First off, I hate the word disability. I prefer the term, learning need. As in, we all have learning needs- mine just happens to be different than yours.
One of my early math memories (don’t we all have math memories?) is standing at an old-school chalkboard with the Sister at my Catholic School chastising me and demanding I complete my eight times tables. I attempted to skip count with my fingers, but she slapped my hands away and shouted, “No counting!”
I was baffled, no counting? What? Was I supposed to be clairvoyant and the numbers were just going to come to me? Little did I know that for other people, numbers, once memorized, did simply come to them.
In high school, I was put in a remedial math for the inclusive students within our school. We learned how to do such things as balance a chequebook (do cheques even exist anymore?). However, in every other class I was in a high percentile. I aced my writing pieces, relished biology and was hooked on history. I loved learning.
Even in the sciences I did well… except for Chemistry. My stepfather was the chemistry teacher at my school and he taught me for three years in a row, the same class, because he failed me twice. My challenge was stoichiometry. Stoichiometry, for those who need brushing up on high school terms is a branch of chemistry that deals with the relative quantities of reactants and products in a chemical reaction.
So, to unpack that- stoichiometry is math.
However, if you are a person who does not hold numbers in your head, figuring out each stoichiometric equation involves skip counting the times table, whilst figuring out each step and competing against a clock. In essence, you are doomed to failure.
Finally, after the third time through the class my dad noticed me ‘playing’ with the old school wooden balls and sticks that model chemical composition. He noted that I could accurately compose, decompose or create the chemicals he requested. When given a calculator, I used the stoichiometric formulas to produce the correct answers. He discovered differentiation and I passed.
Even into my university days my struggle with math stood in my way of what I could accomplish. I began university wanting to be a teacher. I went for two and a half years to the University of Alberta and couldn’t get past the math I needed. So, I transferred to the Alberta College of Art and Design and completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts.
I had been labeled throughout my school life as lazy, stupid, unmotivated, and more- simply because of my struggles in math. I had then adopted those labels into my self-concept. Even into my mid-twenties, I had people say to me that it was clear I simply didn’t want to memorize my times tables or had math anxiety and so just didn’t try.
In my master’s degree I had to face my demons yet again. I had already failed the PRAXIS, a very comprehensive test that teachers need to pass in order to obtain licensure and was sweating bullets knowing this could be the end of my dream. Was I not smart enough to be a teacher? By chance, I had an amazing math professor who watched me trying to complete a task and within a few minutes ask, “Oh, you have Dyscalculia heh?”
Mind = blown.
I had a label that was something other than lazy? My professor encouraged me to get tested so that I could have accommodations for the PRAXIS and so I did. After 22 years of education and 32 years of life, I discovered that I had a specific learning disability called, dyscalculia. Dyscalculia often occurs developmentally, as a genetically linked learning disability, which affects a person's ability to understand, remember, or manipulate numbers or number facts (e.g. multiplication tables).
To give you an indication of how profound accommodations can be for children with learning needs- the first time I wrote the PRAXIS, I failed with 160 points out of a possible 190. With time and a half and a calculator I passed with 186 out of a possible 190. I knew the math, I simply couldn’t show my understanding within the stipulations of the standardized test.
And they lived happily ever after, eh? Sorry- but this is not the end of my tale.
As a teacher, a large part of my educational philosophy is centered within acting as an advocate for my students. I am there to be their voice, to stand up for them, to counsel, encourage and liaise. I am the hard-ass when no one will come through for them. I love them and want what is best for each of them.
I had a student who needed such advocacy when I worked in China. This child’s mother admitted for the first six months of life he was left with a caregiver and rarely held. He lacked facial expressions and struggled academically. He was misunderstood by other children, was slightly outcast and I loved him.
In Asia, I often found that parents would risk their child’s health and welfare to avoid a label of a disability. In over a decade working in Korea and China I taught many children who needed additional help from learning support but was told there was no way that the parents would get the child tested. This has to do with the political systems in place and the cultural stigma attached to disability in these countries still.
After a year of teaching this little boy and advocating relentlessly on his behalf, I shared with my principal and she agreed, that this particular mother was slowly coming around. She just needed a hook. Over the summer holidays I wrote her an email (and ccd my new incoming principal) to share my story and encourage her that a disability label actually was liberation for me. I now had strategies and ways to move forward as a learner. It lifted the weight of the other negative labels people had given me and gave me power to take back my learning. She had her son tested and wrote me a heartbreaking email full of sweetness.
I advocated for my student. I was proud that he got tested. It was short lived.
When I returned from summer holidays my new principal called me into her office and shouted, as in yelling, as in a using a VERY LOUD VOICE, that I should be ashamed that I wrote such an email to a parent. And even if I did have a disability, I should never admit to it. After-all, I was employed at an international school and the teachers were supposed to be smart and successful. Then she threw a printed copy of the email in my face.
The subtext, if you are unable to read it, is- you have a learning disability, you are not smart, you are not successful, and you should shut up.
In my current teaching location we are lucky to have a child psychologist, learning needs specialists, and counselors in order to help our children with specific learning needs. We monitor them from an early age and our advocacy is listened to and respected. We are reflective about what we have and what we need to do to get better for the children within our care.
I have synthesized what I have learned from my own difficult journey into my teaching practice. I work to ensure that I am careful with the words I use to address children’s difficulties. Those words become labels that children wear as badges throughout their lives. I encourage testing and early intervention to enable children to feel in control of their learning and to scaffold for teachers to develop strategies to help those children be successful. I work to find the right differentiation for the students in my care, and when something doesn’t work, I try something new.
There are many Facebook pages and online communities to join if you would like support for your own need or the needs of those within your care. There are also approximately a billion Pinterest boards (but don’t take my word on it, because I have a maths need :P ) to help supplement the teaching and learning happening within your communities.
Nowadays, I do not shy away from talking about my own learning need with parents, with current or future administration, my colleagues or my mentors in my doctoral program. True, sometimes, I run into old-fashioned thinkers- people who are uncomfortable with a teacher saying they have a disability.
But then I question, who, if not me, will be a mentor for the kids that I teach with needs? Who will show them that having a disability is not a hallmark of what they can’t do? And who will tell them that it’s ok to say:
I have a learning need. I am smart, I am successful and I will not shut up.