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Reality Check – Teaching disabilities

Posted on January 28, 2015 by Maple Creek

By Sheila Wray Gregoire

When a child in Grade 3 can’t read, we normally assume that child has a learning disability. But is it always the child’s fault? Isn’t there the possibility that the child could be suffering from a teaching disability?
After all, not all teachers are good teachers. Over my public school experience I had about 40 teachers. Five were exceptional. The vast majority were competent, but sometimes blah. And then there were those who actually made me stupider. If they had said nothing at all, but had just given me the textbook to read, I probably would have come out ahead.
Unfortunately, school boards often find their hands tied when it comes to firing bad teachers. The unions have such entrenched rules that awful teachers and principals are often shuffled around from school to school. Few are ever fired for anything other than sexual assault. Yet does that mean that every teacher currently teaching is gifted?
Some children do have genuine learning disabilities. However, education professor Jay P. Greene, an expert in intervention to reduce learning problems, found that early intervention reduced learning disabilities from upwards of 22 per cent in some states to between two and 10 per cent. That’s a huge difference, showing that quite often the problem does not lie with the child. It’s the teachers, and the methods, that cause kids to fail to learn. I had a friend who took her daughter two grade levels ahead in reading by going through Hooked on Phonics with her. Others hired private tutors and suddenly their children “got” math. They weren’t learning disabled at all, despite what the parents were being told by the schools.
My husband, as a doctor, knows that not all physicians are wonderful. He’d be wary if someone he loved had to be treated by several of his medical school classmates. I’m sure good teachers feel the same way about some of their fellow educators. They know who can’t teach worth beans, but they can’t say or do anything about it.
Teaching is difficult enough at the best of times, and it’s getting increasingly difficult when more and more children are from chaotic home environments. But that’s all the more reason to want higher quality teachers. I’m not sure, though, that that’s always what we’re getting. Education writer Joanne Jacobs recently asked on her blog, “are children dis-abled or dis-taught?” I think quite a few are simply dis-taught. S. Allen Cohen even came up with a term for this a few years ago: Dyspedagogia, from dys, meaning bad, and pedagogia, meaning teaching.
Perhaps it’s not fair to say that a teacher should be able to effectively teach 25 children all at once, all of whom learn in slightly different ways. But if it’s that difficult, why are we doing school like this in the first place? And if it is difficult, then why label the child? Maybe what they have is a natural response to an unnatural situation.
Our school system is set up to preserve teachers’ jobs; it isn’t set up to give children the best education possible. If it were, we’d have more teacher review, more ability to fire teachers, more parental control of schools, and more flexibility in what programs and methods were offered to our children. But we don’t, because schools are run by the government for their own ends, including teachers’ job security and benefits.
Next time someone tries to say that a child isn’t learning because they are somehow disabled or their parents are morons, why not ask if instead they could simply be suffering from dyspedagogia? Then sit back and enjoy the confusion.
You can find Sheila at http://www.facebook.com/sheila.gregoire.books.

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