From Special Education Teacher to Academic Language Therapist

In the fall of 1995 I was completing my final class for my master’s degree in Special Education, with certifications in Learning Disabilities and Emotional Disturbances. I accepted a job teaching high school as a Special Education Teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). I thought myself well-prepared. I had graduated from a highly-regarded four-year college and received high marks in my master’s level work at George Mason University. My teaching certification exams were completed with scores above the 90th percentile. Once I was actually placed in a teaching position, however, I discovered that very little of my education actually helped students learn what they needed most: how to read. I was very skilled at writing IEP’s, adjusting for diversity in the classroom, metacognitive teaching strategies, classroom management, and laws related to inclusion of all students in the public educational system. However, none of my teacher coursework prepared me for a grim reality: most of my students (labeled as ‘Learning Disabled’) had reading and writing skills at the 3rd – 6th grade level and now, in 9th grade, were expected to fully participate in the rigors of regular education. The FCPS strategy for these students was clearly to accommodate them, not to provide remediation. As Special Education teachers, we were to get them through high school; whether they could actually read, write, or perform basic math operations was rarely addressed.

In my first year as an FCPS teacher, David was in both my team-taught social studies classroom and my remedial Basic Skills Review class. David was clearly very bright and had strengths not always found in students with learning disabilities. Although he had a 4th grade reading level, he could sit in a regular education classroom and absorb most of the information from listening. He had home support and completed his homework and projects. He earned B’s in most of his classes. In his freshman year, David asked why ‘tap’ became ‘tapped’ with the p doubled. I was a naïve, first-year teacher and was astounded with the question. I assumed everyone learned the doubling rule in elementary school. It was my first direct experience with how difficult it was to teach this one basic skill to a student with a reading disability. I covered the doubling rule several times that first year in my Basic Skills Review class. Sadly, I never saw one student catch on. David and others in the classroom could recite the rule but never could apply it. Like most teachers, I concluded that teaching spelling to students with learning disabilities was clearly a waste of time. I was not yet aware that such skills had to be taught to mastery in a multi-sensory manner following a diagnostic and prescriptive program. In fact, the words ‘multi-sensory’, ‘diagnostic’, and ‘prescriptive’ had yet to be part of my professional language and training.

In my third year teaching, I had David a second time in my Basic Skills Review class. His reading and writing had not improved, although he was earning his credits towards graduation and had college aspirations. That year, his parents became the bane of my existence. They called for meetings with the department chair and brought an advocate. They wanted to know what I was doing to improve his basic skills. They wanted their son to graduate with more than a ‘B’ average; specifically, they wanted him to graduate knowing how to read. I did the best I could; however, I had David in a class with eight other students who were struggling just to pass their classes. With teaching five classes, I was putting out fires all day. The reality was that I had neither the time nor the training to provide David or any of my other students with what they needed the most: remedial help for students with dyslexia.

David was lucky. His parents were aware he needed help beyond what FCPS could provide. Early in his junior year, David’s parents hired a specialist trained in multi-sensory language instruction to work with him after school. I started to see improvements. In the spring, David proudly announced to me he had just finished a book. He sheepishly told me it was the first book he had ever read cover to cover. I had had no idea that this bright young man had never read a book. I was so proud of him, but once again was awakened to how badly the educational system had failed him. The impact of his disability confounded me, and yet here he was earning B’s in high school. It was then that I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity, I would train in a reading system that worked for dyslexic students.

In the late 1990’s, FCPS provided some multi-sensory, reading training to a limited number of teachers. Because I did not teach a dedicated remedial reading class, that training was not open to me.

In 2001, my family moved to New Hampshire and I took a break from the classroom. I found a Wilson instructor and learned about dyslexia and how to teach students with dyslexia. I became a Wilson Certified Tutor and joined the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) as a Professional Member. I also discovered the short-comings of the Wilson system and went on to become certified in an IDA-accredited, Orton-Gillingham system, which I had learned was truly the ‘gold standard’ for teaching students with dyslexia how to read. I set up my own practice as a Dyslexia Specialist and was soon fully booked with private clients.

Since returning to VA in 2009, I have added a third dyslexia certification from the Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center in Rockville, MD and am now a Certified Academic Language Therapist with a private practice in Northern VA.  All of this training took place apart from any formal teacher-education program. In fact, the IDA accredits teacher preparation in reading from a very limited number of university programs, none of which are in Virginia.

In retrospect, I am very grateful to David and his parents. They had high expectations of me and FCPS. David’s success with specialized instruction proved to me that dyslexic students could learn to read, and that I had been part of a system that was short-changing them. Now in my private practice, I guide my students into fluent reading, writing, and spelling, and in doing so, partner with them in finding and expressing their voices. These voices should not be hindered by a lack of teacher training, staffing or inability to pay for private instruction.  Appropriate literacy instruction should be a basic student right.

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