A Letter From A Deeply Concerned But Reformed Educator
by Sherri Lucas-Hall
I entered graduate school in the summer of 2008, at the age of 44 years old. My goal was to become a certified educator for the State of Georgia. My desire to be a teacher began much earlier, but I had avoided making the choice for years, mostly because I knew that teachers didn’t make any money, as far as I was concerned. But at 44, I decided that what I wanted more than anything was to teach. I had a provisional certificate and had been working as both a paraprofessional and after-school teacher at the same school for 4 years. I had recently accepted a teaching position with the agreement to obtain a certified teaching license. No problem. At this point, I understood why teachers were offended when anyone would criticize teaching. My four years at the same Title One school had given me an opportunity to see how hard educators work.
I had begun working at the school when my youngest daughter started pre-K there. I had another daughter already at the same school. So, I was elated when the principal walked up behind me one day, at the start of one of my many volunteer days and said “You’re here enough that you might as well work here.” I laughed it off until she said, “I’m serious.”
But back to my entrance into graduate school. I had been working two positions at the school for 4 years, often substituting in various grade levels. I saw first-hand what it was like to teach, particularly in a Title One school in an area that was primarily African American. I saw the financial and human shortage of resources. I saw how minority students, that look like me and others struggled to learn for various reasons. I saw behavior issues and learning issues on a regular basis. I wasn’t sure what caused either issue, but I knew the issues existed. I wanted to help the students we served. I wanted to improve what I knew about teaching so that I could be a stronger educator. So, I spent 2 years pursuing that Master of Arts in Teaching and in August 2010 I was granted my degree. I was proud and eager to begin to serve students better than I had before the degree.
I became an official kindergarten teacher, although I had been given the position provisionally two years prior. I spent one of those years in first grade and it was a difficult year. There was SO MUCH that I did NOT know, and I just figured that once I had the master’s degree I’d know much more. So, with my new master’s degree in hand, I began another new year in kindergarten, excited to be able to make a real difference in the education of those students. I spent 7 years in kindergarten learning what it’s like to teach these early learners. I saw more of what I had seen at the school as both a paraprofessional and after-school teacher. There were LOTS of behavior issues, particularly because kindergarten is often some students’ first school experience. There were learning issues for the same reason. But I felt that as the educator, it was my responsibility to discover the why of those behavior issues and learning issues. It wasn’t enough for me to just say a child couldn’t learn because I always believed that EVERY child could learn. If there was a behavior concern, I believed that it could be addressed somehow.
I spent those 7 years trying to discover the why behind every student struggle. I had my own educator struggles as well. I had determined that something was missed in my graduate training. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but I knew I was missing some educator tools. I was struggling to teach some students how to read no matter how much extra effort I put into preparing and teaching lessons. I had begun to research teaching resources in order to improve what I knew and could already do in my classroom. I found websites like Florida Center for Reading Research that helped me to understand some missing elements in my teacher training. The resources there helped me to make some instructional changes to better meet the needs of struggling students.
One of my questions was what skills did I need to ensure my Kindergarten students had that would adequately prepare them for first grade? I had spent a year in first grade early in my short teaching career and it hadn’t gone well at all. But it did give me an idea of the skills students needed when they moved on to first grade. My thoughts were that given the time I had spent in kindergarten, I wanted to see how the skills taught transferred to the next grade level. I began to request a move to teach first grade. At the end of my 7 years, I was finally granted permission to loop with my class. I was more than excited.
I began teaching first grade with some of the knowledge I had obtained through my research of effective teaching skills. Three years in first grade proved that there was still some element of teaching that I lacked. I LOVED teaching. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like other than the money I often had to spend to make sure that my students had what they needed in terms of classroom resources. This was a Title One school though, and I felt the expense was worth it for my students. The goal was learning. Meeting that goal wasn’t always easy. I still had moments of struggle, particularly my last year of teaching at the school during the 2018-2019 school year.
What I had learned in my quest to make sure students were effectively taught was that some of the tools/skills/resources that I was using, provided by my district, weren’t effectively helping students learn to read. I didn’t understand. Why would we be using instructional tools that weren’t effective for teaching? I didn’t believe it was intentional though. I figured it was because the district/school just didn’t know. I had spent 4 of my 10 teaching years trying to learn what was best for students. What did I need to do to ENSURE that students were learning? In that 4-year period, I had made some huge discoveries. I knew that my teacher training had been ineffective. I was missing some vital skills and understandings that I needed to help my students learn to read. I also began to understand the criticism that teachers were receiving.
Students were failing and students had BEEN failing for a while. Yet schools weren’t making any big changes in what was being done in reading instruction. The criticism may have been justified. But how could I, as an educator, justify the criticism of my profession? I had discovered a podcast by Emily Hanford at the beginning of the 2018 school year, which would ultimately be the end of my time at that school. Emily spoke about the failure of reading instruction. I had been studying and asking questions specifically about reading instruction long enough to know that she was telling the truth about the failure. I had criticisms of my own about my profession at this point.
Emily’s podcast referenced the Science of Reading. Dyslexia was slightly familiar to me at this point. I had made the discovery during the last couple of years as a kindergarten teacher. I didn’t have a strong understanding of it, but I knew it existed and it affected the learning of students. There had been a glaze over discussion of the struggle in graduate school but only enough to mention it as a possibility in special cases. That was it. The way it was mentioned in grad school, one would think that cases were few and far between. But I had enough experience by this time to know that there was something deeper that I needed to know if I was going to serve students better.
That school year there was an incident in my classroom that would prove to me that the possibility of dyslexia having an effect on student learning was greater than I had been led to believe and that real change was necessary in order to help students that struggled with dyslexia. Ultimately, I lost my teaching position at that school, but I was led to a journey into the science of reading that would deepen my understanding of dyslexia, reading struggles and the teaching of reading. I’ve since spent the last almost 3 years learning about dyslexia and how the brain processes the English language.
Dyslexia affects 1 in 5 students. There have been many days when I wish that I had known this in the beginning of my teaching career. There are so many faces of students that I still see that I believe MAY have been experiencing the struggles of dyslexia, but because I didn’t have the skills or knowledge about the struggle, I was unable to support those students well. They moved on to struggle with this challenge, much like many students are still doing to date.
After 3 years of studying the science of reading, obtaining an Educator’s OG certificate and beginning LETrS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading & Spelling) training I understand how essential it is that educators AND administrators become knowledgeable about the brain science and how the brain processes the English Language. It is truly the ONLY way to begin to better serve our struggling students. Those that don’t struggle can also benefit when educators possess the knowledge about the science of reading. What I know for certain is that we cannot continue to do what has been done for students in reading because it just isn’t enough to support the learning for far too many students. So, it’s not a criticism of my profession that educators/administrators need to learn more about the reading brain. It’s a fact that is necessary if we are going to better serve the youngest citizens of this country.
A Deeply Concerned But Reformed Educator
Sherri Lucas-Hall is an educator and a student of the #ScienceOfReading via LETrS.