This is the 5th post of a serie of 12 by Marc from Ireland who struggles with dyslexia.
Last time I wrote ‘Primary school, foundation and challenges’ and for the first time in a long time I revisited my primary school days in my head. In writing the blog I reminded myself of a lot of the difficulties I faced and remembered why these years are the least favourite ones of my life.
I got very frustrated and upset writing the blog as by going back there in my head I could feel the frustration, anger and upset that I went through.
Thankfully it appears to have been worth it as this upset showed in the writing of my blog and I had friends and family contact me after reading it checking if I was ok and telling me how brave I was for telling it as it was, going through primary school with dyslexia and dyspraxia but not having a diagnosis or an explanation for my difficulties other than the fact I must be stupid and coming up against some difficult teachers who truly believed that I was just stupid.
Things got easier for me
That blog post went through the six years of primary school bringing me up to 6th class and the end of a horrible chapter of my life. Today I am going to take up where I finished which is the next step in my life, secondary school.
In secondary school things did get easier for me, I finally got diagnosed, I got supports for the first time and my fails turned into passes. However I’m sure we all know that this is the real world, it’s not movie land where everything changes over night.
Although things got better for me in secondary school they first got worse and I faced a very challenging transition from primary into secondary school. Things got so bad that only for the support and encouragement I received from my parents and family I would have left school.
I had initially planned on covering secondary school in one blog but there are a lot of areas to cover from that challenging transition from primary school to secondary school to my diagnosis as dyslexic and dyspraxic.
There is the fight to get supports and then there are the state exams and even the 2 extremes of teachers, the one that made my life hell and the one who felt like a saving grace.
In this blog I’ll cover 1st and 2nd year and everything that happened in that 2 year period, ill cover areas such as the state exams and the supports I received for them in part two.
The challenges multiplied
When I finished my last blog, I was at a point in my life where education was the last thing I wanted, it was cruel to me and I was suffering big time due to the fact my dyslexia became a real challenge for the first time but I had no diagnosis, so from the outside and for me going through fail after fail it appeared that I was thick.
When I moved into secondary school these challenges multiplied and suddenly my dyspraxia was becoming more of an issue as well by the introduction of new challenges. 1st to 3rd year of secondary school consists of 8 mandatory, examinable subjects plus a foreign language and 2 choice subjects such as, business studies, technical drawing, woodwork, art, home economics etc. this all results in 11 exam subjects.
Each of these subjects had a different teacher, and they were in different classrooms around the school and there was a set timetable with nine 40 minute classes every day except for Wednesday which was six 40 minute classes.
Meeting new people and timetable
Secondary school was a much bigger school, with a lot more students and I went from an all-boys primary school to a mixed secondary school. Due to the fact my dyspraxia affects my organisation skills I struggled getting my head around my timetable and understanding it.
I was always the student who got lost finding my class and I would arrive in late going from one class to the other as I got lost in the change of classes as everyone was changing at the same time and I couldn’t follow it and got very confused among the large crowds of moving students.
I always read my timetable wrong and would bring the wrong books to class leaving the books I should have with me in my locker which also became an issue. My dyspraxia also affects my people skills as I have mentioned several times before, making me feel anxious and nervous in large crowds and when forced to converse with new strange people.
This experience was very disturbing for me to get used to as there were so many students around me and as a first year I entered the school as a 12 year old and there were students in the school doing their leaving cert who were 18 so I really did feel out of my comfort zone surrounded by so many strange people.
Homework and difficulties
In my last blog I spoke in depth about homework and the challenges a child with learning difficulties faces when it comes to homework. These difficulties continued in secondary school and new ones appeared.
As we had a different teacher for each subject the homework was no longer wrote up on the board at the end of the day, instead the teacher for each subject would tell us what the homework was at the end of each class.
I always felt the 40 minute class went on for hours but it appears as if the teachers thought they went by in no time as the bell ringing to mark the end of class always appeared to be a surprise to the teacher and they would only tell you what the homework was then as you were packing away your stuff to move to the next class.
Can’t listen and write at the same time
This became an issue for me as being dyslexic I can’t listen to what is being said and write at the same time, I need to be given a piece of information and given time to write it down before you give me another piece of information to write down.
Also this may seem like an exaggeration but due to my dyspraxia affecting my short term memory if the piece of information you give me is too long, when I start writing it I forget what the full message was.
As a result the teacher shouting out the homework at the end of class while everyone was packing stuff into their bags meant I always took down the wrong thing for homework or else I would get half it down and have missed the rest and this meant that I would be missing part of my homework or I did the wrong thing when it was checked the next time I had that class.
As you can imagine this resulted in notes home and being given out to a lot and I still had not been diagnosed so I didn’t understand how everyone else had the correct homework done when I had taken down what I thought I heard.
Homework taking me 3 hours +
On top of this issue secondary school finished at 4 o’clock where primary school used finish at 3 o’clock and where I was getting 4 or 5 pieces of homework every day in primary school except for Friday which was a no homework day. I was getting a piece of homework from every class in secondary school which was 9 a day including Fridays.
Homework that was designed to take 30 to 45 minutes in primary school was taking me 3 hours plus due to my difficulties and the fact I would get so frustrated by my difficulties, now the homework was designed to take longer as I had more of it, and I always felt that each teacher thought that they were your only subject so they would give loads of homework not even thinking what you would receive in the other 8 classes that day.
As I said a minute ago I was finishing school at 4 o’clock not 3 anymore so homework had become a bigger challenge for me then it was in primary school as it was taking longer, and I had less time to do it as I was getting home an hour later.
I would spend hours every evening after school trying to do homework and I was getting more and more frustrated by the minute only to be told the following day that I had done the wrong thing or I only did half of what I was supposed to do and I was in trouble all over again.
The more I got in trouble at school the closer I came to falling through the cracks in the education system and giving up all together as I was beginning to believe what I had been told about being thick.
Sniggering, the worst sound in the world!
Secondary school also sees the introduction of the teacher taking a backseat from in class reading and they would get students instead to read sections from the textbook aloud. Being dyslexic my reading is very bad and my reading comprehension (understanding what I just read) is even worse.
I was the subject of bullying in primary school due to the fact I was so socially awkward as a result of my dyspraxia and due to the fact I was several steps behind everyone in class as a result of my dyslexia.
In secondary school the bullying may have stopped as such but it was replaced by the worst sound in the world, sniggering. The mere thought of someone sniggering makes me feel uneasy.
Teachers in secondary school as I said would get students to read sections of the textbook and any time I was asked to read it felt like I was slowly dying in front of my class. My reading was horrendous and I could hear the sniggering around the class and the whispers “oh my god he can’t read” or “he is stupid”.
This became the new form of bullying in my life and if I had any confidence left this would knock it out of me. I can’t describe how demoralising it feels to know everyone around you can read this perfectly but for some reason I cant and they all know that and now they are sniggering at me. I often went home in tears as a result.
Getting assessed for Dyslexia
It was eventually suggested to my parents towards the end of first year that I may be dyslexic and I should get assessed. The waiting list to see the public educational psychologist was so long I wouldn’t get an appointment until I was half way through 2ndyear if not longer.
I was close to breaking point already at this stage and my parents could see that so they decided to go private and I was seen by an educational psychologist within a few weeks and the assessment took place. My aunt who was a primary school teacher knew of her through work and that’s how my parents got in contact with her to get an appointment.
I remember going to her house and meeting her, she spoke to me for a few minutes then showed me into her living room to watch telly while she went into her home office with my aunt where they discussed my background and the difficulties I was having.
They spoke about how frustrated I had become with education and how my difficulties were causing me to lose faith in education, she outlined the indicators my parents and some teachers had seen to indicate there was an issue such as my level of reading and so on.
They then came back out to me and explained that my aunt was going to leave for a while and I would join the lady to do some reading and play some games, my parents had already explained to me at home that this was a test but it was a test that would help me with my difficulties and prove to everyone that I wasn’t thick.
The assessment began…
I went in and the assessment began, I did lots of exercise like reading words from a list, reading a paragraph of text, reading a paragraph and answering question on it, I played a game where I was given building blocks that were half white and half orange and I had to put them together in such a way that it looked like a pattern she was showing me, this is a cognitive test in case your wondering and it tests the brains interpretation of a message it is receiving and how it reconstructs that message using individual pieces as far as I’m aware.
There were several other tests/exercises we did as well. By the time we were finished my aunt had come back from wherever she disappeared off to and was sitting in her car outside waiting for me. My aunt came in and was brought into her office again while I was left go back to watch telly and they spoke again for a while.
I was a bad dyslexic…
Then the door opened and my aunt said I was all done and we could go home. A few weeks later the educational psychologist report arrived, it was a long document which outlined a number of things and eventually came to the conclusion that I was a bad dyslexic and after some further testing it also appeared that I had dyspraxia too.
Finally there was an explanation, I had a label and that label didn’t read “thick”. To my parents this was a relief, but to tell the truth to me at first it meant nothing, I still had all my difficulties, there was just a name for them now.
He ruled with fear
You would probably imagine at this stage I begin to talk about how things began to get better for me at school but unfortunately that is not the case. The worst part of primary school for me was 3rd class as there I had my first encounter of a teacher who didn’t know how to handle a child with learning difficulties.
Well in secondary school I had my second encounter. Being a bad dyslexic one area I find exceptionally difficult is languages and secondary school sees the introduction of a foreign language and Irish which was touched on in primary school becomes a full subject.
Suddenly there are 2 language subjects outside of English. These classes were the ones I struggled in the most and unfortunately for me my Irish teacher was my second experience of a teacher who didn’t know how to handle a child with learning difficulties.
In fact that is a polite way of putting it as I was bullied by this so called teacher. If we take a step back to September of first year when I’m still not diagnosed. I have Irish as a proper subject for the first time I was not expecting my difficulties to be faced with such a negative attitude from a teacher.
A note: “You are lazy!”
I received a note home from him every day saying I was a lazy student and I was not trying hard enough. I was having difficulties with my homework and he was going through me for a shortcut every day for this.
In class he would get me to read aloud every day, if I thought my reading was bad when the writing was English then it was 10 times worse when the writing was in Irish and the sniggering around the class was unreal and he would never tell them to stop.
Any time he gave us something to learn off for homework he would ask me the following day first so I couldn’t copy what others had said and no matter how much time I spent learning it. I would not be able to recite it the next day which resulted in him shouting at me and giving me another note home.
This man was the main reason I was so close to giving up when I went to secondary school. He ruled with fear, he gave himself the nickname “Basher” claiming he would bash a student if they weren’t working hard enough. This was my worst nightmare.
Expected that things got easier, but they got worse
I also suffer from asthma which affects me once every couple of months resulting in me needing a nebulizer to clear my chest and help me breath properly. In first year of primary school, this teacher stressed me out so much I had an asthma attack in nearly every Irish class I had.
I would be sitting in class, I would be petrified he would give out to me again because I couldn’t do something and suddenly I would get a severe tightness in my chest, my breathing would become difficult and I would require my inhaler and have to go home.
Dyslexia is just a fancy term for lazy students…
When the result of my assessment came back that I have bad dyslexia you would expect things got easier but it’s the opposite, they got worse. I distinctly remember him telling me on several occasions that “there is no such thing as dyslexia, it’s just a fancy term for lazy students”.
I will never forget the occasion where he made me say it out loud, in front of the class after he had a go off me for reading badly and I said to him, it’s not my fault, I’m dyslexic. My parents had a path worn back and forth to the school complaining about this teacher but he was a very arrogant man and they got no satisfaction and his bullying continued.
Supports I was entitled to…
My parents had been looking into what supports I was entitled to being dyslexic and what the school could provide me. As soon as we discovered that dyslexia meant I could apply for an exemption from Irish it became the first support I applied for.
This was a long enough process though, the school couldn’t just take me out of Irish, they had to send a copy of my educational psychologists report to the department of education and apply for an exemption and then wait for them to confirm or deny if it was granted.
At this stage I was half way through second year. I had experienced a year and a half of torture from this man and I was not able to take any more. Thankfully at the same time the nun who was the principal of the school retired and the vice principal was promoted to principal, she was also my cousin and hounded the department of education for my exemption.
Enough is enough
One day while still waiting for my exemption to be granted I was sitting in Irish class, he had given us a pome to learn off for homework the last day. As usual he came to me first and asked me to recite it.
I had done no homework the night before for any subject as I spent the full night going over this pome trying to learn it off. I sat there as he called my name and asked me to recite the pome, I got the first line correct then I began to struggle.
Before I could even finish the second line he shouted, “once again you have refused to do your homework, your too lazy, give me your journal till I write a note home”.
I had finally had enough, I snapped, I grabbed my journal and threw it at him, I then picked up my bag and I ran out of class. I remember him shouting after me but I was too frightened and upset to hear what he said.
I ran straight to the principal’s office and without even knocking I burst in the door with tears streaming down my face. Instantly she asked what was wrong and I told her exactly what happened.
Being my cousin she got me a glass of water and told me to stay where I was and she would be back. She went and spoke to my Irish teacher and came back to me informing me he was very angry but she was taking it upon herself to take me out of Irish even though I had not heard weather my exemption was granted or not.
She then phoned home and informed my mother of what had happened and said it would be best if she came and brought me home.
A few weeks later the school got a letter from the department of education to say my exemption was granted and it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I still remember the relief I felt when I was told I was officially exempt and I would not have to go back to Irish ever again.
Talk it through
When giving talks to parents and students about the supports I received and what may be available to them I always speak about applying for your exemption from Irish as one you should sit down and talk through before applying for it.
It was the best thing that could have happened to me due to the difficulties I was having and the teacher I had. But dyslexia affects different people in different ways and if you feel your good enough at Irish I would reconsider dropping it as it may mean one less subject to worry about. But come leaving certificate time when your trying to get the points for your course at college if your good at Irish you might get a better grade in that then you do in something else which might be the difference between having enough points for your course and not.
Your leaving certificate results are the last thing on your mind in first year but you should consider it if your thinking of applying for your exemption. However if you are finding Irish as difficult as a lot of dyslexics do then by removing that stress gives you more time to concentrate on your other subjects and therefore it’s an option you should look at.
I’m not thick, just dyslexic
Everything I have mentioned in this blog happened in the first 2 years of secondary school. It may be difficult for some of you to believe but none of this is exaggerated and as horrific as it may seem this is not a unique story.
Children who suffer from learning difficulties face a lot of challenges in education. Every aspect of the education system is built around the areas that we find most difficult, the fact that a dyslexic finds reading and reading comprehension so hard means every subject is difficult not just English.
If your doing science homework and it involves answering questions you first have to read the questions and comprehend what your being asked, you then have to read the chapter or paragraph this question is based on and you must then comprehend that before you can try to answer the question.
Life with learning difficulties is a challenge, there is no denying that. I spoke to a girl recently who suffers from bad dyspraxia and also has dyslexic traits, she told me she struggles more with trying to get people to understand her difficulties then she does with her difficulties.
She has come to accept that she will always find certain things hard, her first challenge is to find a way around that difficulty and her second challenge is trying to get others to understand it.
Thankfully for me the end of second year is when things started to improve in my life. By being granted my exemption from Irish the biggest stress in my life at the time was removed. I began to see that my difficulties were not the result of me being thick but the result of my dyslexia and people would help me overcome these difficulties to show my true potential.
In part two of secondary school
I will take this up in my next blog where I will talk about exams in secondary school, how I began to receive what I call “every day supports” and how I turned fails into passes and even into honours grades.
Finally I will cover the 2 biggest challenges for someone with learning difficulties in secondary school, the 2 big state exams, and I will speak about the supports I received in these. Also I want to point out that I have no grudge against teachers. My aunt is one and I have had some amazing teachers over the years.
The example I spoke about in this blog just happens to be something I experienced but I have also experienced teachers who gave me so much support and encouragement, I will be speaking about one in part tow.
I have great respect for these good teachers and think the work they do to teach young children and make education interesting and enjoyable is fantastic
I hope that this might help someone who is currently going through a difficult time as a result of a learning difficulty see that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that no matter how much you want to give up things do get better.
I hope this blog followed by the next one shows someone with a learning difficulty the different supports available if you are currently receiving none and struggling.
Finally I hope this helps people understand the immense difficulties faced by people with dyslexia, dyspraxia and other learning difficulties during their time in education.
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog post, until next time,
Read Part two of Marks story ‘Secondary School, Support and Leveling the Playing Field‘