By Chris Golden, Middle School Learning Support Faculty
Whenever meeting someone for the first time, our conversation often goes to what we do for a living. More often than not, it goes something like this.
Them: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a teacher.
Them: Oh really, what do you teach?
Me: I am a middle school learning specialist.
(At this point, people often tell me how brave I am for teaching middle school and that there is a special place in heaven for me. So, I’ve got that going for me!)
Them: What does a learning specialist teach?
Me: Well, I work with the students in the school who have various learning challenges or differences such as dyslexia or dyscalculia.
Them: What made you become a learning specialist teacher?
To really answer this question, I have to go back to when I was 8-years old. I can recall the incident as clear as day. It happened on a family shopping trip to Sears when my parents gave me and my 11-year old sister, Lisa, ten dollars to spend on whatever we wanted. Back then ten dollars was a fair amount of money, so we were both excited to spend our cash. We immediately ran to the toy department and picked out our purchases. I grabbed a Star Wars action figure for somewhere in the neighborhood of five dollars and went to find my sister. Lisa was trying to choose between a board game for around fifteen dollars and an art supply kit for seven dollars. To my surprise, Lisa chose the board game. When told Lisa that she wouldn’t have enough money, she seemed genuinely surprised. We ended up pooling our money together so that we were both able to buy our items, but it was at this moment that I began to realize that my sister had special needs.
When I asked my parents about why Lisa couldn’t tell time, couldn’t read very well and hadn’t mastered her addition facts, they always said that she had dyslexia. Looking back with the hindsight of a person trained in special education, I realize now that Lisa’s learning challenges were more severe than this and were probably due to some kind of developmental delay. She would later go to a different school that had a special program for kids with similar needs and to this day, continues to live with my father and mother.
Growing up with Lisa and witnessing her struggles as a student and life as an independent person had a profound impact on me. Having a sibling with special needs makes you acutely aware of the obstacles faced by those who are disadvantaged, disabled and challenged in one way or another. The effect on me was that I became drawn to people who struggle. I don’t like seeing others struggle and will do whatever I can to help others improve. I’ve always cheered for the underdog. In high school, I was a captain of the wrestling team and as you may or may not know, wrestling is a tough, individualistic, dog-eat-dog sport. On the wrestling mat, you win or lose all by yourself. And when you lose, it’s a very lonely place. As a captain of the team, however, I always tried to pay close attention to those struggling by helping them learn new techniques or giving them advice or encouragement when they were on the brink of quitting. When I entered university, I started coaching my high school team and carried this mindset of championing the underdog in this new capacity.
After graduating with an undergraduate degree in classics, and looking back on my tenure as a coach, I decided that teaching would be a good career choice for me. Deciding on an area in which to specialize within the teaching profession proved a bit trickier. I’d always been a massive history nerd so teaching social studies in middle school or high school might have been a good fit. My background in coaching made physical education another possibility. After looking back on my life and thinking about what were the most meaningful experiences I’d had, I decided that working in special education made the most sense for me.
For over twenty years, I have worked in some capacity with students who learn differently. I started my teaching career as a learning specialist in public schools in Canada and when I moved to the US, I transitioned to work as a classroom teacher and administrator in independent schools for students with learning differences and social-emotional challenges. I am now the learning specialist for the middle school at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. I can honestly say that I have the best job in the world and one perfectly suited for me. I have the good fortune of working with kind, compassionate and intelligent students who learn differently in a variety of capacities: in one-to-one settings, in small groups, and directly in the classroom. I am privileged to work with a talented and dedicated group of teachers to develop and implement educational programs that are optimal for each student. Finally, I get to meet and work with parents as a member of their daughter’s educational team as we share information, problem solve and develop plans of support.
I can’t imagine a role more fulfilling than the one I play at Forest Ridge and to a large extent, I owe it all to my big sister, Lisa.
- Forest Ridge Blog