I was a child who loved, loved, loved school, not an easy task in my family. So many of my family didn’t enjoy school and left as early as...

Meet the Team - Sandra Tidswell

18:58:00 Dyslexia Australia 1 Comments

I was a child who loved, loved, loved school, not an easy task in my family. So many of my family didn’t enjoy school and left as early as year 9. Many went on to have unstable working lives, becoming as the saying goes - Jack’s of all trades and masters of none. Many are also very content, and have the most wonderfully generous hearts of anyone I know.

I was the first in my family to finish year 12, let alone go to university and spent most of the first 40 odd years of my life defending teachers and the education system within a family I felt didn’t value education. Now, nearly 2 years after my youngest child was diagnosed with dyslexia I know I have done my family a disservice.

My son was the first in the family to be diagnosed, but I can recognise dyslexia in the previous 2 generations, and through my research and involvement with dyslexia advocacy understand that the pain and shame of their experiences at school drove them from formal education too early.

My son finished Reception on PM level 19, but I realise now that he was actually memorising those readers, as he’s a bright lad. When he hadn’t progressed beyond PM level 22 in year 1 I began to voice my concerns to school and was told a number of times until year 3 that – he’ll get there, or it’s a boy thing. I now know that this is a symptom of the Australian education systems wait-to-fail model. My own love of school and respect for the teaching profession was strong, and as I felt that teachers were the experts in education I trusted them to know best.

I received my son’s dismal year 3 NAPLAN results in the last few days of term 4 and they confirmed that my concerns had been well founded. School gave the NAPLAN envelopes to the students and of course they were opened and the children compared results. My son was devastated, and cried all the way home – it was the first time he called himself dumb. It was also the first time I promised him I would find out what was going on and ensure he received the help he needed.

He attended general eye sight and hearing tests to rule any issues out there. The last few weeks of those Summer holidays were just awful, he cried uncontrollably most nights as he didn’t want to go back to school. It was heartbreaking.

A meeting with the classroom teacher very early in year 4 acknowledged a shared concern and I was so grateful and readily accepted learning support. Still I thought the education professionals would know best. It wasn’t until term 3 of year 4 that the possibility of dyslexia was mentioned and that an assessment was recommended. By the end of year 4 we had an educational psychologist assessment that confirmed dyslexia, and I thought phew, now we know exactly what we’re dealing with, and school had a comprehensive document detailing recommendations, they would run with this and my son would get the evidence based support he needed.

I am a health professional and evidence based practice is the bedrock of health professions, and I assumed this was the case in education too. We began year 5 full of optimism that over the remaining 3 years of primary school he would be well placed to begin high school in 2018. It was an awful, sad and sometimes angry realisation when this wasn’t going to be the case, at least not solely within the school setting, and my respect for the profession began to be chipped away.

Below are some of the comments repeatedly made to me over the last 18 months:
no we don’t need to become a dyslexia aware school – we are dyslexia aware enough 
no your chid doesn’t need a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) as he is not bad enough/the worst in the class (3 years behind in some areas is apparently not too behind these days - 6 months later we had a PLP of sorts)
if you can only get your child to be more organised, so much would improve
you need to trust us as the education professionals to provide the right support to your child - but don’t ask us to be specific around what evidence based support we’ll be providing
your child has a learning difficulty, you might be expecting too much of him (this is a child who has an understanding of Plank’s constant and attoseconds, and dreams of visiting Griffith University’s Laser Atomic Physics Laboratory)
no we can’t possibly meet with your child’s tutor (Educational Literacy consultant), our teachers are too busy and it would set a precedent

After many meetings with the classroom and learning support teacher and complaining to the Principal about those meetings, and complaining to the State Executive Director, the Principal acknowledged that this school had let my son down and the resultant bursary we received reduced our school fees significantly. Very handy indeed; as although we have a range of classroom accommodations in place, and some in school support, we have had to go outside of school for the high quality evidence based literacy and more recently maths support he needs. He has made significant gains with his literacy specialist, he still doesn’t enjoy school but he doesn’t have the level of anxiety he used to that had him on the brink of seeing a psychologist.

What concerns me is if this is what it means to advocate for your child in primary school, where I need to communicate with one classroom teacher, what will advocacy at high school be like – this keeps me awake at night.

Thankfully I have been blessed to become connected to a group of wonderful dyslexia advocates who have paved the way for my family. Through their experiences I have been able to avoid the plethora of charlatans that trawl the literacy intervention programs space, both within and outside of schools, and consequently my son has only received evidence based intervention outside of school.

My faith in the teaching profession has been boosted by learning about the lighthouse schools that are getting it right for dyslexic learners, and subsequently all students – but they are too few. Recently I coordinated the Dyslexia SA Literacy EXPO and was encouraged to see 150 educators who were eager to learn a better way; they knew their university education had let them down. But again this is a drop in the ocean.

What is needed is mandated:
undergraduate education of teachers in the explicit instruction of systematic synthetic phonics
early identification of strugglers with phonics screening in the first year of school
early intervention for those strugglers
use of truly evidence based intervention in schools
professional development around learning difficulties
recognition and maintenance of long held accommodations when students sit year 11 and 12 exams

This letter has detailed my son’s schools dealings with me, not my son. Not once has he been belittled by a teacher, or bullied by students. He has had kind, well meaning teachers, who just don’t know yet that there is a better way to teach reading. A better way that will significantly benefit dyslexic learners but also benefit all students. A better way that will free up learning support for the smaller percentage of students who will need it. Now that he has received exceptional support outside of school, the literacy gaps are closing and I know he will be more than OK because of these gains, his innate strength of character, my commitment to providing the external support required and my determination to fight for his rights within our flawed education system.

Kind regards,
Sandra Tidswell

1 comment:

  1. You are a fabulous mother and dyslexia advocate, Sandra! Thanks for all your work on the expo, it helped sooooo many people!