to take control of the direction their own life takes, then my journey will have been worthwhile.
Copyright © 2009-2015 Helen Arkell