This blog comes to us from Denae Stegeman, an education student at the U of S. Denae bravely shares her story of struggle in the education system from a young age through until today, where she is making change and empowering her students as an educator.
Teaching was on my career radar from a young age. When I was in grade one and was required to draw a picture of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I divided my page into four quadrants. Since I had big dreams and was also very indecisive, I drew my future self as a vet, a doctor, a lawyer and of course, a teacher. My deep love for my dogs and cats obviously inspired my vet choice. My Fisher-price doctor kit was always a favourite toy and thus, doctor also made it to the top of the list. My mother’s love for murder mysteries must have influenced my lawyer choice. However, my desire to teach stemmed from a deeper place, which continued to grow throughout my years as a student and was intricately connected to my deep disappointment in the education system.
Photo from Brittany Randolph
Insecurity and a lack of belief in my own talents held me back in my educational career from the very beginning. I struggled with reading in grade one and hated to take home the little book in the Ziploc bag and needing to convince a family member to read with me. In the classroom, I received harsh reprimands for tapping my feet as my little grade three body was wracked with anxiety while attempting to race through the timed math tests. I received a D in health class in grade five because I wasn’t able to keep up with the endless note-taking we were required to replicate from the chalkboard, and then were later tested on.
The more time I spent in school, the more I wanted to be a teacher, so that I could teach in a way that kids like me would be able to thrive, feel supported and encouraged.
But I skimmed by with average marks and I suppose there were never enough red flags for my educators to be worried. I knew I was capable of more, but I wasn’t quite sure what was holding me back. I loved learning, but sitting down to read was a difficult task. My mind would wander, the words would begin swimming and I would end up having to re-read the entire page and sometimes the entire chapter. The more time I spent in school, the more I wanted to be a teacher, so that I could teach in a way that kids like me would be able to thrive, feel supported and encouraged.
Photo from Melanie Holtsman
I remember various times in my childhood when my parents took me for different hearing and eye tests, but it was not until my mid-twenties and the beginning of my university degree, that the mystery surrounding my educational struggle began to resolve. I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. So many questions and insecurities were solved through this diagnosis. In some ways it makes sense why my ADHD was not diagnosed earlier. ADHD was believed to be a boy’s disorder, and perhaps why my symptoms went undiagnosed for so many years. The affirmation of the diagnosis of dyslexia clarified that I was not “dumb” as I had often felt, but that my brain just processed in a “different” way than most others.
This was an important moment for my educational career. It was so beautiful that she owned her own weaknesses and used it to strengthen our learning. I vowed to myself that I would do the same for my students.
Last year Wendy James, the coordinator of curriculum studies for the Saskatoon Public School Division, made a presentation in one of my education classes. Right at the beginning of the presentation she owned her dyslexia, telling us up front her struggles with writing and spelling, while she documented our ideas on a large piece of paper. This was an important moment for my educational career. It was so beautiful that she owned her own weaknesses and used it to strengthen our learning. I vowed to myself that I would do the same for my students. Similarly, Bev Brenna, one of my professors at the U of S, was reading aloud to my class when she stumbled over a word and then made a little joke that she had used it as a teaching moment to model that mistakes are ok. It was brilliant, and another moment that has stuck with me.
This past semester, the first day during my internship that I picked up the white board marker to write is burned into my memory. I proclaimed to my students, “Okay friends, I have dyslexia so that means I might make some spelling mistakes, or miss a word here and there. So it is your job to edit my work, okay?” It was a bit nerve-racking to share this lifetime struggle of mine with 22, ten, eleven and twelve year olds…what if they laughed? What if they made fun of me? Teachers are supposed to be masters of the written word, mental calculators, grammar geniuses, all of which I was not.
It was a bit nerve-racking to share this lifetime struggle of mine with 22, ten, eleven and twelve year olds…what if they laughed?
Well, it was done, and lucky for me, my sweet students were gentle and kind; from then on my students were quick to edit my work. It almost became a game, and their understanding that I was not perfect, made room for them to take risks, make mistakes and dig deep. When I read aloud to them, I would at times stumble over words, and like Bev had done for me, I used it as another way to reveal my humanness in the classroom. As Professor John Hattie is quoted in Darren Evans piece; “the most effective way to improve education [is] to raise the quality of pupil-teacher interactions.” Revealing my insecurities and telling my students I was not perfect was a powerful tool for relationship building.
Photograph from the US Department of Education
During my internship and my student teaching, I had the privilege of learning from and working with Neal Cantin as my cooperating teacher. He is quick to identify and acknowledge the multiple stories that make up each of the individual student histories in his classroom. He is keenly aware of the social determinants of health that affect and complicate his students ability to learn. As educators we cannot be solely focused on education as our singular social determinant of health, while neglecting the students realities; after all, the classroom is a space where most, if not all, social determinates of health intersect.
As shown through my own story, my learning disability had an enormous effect on my education. Through other support networks, I was able to thrive, in spite of and at times possibly because of, my disability. But this is often not the case for our students. Educators must prioritize relationship building with our students so we can begin to have a more holistic view of the struggles they face, whether that is a learning disability, not having a enough to eat, or not being able to afford school supplies. It is then that we can begin to work to make our schools a safe space for all children to learn.
Denae Stegeman is an educator living and working in Saskatoon. She is a member of STARS (Student Teachers Against Racism) at the U of S and is also currently honing her leadership skills through Next Up.
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