Sarah was new to the school that year. She came into my third-grade class as a timid 8-year-old.
From the start, Sarah’s family was very open about her learning differences. They told me that the previous year she had been evaluated and diagnosed with dyslexia. I listened to her family, yet I didn’t immediately grasp how dyslexia would play out in the classroom. But soon I would have to.
Every morning we had a structured period for students to write freely about whatever inspired them. For Sarah, it was a welcome opportunity to explore and create. She wrote tirelessly, filling page after page.
But when I passed by her table, I noticed that I couldn’t make out much of what she wrote. Her spelling was atrocious, and punctuation was nowhere to be found.
I stopped and asked her to read the story she had written. She spoke barely over a whisper, but the light in her eyes was unmistakable. As she read, a sophisticated tale unraveled, complete with suspense and imagery.
I was astonished. I had a storyteller in the class. A talented one. How could Sarah be a writer when she could hardly spell?
This was my sixth year of teaching. Until that point, I’d had no formal education about learning differences like dyslexia. Unfortunately, my master’s in elementary education didn’t cover them. So I wasn’t fully equipped to respond.
Sarah clearly had ideas to share and stories to tell. In the end, did spelling really matter? Was the goal of the writing period to have perfect spelling or to experiment with plot and develop imagination?
These kinds of questions prompted me to rethink how I taught. Before Sarah, I only thought of reading and writing in the “traditional” sense.
Because Sarah had dyslexia, I needed to explore other ways for her to read and write. So I encouraged her to use audiobooks. I asked her parents to read to her and type up her stories as she dictated.
Although we continued to work on spelling, I never let it get in the way of her creative writing. Sarah helped me understand that I had to think outside the box — learning shouldn’t be “one size fits all.”
Thankfully, her parents were patient. They trusted me to navigate the unknown waters with my own teaching expertise. They worked with me as an ally.
Over the next several years, I built a relationship with her family and witnessed the necessary and critical role of parents advocating for their child. I watched how as a result, Sarah became a self-advocate for her own needs, as she began to embrace how she learned. The experience led me to focus my teaching career on kids with learning and thinking differences.
After a few years, I left classroom teaching to work one-on-one with students. I started my own practice as an educational specialist and supported students with dyslexia and attention issues, among other challenges.
I sought out training in multisensory teaching approaches to better serve my students. I experienced different school settings and learned what worked and didn’t work for my students. I was even able to work with Sarah one-on-one outside of school.
Eventually, I returned to work at a school, but this time as a learning specialist. It was the perfect role to support the team of people vital to the success of students with learning and thinking differences: the teacher, the student, and the parents. I remain in this role today.
I appreciate working with teachers who are very much like I was before I met Sarah. What I understand now is that we as teachers sometimes arrive at premature conclusions about the potential of our students, without deeper investigation into what talents they bring to the table.
We can get attached to the way we do things — so much so that we’re not able to reflect on how we teach, or to change our approach to fit the needs of our students.
I understand. I, too, was once like that. Just as it is for students, it’s a learning process for teachers. It is an important process that I love being a part of.
As for Sarah, she went on to an arts high school with a focus on creative writing. She graduated from college last December, and I had the privilege of being there to celebrate her accomplishments.
They say teachers never know the impact they have on their students. But I know the impact Sarah had on me, and it’s long-lasting.
Learn more about why it’s important to partner with your child’s teacher. Get sentence starters to help you begin a conversation with a teacher. And check out our guide to classroom accommodations for dyslexia.