5. Teaching Disabilities

Jonathan Kozol once coined the phrase “didagenic learning disabilities” – learning disabilities caused by ineffective teaching. He borrowed the concept from the medical world. An iatrogenic disease is one caused by a doctor. I think these terms can be useful. I don’t think people become teachers in order to prevent children from learning, but we can all think of teachers who have made learning difficult for us. In fact, the only ones who never have are the perfect ones.
We have terms such as “dyslexia” and “attention deficit disorder” to describe children’s difficulties in school, and we are careful to stress that children with these problems can learn; they just require alternative instructional strategies. Tests are designed and administered, educational plans are written, and all kinds of alternative instruction is tried because we recognize that not everyone learns the same way. We remind children and their parents that Leonardo DaVinci and Albert Einstein were learning disabled.
But I don’t think we have publicly acknowledged “teaching disabilities.” I think the term can be useful. Teaching-disabled adults can teach; they just require alternative instructional strategies. Before I alienate anyone, let me be the first to cross the line: I am teaching-disabled. I care very much about being a good teacher, and for years, I’ve been developing strategies to compensate for my disabilities. When parents say that I get kids excited about music, that I get them interested in stories, or that I focus well on children’s feelings, I appreciate those comments very much. But when someone calls me well-organized or predictable, I feel as if I’ve won a major victory. Organization and predictability are, to me, what frontwards letters and numbers are to some learning disabled children. They sometimes seem to be what distinguishes me from the capable people.
Teachers work hard to deal with disabilities – their own and children’s. Whether you find a teacher disorganized, inflexible, insensitive, or any other unflattering adjective, perhaps the teacher is working on it. We all work to strengthen our strengths and remediate our weaknesses. If your child seems to be having a “bad” year, and you think it’s because of a “bad” teacher, or at least a teacher who is not right for your child, something needs to be done about it, but please notice that this sentence refers to three people. How much of the problem is owned by each of the three, and what can be done about each person’s portion? Once we accept the existence of learning disabilities and teaching disabilities, I suppose the next step is to take a look at parenting disabilities. But that’s another story.

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