It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to!

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

Yesterday I wrote a piece “When in doubt apply a label” in which I discussed the controversy that surrounds the categorisation of children. Within the article I mentioned Julian Elliott’s recent work published in his book The Dyslexia Debate. A couple of respondents from Canada, Ireland and India posted comments on this blog but I also received an interesting observation from a friend here in the UK. She was unaware of the blog until her daughter, a local teacher, drew her attention to yesterday’s piece. Having read what I wrote she felt obliged to telephone me and give me her perspective.

She began the conversation by telling me she thought I had overlooked an important point. She wasn’t angry, at least not with me, but she was disappointed by an education system that had failed her at school. She went on to tell me that at the age of twenty two, she was assessed and diagnosed as dyslexic. This diagnosis, she related came after having been labelled as a complete failure at school by many of her teachers and also by her father. Alice (not her real name) had finished school at age sixteen with virtually no qualifications and left only with a feeling of relief that her school days were behind her. As far as she was concerned she was finished with education which she saw as having provided her with little more than misery. She left school with a negative view of teachers and very few friends. Even worse, her father who was a successful business man, accused her of being lazy and wasting her educational opportunities.

Having left school Alice had a succession of jobs, none of which she found particularly satisfying until an opportunity arrived for her to work for a national chain of florists delivering flowers to individual customers and floral displays for corporate events. She enjoyed this work and at last found some satisfaction in her life. At about the same time she married and all was going well for her. Then fate took a hand in her life. After two years in her delivery job her boss approached her one day and offered her a promotion to work in the office. Alice says that she immediately panicked, knowing that she would not be able to cope with the demands of office work. Her boss was surprised when she turned the job down, he knew she was newly married and would probably appreciate the increased salary that came with an office job and he believed she had the right personality for the position. He pushed her to take the post and with great apprehension Alice agreed to give it a try for three months on the condition that she could return to delivery work if it didn’t work out.

Alice told me how after a week in the office she was in a complete panic. She found herself adopting the very same strategies that she had used in school to avoid demonstrating the difficulties she had with reading and mathematics. She spent a restless weekend after her first week in the office post and on the following Monday had resolved that she had to see her boss and give him the full truth about why she couldn’t do the job. She described to me how much courage it took for her to sit in the office and tell her boss that she had difficulties performing the required level of reading tasks and that she didn’t want to continue in the post. However, she had not expected the reaction that she got from the man sitting opposite her.

Her boss asked her about her experiences at school and she told him about her struggles with learning. He immediately sympathised and told her that his experiences had been similar, but that the school which he attended rather than seeing him as lazy or stupid decided to provide him with extra support. With the cooperation of his parents he was given additional structured lessons to assist him in overcoming his reading difficulties. He described how a teacher had built an entire reading programme for him built around Leicester City Football Club match programmes and other related materials knowing that was his area of interest. With time his reading improved and he managed to leave school having done reasonably well in his final examinations, but more importantly feeling confident in his own abilities.

Alice’s boss told her that he would not let her give up the office job as he thought she had the personality to make a success of the post. He wanted her to stay on in the office and would give her an assistant to help with the things she found difficult, but on one condition. He would arrange for Alice to have an assessment of her learning needs and the company would then pay to provide any additional training that she needed. At this point Alice told me she had dreadful visions of returning to the classroom, but her boss was both insistent and kind.

I listened to Alice’s story over the phone recognising that it was probably a bold decision that she had made to call me and tell me her story. I attended to what she had to say without interruption as she then carried on to recount how she had gone for an assessment with a very sympathetic lady. The assessment lasted nearly two hours after which she was asked, “has nobody ever suggested to you that you might be dyslexic?” Alice says that she had never heard the term until that point. The specialist who had conducted the assessment explained how the word dyslexia was being used and that with the right kind of support many of Alice’s difficulties could be addressed.

From that day on, Alice told me, I realised that I was not stupid and that there was a reason why I struggled so badly at school. “I read your article on the blog”, she told me “and I thought someone should tell you the other side of the story.” Following the assessment Alice returned to reading lessons and quickly learned strategies that had never been made available in school. She retained the office post and was in fact promoted further a couple of years later. She remains bitter (her word) about her school experiences describing these as lost years. She is convinced that had the label of dyslexia been applied to her early in her schooling she would have been more likely to receive the support she requires.

Alice may be right. There’s no way we can tell. I personally don’t believe that we should wait until a formal diagnosis has been given before we recognise that children need additional help with learning. I also believe that it should have been possible to provide the support Alice needs without applying the term dyslexia.

I sent this piece to Alice so that she could read it and give me consent to post it on this blog. She was happy to do this (as long as I changed her name) saying that maybe it would encourage others to think more about her experiences. We discussed my view that a label should not be necessary in order for a child to receive appropriate teaching. She tells me that she agrees but equally that she thinks me naïve and suspects that many more children will consider themselves to be failures and furthermore will believe it is their fault unless they are given the right messages. “For me,” she said, “knowing that I am dyslexic and not stupid or lazy, is important. It’s my right to wear this label if it helps me to feel better about myself ”.

Thank you Alice for sharing your story. I do hope that others might contribute to this discussion.