Teacher of the Year is Dyslexic

Jeff Dunn 1

Our guest blogger, Jeffrey Dunn is 2014 Regional Teacher of the year from ESD 101. Jeffrey is an educator, cultural critic, & backwoods modernist currently teaching in Deer Park, Washington. He invites others to read bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Richard Brautigan.


Try and imagine the impact this fact has on my students. No longer am I a model of all that is correct. No longer am I the authority on all that is academic. In this case, I am learning disabled as defined in Washington State law (WAC 392-172A-03055). This law reads that learning disabilities may include “conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” In short, I am not the model of perfection students are led to believe all we teachers are.  

Researchers from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity's Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia) and the College de France and  Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale'sStanislas Dehaene (Reading in the Brain) estimate that between 10-20% (call it the midpoint, 15%) of all human populations are dyslexic (variation  is a result of definition and assessment practice). Think of it, in any class of 25, we should expect 4 of our students to be dyslexic. My thirty-six years of teaching experience has proven this statistic to be true.

Dyslexia is a genetic legacy. Identify a dyslexic student, and you will also identify one dyslexic branch, sometimes more, on the family tree.  Very often when I hold conversations with family members about dyslexia, we end up in a therapy session surrounding the family’s school experience. Occasionally I meet with strident denial. Such is the stigma any experience labeled as a disability has.

Dyslexia is not just kids reversing letters, although directionality issues are on the list of traits associated with dyslexia. Truth be told, the identification of dyslexic experience requires looking at a constellation of traits which becomes increasingly blurry as student brains adapt to the school experience. I begin with simply looking at student pen/pencil grips. Dyslexics like me commonly have fine motor coordination issues and use our thumbs instead of our fingers to control any writing implement. Most dyslexic grips are idiosyncratic, and we report that our hand starts to hurt after we write four or five lines. Most dyslexics print and prefer to keyboard.

From something so simple as observing students as they write, a teacher can move on to a number of helpful checklists.  The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity has developmental checklists which are useful to begin the conversation: Early Childhood http://dyslexia.yale.edu/clues1.html, Second Grade to Middle School http://dyslexia.yale.edu/clues2.html, and Young Adults http://dyslexia.yale.edu/clues3.html. Washington State's OSPI has an entire webpage devoted to dyslexia which includes a link to the Washington State Dyslexia Resource Guide k12.wa.us/Reading/pubdocs/DyslexiaResourceGuide.pdf. I particularly like the section "The Dyslexia Friendly Classroom, Helpful Hints for Teachers."

All of this conversation with students and their families helps me work with students who experience school within the dyslexia spectrum. Yet, even if students are not dyslexic, all of my students experience that I listen to their voices and respect their individual learning styles. I train my students to watch for the errors that my dyslexia produces. We have fun with correcting the teacher. After all, as the late Columbia University educator Neal Postman (The End of Education) asks us, isn't true education not about being right but about detecting errors? The more we teachers can create a classroom where we work together to eliminate errors, the better society we will have.

 And finally, the most valuable message I can share with my fellow dyslexics is that our most recent neuroscience is rethinking dyslexia not as a disability but instead as a cognitive type which has as many advantages as disadvantages. The Eide's Neurolearning Clinic's Fernette and Brock Eide (The Dyslexic Advantage) explain that although dyslexic experience with traditional school is often a struggle, dyslexics also have tremendous mechanical (think architects and surgeons), interconnected (think artists and inventors); narrative (think novelists and lawyers), and dynamic (think scientists and business pioneers) abilities.

Following this rethinking about dyslexia, one teaching service I offer is to help dyslexics steer their life choices toward the areas where they are comfortable and will succeed.  So often we teachers and parents insist that our students and children spend their lives forever working to improve perceived weaknesses. Surely few would argue that improving one's reading, writing, and mathematical abilities is bad advice, but we dyslexics want to attest that when we are given the opportunity to learn auto mechanics and welding, drawing and designing, storyboards and narrative creation, and business entrepreneurship, we develop our strength as global thinkers which then gives us the structure we need for making better sense of reading, writing, and mathematics. This is the way we dyslexics go from being to disabled to empowered! 

3 thoughts on “Teacher of the Year is Dyslexic

  1. Mark Gardner

    Thanks so much for sharing this perspective–ultimately, what I take away from this is bigger than how I can better work with students who have dyslexia. Rather, it is more about what our system has been and what we need to reconsider: as you point out, too often, we are deficit focused… we look for where kids fail and pour energy in to that instead of looking for ways for them to cultivate their strengths. I see the same at all levels of education, from the classroom to policy-making. It is easy to label a kid, a school, or a system as failing if we only adopt the perspective of what struggles or failures exist. We can always find those. Instead, as you point out, we need to harness the strengths each student, school, or system has going for it.

  2. Tom

    First of all, congratulations on being selected as Regional Teacher of the year! What a great honor!
    Secondly, thanks for placing dyslexia in the spotlight. For obvious reasons, school faculties tend to be dominated by people who “did school” well. Unfortunately, those who struggled with learning tend to flee the academic environment the first chance they get. It’s great someone like you didn’t.
    And finally, it’s wonderful to meet another Brautigan fan. Trout Fishing in America was the first book that I actually enjoyed reading. Sadly, I was a senior in high school.

  3. Matthew Brewer

    What a great article. I’m saving and sharing this. It’s such a powerful thought that we can flip the script and turn a student’s ‘weakness’ into a strength. You’re an inspiration for so many people and I can’t wait until we all get back together in the spring.
    I remember being astonished at how perceptive you are and I’m trying to look for the small clues that will help me identify those students who have ‘hidden superpowers’.
    Thanks for this article!

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