Am I proud of the system in which I work? No, it’s still tight and brutal

My friend shared something last week that I still think about.

She recently discovered audio books.

‘I love them. I’m going straight into the story now, without having to do all that work. I get it, I get it why you liked to read when we were younger. Reading made me anxious. It was just too difficult.

My friend is dyslexic, but she didn’t know it when we were teenagers. She is also very intelligent and empathetic.

We had met for lunch, but it turned into dinner, as it does with old friends. She talked a bit more about her relationship with school and reading. She described being a teenager and wanting to avoid me and my college friends because we talked a lot about books; she was afraid of being taken for stupid.

As I listened to it, a small, dark voice in my head sounded.

‘You thought that didn’t you? You thought she was less intelligent than you, that you were more academic. She was good with people, remember? She was good with her hands, but she was never as deep as you.

My stomach churned, remembering all the nonsense I believed in back then. But that’s not surprising. I was the product of a system that ranked students based on their ability to read, retain, and regurgitate, with no support for different people. I was the product of the CAD point system. We were trained to see ourselves as competitors. We were trained to judge and categorize each other.

How different is the system now? Does the system adequately support one in four children with additional needs? Do we celebrate them as much as we celebrate neurotypical children? As a teacher, am I proud of the system in which I work?

No I’m not.

It’s still cramped and brutal, and it makes too many kids feel stupid every day.

I spoke with Mary Moran after my conversation with my friend. Mary has worked with children with dyslexia since 1986. She is concerned about the impact of low reading ages on young people, especially boys.

“These students are not less intelligent, they are neurologically different. They often make brilliant architects and engineers because they have the ability to see finished products. Employers like Google and Facebook often search for them. Their brains work differently, so they need a structured literacy program from an early age. The girls are more comfortable with their dyslexia than the boys, they advance with difficulty, but the boys get upset. How many of our prisons are filled with men who can’t read?

I ask him if things are improving.

“Young teachers are much more interested in helping these children, but schools use sprinklings of phonics and bits of curriculum. Teachers need more guidance and all schools should use a structured literacy program that goes beyond the first grade. Children with dyslexia need those stepping stones to the top. Then they will become very good readers and once they know how to read, that’s it. They can fully access the program. They can do math because they can read the questions. If we did this better, if we did this consistently across all schools, we would need fewer resources in subsequent years.

As a secondary school teacher, I would also like to see the larger system change as well. It is difficult to support students once they are past a certain age. The vast majority pass the traditional Leaving Cert and it is filled with curriculum requirements, all assuming high levels of literacy. Schools have neither the time nor the funds to catch up with these young people.

If our assessments were more diverse, decoupled from the third level, more children would be doing better, but as a country we are a long way from that kind of conversation. Our current government promised us a Citizens’ Assembly on Education. Too few noticed that it didn’t happen. Education is at the bottom of our list of priorities.

Mary Moran worries things won’t get better by the time she retires, so she’s keen to “make some noise”.

We may not care enough to listen. We could continue to ignore children in favor of maintaining the status quo. This week, Donal O Keeffe reports that nationwide, 96,759 children are waiting for therapy. A lack of support means a lack of access to education. So many families are hurting, but the rest of us seem content to carry on, telling ourselves it’s okay because we’re the right kind of smart. Our national voice on education is exactly the same one I heard in my head back in 1995.

Thirty years ago, audio books were unheard of. Our education system needs a similar overhaul. It needs a revolution.

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