Sunday, May 26, 2013

On being a little bit dyslexic

This isn't describing just me, but people in your workplace, in the stores you shop at, your friends and online acquaintances.

For dyslexics, somedays everything goes fine, words get spelt right, sentences are formed logically, right and left behave themselves and comply with the accepted norms, numbers get written in the correct order and everything appears to go smoothly.

Nonetheless, I'm careful to proofread, far more times than usually considered necessary. Have I possibly overlooked an errant apostrophe, snuck in to irritate the lurking grammar nazi, ready to pounce with conclusions that I'm lazy, sloppy or even worse, unreliable and not to be trusted because the apostrophe is either there, or not, as the case may be. What a petty way to bestow the word 'reliable' onto someone!

A good and generally keen, willing student, but with occasional lapses in concentration, is how I suspect I was described at school.

I was lucky, I was mostly taught by competent teachers who knew how to encourage me to give my best. I learnt spelling by carefully paced, sequential instruction, each element building on the one before; there was lots, and I mean LOTS of drill, pulling words apart then putting them together again. I enjoyed prefixes and suffices and learning that English is made up of many different languages which have been absorbed through the ages. I still love words and trying to work out their meanings and where they came from by thinking about the different components.

I benefited from having teachers who were on the whole competent and confident in their ability to teach. Even so, I don't always get it right; when writing by hand, p, b, d and q can be interchanged haphazardly and with a certain flair and originality. Spelling can be problematic at times, and sometimes words simply refuse to co-operate. There can be the sense that something is wrong, but I can't see what, yet at other times I'm oblivious to any error, which can be glaringly obvious to others. (Unfortunately maths was a different story and wasn't as well handled by my teachers. I remember being hit for making errors which isn't a great way to get a child to improve.)

However I didn't have to suffer through an ignorant, antagonistic school system while trying to cope with deeply challenging dyslexia or learning difficulty.  Typically you hear: lazy, poor attention to detail, doesn't try, doesn't care, doesn't listen, scatty, should try harder, deliberately careless or the purely cruel tearing up of a child's work in front of the class whilst making scathing comments about quality and appearance of a project.

Maybe there are some little children who deliberately set out each day to do their worst at school. I've never met one though. Most children I've observed and worked with, want to fit in, want to be part of the crowd, don't choose to be humiliated when they've done their darndest to follow instructions to the best of their ability and it all goes pear shaped. They're the ones my heart bleeds for, they're left confused, perplexed, hurt, crushed ... and too often without hope.

A couple of years ago at puppy training class we were instructed to hold the lead in a particular way. I looked at the instructor, looked at my hands. All fine! Good oh, let's get on with the next bit of the class. But no, something is clearly wrong, everyone is waiting patiently. The instructor repeated the instruction, and demonstrated again. I followed along carefully. Then it dawned of me gradually, painfully, that everyone was looking at me - and I had no idea why.

My ears heard the instruction, my eyes saw what to do, but somewhere along the line, my brain twisted the instruction - I saw my hands do a perfect reflection of what everyone else was doing - yet it apparently wasn't correct and I couldn't see what was wrong. It's a horrible, horrible feeling. I knew I'd done everything right, but from the reactions of the instructor and the rest of the class it was obvious that I hadn't got it right.

Even writing about that public display of incompetence makes me feel awkward and humiliated - who knows how those people were judging me? Were they thinking I was being difficult by insisting on being contrary, or did they just think I was thick by being unable to follow a simple instruction? While in this instance it doesn't really matter, in the workplace this kind of experience can have unintended and unfortunate ramifications and is why many dyslexics remain silent about being dyslexic and take extra care and go over details ad nauseam.

Dyslexia can take many different forms. It can affect writing, reading, mathematics and spatial awareness.  It's not a one size fits all condition. Some days everything can run smoothly, others, particularly when you're tired, it can be hugely challenging and frustrating.

Some time ago, I watched a highly intelligent, competent, dyslexic engineer write down a phone number a caller was reciting to him. He repeated the numbers and wrote the same numbers down but in a completely different order, it was only when he repeated them back and was corrected that the mix up became evident to him. Because he's aware this is a difficulty for him he's fastidious about checking for accuracy.

Helpful signs in Parkes NSW
Is it any wonder that with the prejudice surrounding dyslexia that people are reluctant to share the information - one brilliant Australian university professor was fired when he spoke about how he managed his dyslexia. People have reported being overlooked for promotion and treated as lesser human beings; their intelligence is questioned, it's assumed they can't drive - if you can't read, how can you drive?  People with dyslexia or poor literacy can drive, and drive well. You don't have to spell well to navigate or to understand the meanings of signs. Just ask any person who's driven in a foreign country!

Now here's a gentle plea from me to you. Don't be too quick to judge harshly when someone's spelling or grammar is lacking. Tactful, even good natured humor when pointing out an error is kind and generally welcome; the error can then be corrected with the minimum of fuss and embarrassment.

Give people the benefit of the doubt - dyslexics can have a tough time not only at work, but on line. Spell check is great, but can be painstaking in the cut and thrust of online communication and doesn't always work. Some people have been so hurt by their early school experience that they run a mile when they're openly and harshly criticised in forums. Some don't return. That's sad and further alienates a group of people - who could be our workmates, colleagues, friends and neighbours - who have a lot to offer.

Posted by Sue Travers

Friday, May 10, 2013

Education sucks

At least that's the message being sent by the Australian Government and Opposition to the Aussie taxpayer by cutting $2.3 billion from the sector's budget.  

But University funding cuts sound like a good idea don't they? Everyone knows academics are overpaid and underworked and it's not as if the cuts will affect everyday Aussies is it?

I'll mainly focus on teaching in this post, and what can happen when the best and brightest aren't consistently and actively encouraged to enrol in education courses and aren't supported when they graduate. 

Some teaching graduates, who have taken out a debt to pay their uni fees, are employed on short term contracts or can only get part time work. Those who'd love to leave home and show their independence are unable to do so on these types of contracts, no job security leaves them feeling insecure and vulnerable.  They're unable to feeel confident to sign a lease on a flat let alone think of buying a home. Even worse, they come to see themselves as part time teachers, employed to plug a gap and with no real commitment to a school which appears not to value them. Is knowing that you'll start off your career with a debt and job insecurity, as well as negative public perception, a way to attract excellent candidates into what should argueably be one of the most respected professions? 

In Australia we already have the situation where mature, good, experienced secondary teachers are not having their contracts extended, simply because they're more expensive to employ than a recent graduate. This is one of the things which happens when funding is taken away from the secondary education sector - get rid of the experienced professional to hire the less expensive teacher to enable the school to balance an ever tightening budget. Unfortunately it also leaves schools without a strong, diverse pool of experienced teachers to mentor the recent graduates. 

In universities there's already increasing pressure to find cost savings; this happens by cutting academic jobs, reducing face to face teaching time and course options, and increasing class sizes. We know so much about learning difficulties, brain maturity, how to engage disengaged young people so they feel valued. We understand the ramifications of keeping students in school and working on meaningful and worthwhile projects. We know how society benefits when education works well. Yet education is consistently undermined, not only at university, but throughout all levels. 

The outcome will be that young people from disadvantaged or rural backgrounds are less likely to enter, not only teaching, but other professions as well, if they're not adequately supported and when there is uncertainty surrounding courses and funding. It's not a wise way to attract the best and brightest into any profession. We end up with a less diverse group of professionals across a range of sectors and this does affect us all. Some groups become over represented, others under-represented - this has repercussions in local communities as expectations lower in response to continuing uncertainty and erosion of support.

Yesterday I saw a video showing an articulate, intelligent young man reacting strongly to an apparently lacklustre, lazy teacher. 

I wrote the following on G+ in response to the footage:
"what breaks my heart is that scenarios like this are all too common. It's easy to criticise the teacher (and rightly so sometimes) but we don't support them - its possible to graduate from uni with a huge debt and only get offered part time work or a one year contract. That's not the way to attract the best and brightest. You have to be incredibly passionate about a job to remain keen when you're treated like a temporary and expendable product. Experienced, mature teachers can be passed over in favour of recent graduates who are cheap to employ. The result is what happens in this footage, intelligent, disengaged, pissed off kids and adults in front of them posing as teachers.

...  our kids are our most precious asset and too often we treat them like shit. The government condones and encourages scenarios like this by constantly squeezing the education sector as if it's nothing more than a sausage factory that could be more easily and cheaply be outsourced to the lowest bidder." 

Meanwhile mining companies are being subsidised to the tune of around
$2 BILLION. There are loud wails of distress, outrage and well orchestrated and highly publicised panic, when there's any suggestion of cutting off this obscene level of funding to incredibly wealthy companies where the profits often go offshore. Personally I find this scenario obscene. Our taxes are supporting mining companies, some of which are owned by overseas interests, rather than going to support our own children and the sector which we trust to educate them. 

What is our overall vision for Australia? At present it certainly looks like both the Australian Government and Opposition values supporting multinational companies financially, far more than valuing and promoting the education of our young people.

Photo from East Side Gallery - Berlin 2009