I am a mother of 3 beautiful daughters of whom I am incredibly proud. My girls are aged 12, 11 and 9. Two of my daughters have a diagnosis o...

Tamara's Red Letter

10:19:00 Dyslexia Australia 0 Comments

I am a mother of 3 beautiful daughters of whom I am incredibly proud. My girls are aged 12, 11 and 9. Two of my daughters have a diagnosis of dyslexia, one mild and one severe with very poor working memory. My other daughter has suffered from depression and anxiety – and although we can now see light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel, her mental health is something I will never take for granted. Given this experience, I understand and appreciate whole-heartedly the importance of children having a healthy self-esteem and a love of themselves. 

Dyslexia, under our current education system, is a recipe for self-loathing and worthlessness, possibly leading to depression, anxiety and a life filled with untapped potential. There are a multitude of studies that show “there are strong links between literacy, school performance, self-esteem and life chances with poor literacy skills being linked with lower education, earnings, health and social outcomes” (taken from the Better beginnings website). We NEED to take action now. We need build an education system that nurtures and encourages all our children. We need to embrace the different, wonderful, creative, qualities of our students with just as much candour as the traditionally praised skills.  We need to adapt teaching methods so that all students have an equal opportunity to learn essential skills like reading, writing and maths. Students need to leave the confines of the classroom full of self-confidence and joie de vivre to take on the world and a desire to positively contribute to our society. Imagine what our world would be like with no telephone, no “Mona Lisa”, no light bulb, no iPad or no Microsoft? Imagine a world without Disneyland? All these amazing contributions to our society have come into being, because their inventors had the ability to think outside the box, they were not traditional learners and failed in the classroom. They are all dyslexic. Yet somewhere along the long, definitely not in a classroom, they had someone who believed in them, kept their self-esteem intact which gave them the confidence to walk a path that no-one else had walked before them and to create such amazing things. Richard Branson sees his dyslexia as his greatest business advantage. He is one of Britain’s richest billionaires yet was called lazy and stupid while in school. Bill Gates currently tops the world’s richest list having a net worth of $75 billion, yet failed subjects while at school. How could these incredibly intelligent, brilliant people fail school? The truth is, they didn’t fail, the school system failed them. There are many more examples that highlight how our education system is getting it wrong. Dyslexics can learn, they are intelligent but are being discriminated against by a system that refuses to evolve despite overwhelming evidence that it needs to.

I am not dyslexic – I was very successful at school – so this path has been a really big eye opener and learning curve for me. I am accountant, and a very logical, step-by-step thinker. Our education system makes sense to me and the way my brain acquires information. But it doesn’t make sense to my daughters and the way their brain is wired. Take for example learning times tables. The majority of us would have learned the old-fashioned rote way –  repeatedly reciting the tables stuck on the back of the toilet door, flashcards, lots of chanting out loud, quizzes etc. I have spent countless hours trying to teach my daughters their times tables – and they still have to resort to using their fingers for their 2, 5 and 10 times tables – there was no way I was going to attempt the rest of the tables. But now I give you the story of Mrs Week – an alternative story-based method of learning times tables. Mrs Week (number 7 – as there are 7 days in a week), sat on a chair (number 4 – because a chair looks like a 4) to go fishing. She caught 2 boots and 8 fish. Make sense? The characters of the story are the number sentence (7 and 4), the rest of the story gives the answer (2 and 8). So this story is teaching you that 7x 4 = 28. Along with the story there are pictures and flashcards and a movie. And this is how my daughters have learnt their times tables in a matter of weeks. Do I look at this and thinks it’s a little left of centre? You bet. Would I prefer to learn this way? Not a chance. But it works for people who learn differently than what I do. It really is amazing and has shown me and my daughters that they can learn, that they aren’t “dumb” like they are constantly being made to feel in a classroom – give them an alternative method of learning and they can learn at the same level as everyone else. 

If I can open my eyes and my mind and understand that learning is a process unique to each student, then why can’t our politicians and our educators? These are intelligent, well-educated people, some chosen by our society to be our representative at a higher level, chosen to be our voice. These people need to listen to the voices of this country – they need to open their minds and their hearts – they need to speak to the students who their decisions affect, visit classrooms, spend time watching the struggles and the suffering imposed by an education system that takes away a student’s self-respect, dignity, desire to learn and feelings of self-worth. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes -  because I guarantee even the hardest soul would resolve to make changes with our current approaches to learning, after witnessing the devastating affects the current system has on our students who are dyslexic. 

Teachers need to be educated on dyslexia and other literacy difficulties – because they really do not understand the who, the why, the what and particularly how they need to change their teaching strategies to actually help a child with dyslexia learn. Ponder this…..“If you have told a child a thousand times and he still does not understand, then perhaps it is not the child who is the slow learner” – Walter Barbee.

Do you tell a person in a wheelchair that they should get up and walk – that if they try harder and put more effort in, then they should be able to make their limbs work? Of course not – because this is a medically established and accepted impossibility. It would also be an incredibly ignorant, rude, insensitive and hurtful thing to do. So if we wouldn’t treat a person in a wheelchair like this, then why do people with dyslexia face this type if treatment on a daily basis in the classroom?  Why then isn’t a child diagnosed with dyslexia given the same considerations and respect. Why isn’t our education system modified to enable all students to have the opportunity to learn? Dyslexia is a recognised disability in Australia under the Disability Discrimination Act (1992), yet not enough is being done - how can this possibly be?

Despair is probably the word I would use to best describe my feelings about my daughter’s current schooling experience. Despair for my girls who show such courage in just turning up to school each day, knowing that they face the impossible. Knowing they are different, and having those differences on display to their peers every day. I am a believer that it is good to be different, but not when these differences leave you feeling inadequate, feeling ashamed and feeling so worthless. The “Make it a Red Letter day” campaign focuses on triumph over adversity – honestly, turning up to school each day, ready to face the lion’s den classroom– is their triumph over adversity. Participating in something every day that you detest with every fibre of your being because no-one “gets” you, shows true guts and determination. But that is cold comfort sometimes when my daughters come home from school – their tear-stained face, downward cast eyes and tremoring lips relaying feelings their words cannot. 

I am incredibly frustrated at an education system that keeps saying essentially “we care, but we don’t care enough to make the changes we need to make”. I don’t want lip service and empty promises. I want change. I want recognition. I want respect for my children. I want them to grow into self-confident women who are proud of themselves, have a wonderful sense of self and who can be great contributors to our society. But our education system, in its current form, makes this a nigh-on impossible dream. However, I WILL NOT be defeated. Losing this battle is just not an option, because I will lose my daughters in the process. I will not let that happen. My daughters are not stupid; they are not dumb. Yet this is how spending 30 hours each week in a classroom is making them feel. They are being crushed, their self-esteem slipping away because they believe that they are the sum total of their school results. And as much as we try to refocus their thoughts on more positive things, the string of D’s on a report card that you try desperately to hide from them, becomes the voice in their head. That no matter how much work they do, or how hard they try, they will never succeed in this system. I have come to realise that I cannot rely on the education system to teach my daughter’s anything. If by some miracle they do actually learn something in the 30 hours they spend each week in the classroom, then I see this as a bonus, not as something I should take as a given. 

I would like to finish with some words from Albert Einstein – world renowned theoretical physicist, Nobel prize winner and dyslexic. To me, his words sum-up beautifully the issues with our current education system, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid”. It’s time to take the fish out of the tree, lead them to water and let them swim with such glee and passion. Let them see and feel what they are capable of in an environment that enables them to flourish and allows them to soar as high as they wish to go. Our “fish” are worth it.