I sat there as the silence stretched on, my panic growing and growing. I couldn’t think, let alone come up with the answer. I sat there, ashamed and alone; no one understood me, least of all my teacher.
The way your brain functions is normal to you; the way mine works is normal to me. Because of this paradox of perception, it took me many years to understand that my classmates didn’t struggle the way I did. As a kid, I wasn’t capable of that sort of comparison. I would encourage you as a teacher to remember that not everyone thinks and not everyone’s brain functions the same way. It may be you who changes a student’s life by being that first teacher that tries to understand them, the first one to help them without judgement, the first one to believe them when they say they can’t do something.
You could be that person who changes a student’s outlook on school and life forever.
When you are young, you believe that adults must be right, and you trust them, always. That’s why if a child is struggling academically or emotionally it is important to find out where the student is coming from and why they feel the way they do. Learning disabilities are not always as obvious as simple academic struggles. The most obvious way my learning struggles presented themselves was anger. There were many chances for many teachers to try and work with me and understand what was going on, but I was written off as a troublemaker because of my anger. There is always an underlying reason for students acting out, so try to understand why they are frustrated. You might be the first person to do so, and it may completely change a student’s life. Surprisingly, it took many years for me to have a teacher that really did want to understand and help, and that was only after my official diagnoses.
Create a Positive Learning Environment for All Students
Obviously, it’s a teacher’s job is to help students academically, but it’s also your job to create a positive learning environment. For me personally, the reason I hated math classes for so many years was less because of my actually disabilities, but much more so because of being humiliated in class. What if my teacher called on me in class and I had no idea what the answer was? It took me much longer to do mental math than my peers, and my answer was often wrong.
The fear of that sort of humiliation is even worse than the disability itself. If you sense a student is not confident in a subject, find a way to work with them so that they are comfortable enough to focus on the learning itself.
Always Believe Your Students
Too many times I have been asked a question in class and I say I don’t know, my teacher has argued with me. “Yes you do, Elinor, I explained this last class” or maybe the response is laughter then “seriously? I just explained it.” While these responses might seem harmless and may not have intended to traumatize, they are mortifying to a student with learning disabilities. That response, of laughter then “seriously?” was something actually said to me when I asked a question. This teacher knew about my disabilities, and I can remember that moment like it was yesterday. I never trusted that teacher in the same way again. If a student tells you they don’t know, even if you explained it seconds ago, don’t disagree. Just explain it again, or play it off as no big deal. Don’t make them argue with you about it. It takes courage to say you don’t know something, and believe me we are definitely aware if has just been explained.
The best teacher I ever had was so effective because because he learned what my struggles were, and was very good at making sure I never had those moments of pure embarrassment in class. He always made sure to phrase questions so I could answer them without embarrassment. When he worked with me one on one, he never treated something I didn’t know like I should know it: he was patient and would go over it again. I learned from him that my disabilities in math were not as bad if the learning environment was positive. My questions were always met with calm explanation instead of frustration that I hadn’t learned it the last time it was explained. A positive environment means a student can feel comfortable asking for help even if they struggle with that topic.
I can never be taught to learn the way others do. What I need from my teachers is for them to learn how I learn. Understand what my needs are, teach to those needs, and treat it like you are simply doing what’s normal. By eliminating the fear of humiliation, and fear of not being believed, it allows us, LD students, to focus on the actual learning, instead of avoiding the classroom in fear.
You can be that teacher that changes a student’s life. You can be the one who boosts their confidence despite their struggles. You can be the one who they still talk about twenty years later as being someone who completely changed their outlook on school, life, and learning. All it takes is a want to help and understand your students, diagnosed or not, and the consciousness to create a classroom that students who struggle won’t dread and fear. I had a lot of bad teachers who did not put in that effort, but I also had many who did. Those teachers that put in that effort have improved my life more than any of the ones who did not damaged it. Those teachers are some of the most influential people in my life, and I would not be getting through college without them. All they did was try to understand what I needed without judgement.
Elinor Shapiro is a second year college student. She’s been diagnosed with math disabilities, written expression disabilities, and auditory memory disabilities. She is the founder of Let’s Talk Disabilities, a blog by LD students for LD students (www.talkdisabilities.com). In addition, she has run a support blog for others with math related learning disabilities for five years (lets-talk-dyscalculia.tumblr.com/) and is greatly motivated to help improve school culture and environment for others with learning disabilities.