Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why I Teach

My little brother JR is six years younger than me. When he was three years old, it was discovered that he had significant learning disabilities and has since been diagnosed with ADHD and dyspraxia. At first, twelve year old me (who pretty much saw her brother as equal parts “total pain in the butt” and “awesome little playmate”) didn’t think much of his disabilities; he was hyper, had zero attention span and was slow learning how to talk but so what? He was my brother and as far as I was concerned, that was just how he was. It wasn’t until he was older and his struggles with schoolwork became more apparent to me that my opinion changed and I learned that there was much more to his disability than I’d first thought. He had a severe speech impairment and wasn’t able to form words until he was eight – so made up his own sign language to compensate. He couldn’t read or write and even now can’t do cursive, and his comprehension of languages is limited. That being said, however, he is very adept at math and numbers and when it comes to anything hands-on – be it yard work, car repair or simple building blocks – he’s phenomenal.

In school, one of his biggest problems academically was keeping hold of the information he learned; he needed lots of repetition and tended to do best when there was a lot of interaction and hands-on activities. Unfortunately, his school was not inclined to accommodate his needs and his teachers did not have the resources, time or patience to do so while dealing with a class of over thirty students besides.

As a result, a lot of JR’s lessons had to reinforced at home. My mother would have to take him to two hour therapy sessions every day and I would often help him with his non-math homework. Together, we would work through the research and reading and then work out new ways to help him study and write up his reports. It took a lot of time – usually much more than the assignment actually required – and it was far from easy. JR would often become frustrated and angry, sometimes even storming off and refusing to continue. Knowing when to press and when to back off and give him time was key, but I quickly figured out that perseverance on both our parts was the most important thing.

It was also important to think outside the box and find ways to blend what I knew JR would understand with what he needed to understand. For instance, when he had history assignments we would rent related blockbusters (i.e. The Mummy, Gladiator, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, etc.) and use them as the avenue through which to introduce the relevant lessons; comparing Hollywood exaggeration with historical fact, seeing how we today represented the past, etc. Another thing we did was that JR would dictate his reports out loud and I would write/type it all verbatim; when he didn’t have to worry about spelling or moving the pen or anything else but what he wanted to say it let him express himself much more cohesively.

It was actually because of JR and his ordeal that I decided to become a teacher; I don’t want any child to have to go through what JR did, to have to struggle as hard as he did without any encouragement or help from his teachers. If it’s within my power to ease the struggle for even just a handful of children, it will make all my efforts worthwhile.

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