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How we counter shame among our dyslexic learners - Phill Ruddock

15th June 2023

By Phill Ruddock, English Lecturer at Middlesborough College

Dyslexia is an ever present entity. For myself, it is part of who I am, but also what I am dedicating my life to learning about and I am seeking ways to help and support my fellow dyslexics. Dyslexia tends to have an interesting relationship with society and by extension the Further Education community. It seems to me that you can almost have a sense of pride in being bad at Maths. It is almost a badge of honour. Yet, being bad at English, in any way, carries a stigma. It carries shame.

Let's look briefly at shame. According to Dr Brene Brown (who researches shame, trust and vulnerability) shame can be defined as “I am bad”. Shame focuses on the self, and the feeling that you are flawed, broken or not enough. By being unable to read, by being unable to spell or by not being able to master skills that society has deemed important, it places you on the path to shame.

You’re bad at Maths? Be proud! You’re bad at English? Time to keep it a secret. Time to hang your head. When we then factor dyslexia into this equation - the feelings of shame and unworthiness can be multiplied.

As a severely dyslexic individual, I am keenly aware of these feelings of shame. As someone who has worked in the further education sector first as a learning support assistant and now teaching GCSE English, I have seen my fair share of shame both in myself and within the students that I have supported and now teach.

Shame is that moment a student puts their head down in class and disengages. Shame is that moment when someone begins to shrink into the core of who they are and doubts their worth. Shame is that moment when a student explodes in anger rather than ask for help. Shame appears in multiple ways.

The way to battle shame, the way to counter shame, is with empathy and understanding.

As someone who is dyslexic and who now teaches GCSE English, I am a walking contradiction. But being that contradiction allows me to access the path these young people face. I have walked the path of doubting my own worth. Doubting if I am “good enough”. Doubting if being who I am is ever going to be enough - I still have those doubts now at 37 years old. Shame lingers. Those doubts resurface and the battles continue.

I have delivered training on dyslexia and an adult mentioned how they felt that they had “cursed” their grandchild with dyslexia. Cursed. I have had students beg me to tell them what is “wrong with them” and to “fix them”. Yet, they don’t need fixing. We just need understanding and empathy.

We in the further education sector have a year. A year to re-engage students with the idea of learning. A year to unpack all the collected baggage from their previous years in education. In some cases a year to turn a life around. The further education sector is the bastion of change. I have equally seen the FE sector become the springboard to a life once dreamed about.

This is only achieved when we empower the young people and, at times, become the first person in their educational history to tell them that they “can”. Being someone who says that we are proud of them or that we believe in them.

Unfortunately, the entire education system in the United Kingdom is focussed upon the results gained. That young people associate their self-worth with a grade, a number or, as it once was, a letter. For a dyslexic individual, this can be extended, expanded and exaggerated further. Yet, within our education system there exists an interesting conundrum.

Why must a dyslexic individual fight, struggle and attempt to survive until university before they get dedicated 1:1 support? Why is the support so “top heavy”? Surely the place to put this dedicated 1:1 support would be in a secondary school or even in the further education sector.

I wasn’t “found” (diagnosed) until I was in my second year of university. I was a SpLD - spelling since primary. But once “found” I received a flood of support - 1:1 teaching individualised to me. Things that, as a pupil in secondary or in FE, when I almost failed my A levels, would have been life changing!

Dr Helen Ross extrapolated that 1 in 5 dyslexics in the UK are found in secondary. The other four? They are found in: further education, university, prison or never. Now, when we factor in research that states that 30 per cent of offenders have dyslexia or up to 60 per cent have some form of literacy or numeracy difficulties. If the support that you get at university was in place in secondary or FE would this number be so high?

Another element’s at play, the lack of a cohesive dyslexic community. I’m gay and dyslexic. My gay side has the LGBTQ+ community to support me. They are fierce, loving and loyal. My dyslexic side? There is no real organised and present community - just pockets. Humans are wired for connection. We need each other. We need to feel part of something more. Yet this is where shame rears its head again. Shame keeps you hidden and small. Yes, we have famous dyslexics but what about everyone else? Role models for those young people to see and learn from.

This is why I am trying to create a community. A place for dyslexics, parents and professionals to learn from each other. A place to combat shame through empathy and understanding. A place where doubt, fear and the need to be “fixed” hopefully disappears. Where connection reigns.

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