A while ago a friend, whose children have various specific learning needs between them, made a comment something like this: ‘I’d always assumed that when they went to school, whatever problems that came up would be dealt with by the teacher who would know how to do it because they’re the professional’. In this family’s experience that hadn’t happened and the parents have spent large amounts of time and money over the years – as have we – on research, assessments and outside-of-school educational support.
Because his comment accurately reflects our own experience, and because I’m a teacher and have seen the problem from the other side as well, I spent a while thinking about why this is. Of course you expect that when you send your child to school to be educated the teachers – experts in educating – will be equipped to deal with all the different ways in which individual children need to be taught.
And because I know you’re just dying to hear my conclusions, here they are.
If you’re sick or injured, you go to the doctor. Usually you go to a G.P. The G.P. will fix all manner of everyday and minor things like sore throats and infected wounds and sprains. They can often also fix the common major stuff like depression and high blood pressure right there in their office. But an important part of the role of a G.P. is to know when to refer you to someone else who specialises in the part of the body in which your problem lies.
This is because the human body is more complicated than a layperson like me can begin to imagine. The medical profession has always recognised that it’s ridiculous – and dangerous – to expect any one individual, let alone all of them, to be able to fix absolutely anything single-handedly that comes their way. You do not expect your G.P. to whip you up onto the table for open-heart surgery. Nor do you expect them to cure your cancer. What you expect them to do is recognise that you need the surgery or have the cancer, know the appropriate specialist to send you to, and look after any follow-up care that might be required.
If the human body is complicated, the human brain is even more so. It still holds many more mysteries in how it develops and functions than the body does. There is so much about it that we don’t know.
Back in the old days teaching was easy. You talked and wrote on the board, the kids listened and copied and either they learned or they didn’t in which case you gave them the strap for being stupid and they left school at fifteen to work in a garage. Nothing complicated about that, because the idea that people’s brains are wired in all sorts of different ways and learning comes in all sorts of different forms wasn’t widely accepted. Dyslexia, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and Irlen’s Syndrome hadn’t been invented yet and when kids didn’t do well at school it was because they were thick or naughty or both.
Now we know it’s not that simple. We know that many people are wired to learn differently from the conventional model and I would argue that teaching children with dyslexia, for example, is as much a specialist area as heart surgery, and with similarly life-long effects.
Now I put on my teacher hat. You have a classroom full of small children and you know who’s doing okay and who’s not, but sometimes you don’t know why. Sometimes you know exactly why but you’ve been trained as a G.P. – a general practitioner – and although you can see the need for heart surgery all you have is aspirin. It is intensely frustrating but you hand out the aspirin and keep on going.
Teachers are like your family doctor except that as a teacher, when you have a situation that calls for specialist support, there usually isn’t a specialist there to refer to so you just have to do the best you can. And we end up with the educational equivalent of patients who’ve been given an aspirin when they needed heart surgery and anti-depressants when they needed a psychiatric hospital.
My dream as a teacher would be this: I would be fully trained to recognise learning and processing disorders very early. When I recognised that a child had dyslexia I would refer them to the specialist dyslexia teacher. When I found one with Asperger’s Syndrome I would refer them to the appropriate person. When I knew that something wasn’t quite as it should be but didn’t know why I’d refer them to the expert in Working It Out. This is not to say that I’d want these groups of children taught separately from others; just that I’d have experts to work in conjunction with to make sure that all of their particular needs were being met.
These specialists do exist but they’re very thin on the ground and a child usually has to be in a pretty bad way to qualify for the help, by which time they’re often already far behind. As we found out, the facility for diagnosing disorders like dysgraphia doesn’t exist at all within the public school system because there are so few people qualified to do it and the need hasn’t been fully recognised. So why? Why does the medical profession have this model of G.P.s who act as a combination triage and clearing house, with specialists in every field you can imagine to back them up, and education doesn’t? Are our brains not as important as our bodies?
I once used the services of a medical specialist whose mode of transportation was a blue convertible Corvette with a personalised number plate and surround which said ‘Smooth OPER8R’. I should have turned right around when I saw that in the carpark, but however. If we can overlook his terrible taste for a moment I think the answer lies right there: money.
Training as a medical specialist is long and hard but there is compensation at the other end in the form of very good money. I’m not for a minute saying that that’s why people become doctors; from what I’ve seen as friends have gone through the process you’d truly have to be passionate about the job to stick with it long enough to pay off your student loan, let alone be in the market for tacky cars. But there is certainly a recognition that that sort of income means your position in society is highly valued and that you deserve the fruits of your hard work of helping all the rest of us to have the best quality of life that we can, at least health-wise (which is a pretty big part of it).
Educational psychologists do not drive Corvettes. When we needed someone to diagnose Daniel’s dysgraphia we discovered that there are very few people qualified because conditions like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia are complex, teaching people with them is even more so, and the training to become an expert in this field is long and expensive and not at all lucrative.
Once again, I know that people who work in education generally do so because they’re passionate about it, and offering them vast sums of money to become dyslexia specialists isn’t necessarily any kind of solution. Maybe it’s not the money itself but the recognition factor. We pay highly those we value highly. This is why the teachers’ unions spent many years campaigning for better pay and for entrenched equality between primary and secondary teachers. When I was in teacher’s college pay was low – when I started work I was earning $26,000 and my mother, with her many years of experience, wasn’t getting much more – and secondary teachers earned more than primary. The message was clear that teaching was a low-status profession and that primary teachers were barely-skilled babysitters.
That has changed. Teachers’ pay scales are now perfectly respectable and I believe that their status has risen accordingly. But we’re not there yet.
Everyone needs doctors from time to time. Having incentives, monetary or not, in place to make sure that there are always people willing to invest enough time and effort in becoming specialists to back them up is critical to living in a society where everyone can be free to experience the best health possible.
Everyone needs education, too. Teachers are well trained to deal with all the common, everyday needs likely to pop up in a classroom, but they are not equipped to be heart surgeons or cure cancer. If we want to advocate for our children, this is the area of most need – investment in educational specialists. My heart-felt advice is this: vote for whoever’s ready to offer free Corvettes to psychologists if that’s what it takes to raise the profile and status of the people who do for our children’s minds what a heart surgeon would do for their bodies.
Of course money is not the only factor here. There’s also the fact that awareness of all the learning difficulties which can hold a child back is still relatively low. We know much more about problems affecting the body than we know about learning processes and the issues that interrupt them, and as teachers we still deal with people who believe that kids today are just spoilt and lazy. But until more people are qualified and working in this field, and are recognised as making an essential contribution to raising the quality of education across the board, it won’t be given credence as a valid area requiring resourcing, research and innovation.
How to achieve this? I don’t know. Maybe, if your child is interested in becoming a teacher, encourage them to aim high and specialise. One day they might even be able to drive around in a Corvette whose plate says ‘Smooth EDUC8R’, and who wouldn’t want that?