How my career ambition got in the way of helping my daughter with dyslexia

By Brian Thomas, MS

We first saw signs of my daughter Olivia’s dyslexia in preschool.

She wasn’t talking, and even when she did, she had trouble finding the words she wanted to say. At first, we didn’t think it was a big deal. Then, when Olivia kept having speech issues, my wife and I started to think it might be her hearing combined with a speech delay. So we had her ears checked and also worked with a speech therapist.

Her difficulties continued into kindergarten. With first grade on the horizon, she wasn’t reading at all. As an educator myself, I began to think she might have dyslexia.

Just as we were starting to dig deeper, I got an offer to become the principal of a new, high-profile public charter school. It was a fantastic opportunity.

But there was a big catch.

The job was in Las Vegas, Nevada. To take it, I would have to uproot our family from Portland, Oregon, where we lived. And I would have to do it right in the middle of trying to understand our daughter’s learning differences.

We loved the school Olivia attended in Portland. It was ahead of its time when it came to identifying and working with children with learning differences like dyslexia. The teachers there were well-versed in multisensory teaching techniques.

But even with the great support the school offered, Olivia was still having a lot of trouble with phonemic awareness. One of her teachers begged us to say. She wanted to continue to work with Olivia one on one.

Naturally, I had concerns about leaving the school. But I felt like the new job was my big break. I’d been working for most of my career in wealthy private schools. This new job would allow me to work in a school that served poor kids in a very poor neighborhood. This was my chance to do important work.

When my wife and I agreed to move, we told our kids and they were very upset. But I kept telling myself everything would be fine.

Sadly, it didn’t go well. Olivia started first grade at the neighborhood school near our new home in Las Vegas. The teachers there cared about her deeply. But they didn’t have as much experience as the teachers at Olivia’s school in Portland. They weren’t able to give Olivia the massive amount of intervention she needed to learn to decode.

We had her evaluated by the school. They saw that Olivia was failing spelling tests and having trouble with sight words. But because she wasn’t far enough behind in her reading, however, she didn’t qualify for services. I was worried that Olivia would continue to fall behind before getting the help she needed, so I tried to get her reading help from tutors.

At the same time, we started looking for another school that would be a better fit for Olivia. We couldn’t find anything that was right for her, however.

The high-profile charter where I worked was an intense “no excuses” school for disadvantaged kids. I don’t think it would have worked for Olivia. We also considered a private Montessori school, but it didn’t have services to target the areas where Olivia was struggling.

It was frustrating that Las Vegas just didn’t seem to have the right environment for her. (This was more than a decade ago, and things may have changed since then.)

Once Olivia got to second grade, my wife and I decided to get her a private evaluation.

That evaluation report came back saying she had dyslexia, auditory processing issues and slow processing speed. That’s why she was having such a hard time learning to read and remembering what she read. The good news was that the evaluation found she was capable in every other respect.

My daughter’s diagnosis made me take a step back. I began to feel very guilty for coming to Las Vegas.

In one way, my heart was in the right place — I was trying to help kids in need at this new charter school. At the same time, I had a child who was struggling to learn, and I had brought her to a place without the resources to help her.

I don’t think anyone should have to put their lives or careers on hold to make sure their kids get the best education possible. But sometimes, you have to reorder your life for your child.

With a big push from my wife, I started looking for another job. I got lucky. When Olivia was in third grade, I got a call from a private school in San Francisco that needed a principal. Although it wasn’t a school specifically for students with dyslexia, it was known for helping students like Olivia. I applied and got the job.

From there, things started to gradually improve for Olivia. It didn’t happen all at once. But over the years, she’s had great teachers who understand her needs. She’s gotten the right services and support for her dyslexia.

And this June — 12 years after we left Las Vegas — my daughter graduates from the private California high school where I’m her principal. I’m proud to say she’s been accepted into Whitman College, her first choice for college.

I think it can be easier for adults to try to find the right job fit, as opposed to kids with learning differences finding the right environment to thrive. I still feel a tinge of guilt for dragging my children to Las Vegas years ago. And I sometimes wonder what would have happened with my career had I stayed.

I’m glad, though, that I realized soon enough what I needed to do, which is put my kids first. I know that’s not an easy answer for parents with career goals, especially when we want it all. But sometimes it’s the only answer we have.


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    About the author

    About the author

    Brian Thomas, MS is assistant head of school at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS).