On Golden Amber

My first year of teaching served as my first exposure to many things – including students with learning disabilities (LD).

I recall a discussion with a staff member who assisted LD students at one of the other buildings when she told me these students are very capable of college, but they just have a learning handicap. Being fresh out of college, my mindset was probably very stereotypical, so I took in the information while actually doubting the statement’s validity.

Several years later, a new LD teacher started working with my students. She worked very hard for them – and they were having success. Because they were in the general class, I’m sure I retained the stereotype.

As the school grew, staffing increased – including LD – and that is when I met Bette. Somewhere along the way, I had an LD student in my college prep class. I admit having a mindset that she was misplaced, and primarily there due to the advocacy of her proactive mother. The end of the school year was odd as I felt the proactive Mom used me in her bout with the school administration. On graduation night, proactive mother told me I was a good teacher – but I only accepted her compliment in words, but not in my mind and heart.

Fast forward a few years as our department changed the science curriculum to have no tracking – that is, no differentiation between college prep and general students for at least 3 years, so classes would have students with a variety of academic skills and abilities. Enter Bette as she was to work with the LD students in my classes.

Because I had more than a few of Bette’s students, she was in my classroom one or two periods a day. We developed a few alternative strategies and she always kept me well-informed. Through Bette, and my willingness to adapt, I was beginning to learn about what LD really meant.

Amber was a freshman and an LD student – simply a very nice young person who academically struggled. She, and much because of Bette’s work, she passed the course with Cs and Ds. Amber was in my class again as a senior – a biology class with many college prep students. Bette kept me informed, but she was not involved on a daily basis as she was three years prior.

A major test was approaching and Bette told me that Amber knew her material very well. By this time, I truly understand that Amber’s LD was writing – and that she would struggle answering essay questions. Simply put, as her mind sprinted, her fingers crawled – thus words that came from her pen took directions that were unrelated to the question asked.

I decided to test her orally – not just by asking her the questions orally, but in a conversation. Bette approved, Amber agreed, and wow – she delivered answers full of substance.

I recall Amber getting an A on that test, and I believe she earned an A for the last quarter because I finally understood what it meant to be LD. The last time I saw her, she was working in a pizza place, but that was more than 10 years ago.

I doubt if she ever went to any post-high school education. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much success she had in the work world. Nevertheless, for me, Amber is golden because she taught me a powerful lesson – one that took me over 20 years to learn – thus I finally understand that what that LD teacher told me during my first year. Because of Amber and Bette, I finally understood and trusted the role of the staff member assisting LD students, thus I worked as closely as possible with them for that time forward.

As for Bette, we continued to have a positive work relationship, and then she retired. She may read this with a smile – and, she knows that I wonder about what if I would have done something different with the one student having the proactive mother.

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53 thoughts on “On Golden Amber

  1. I’m sure if I had a child with learning difficulties, I’d be fighting hard for them too. So good that you let Amber sit the test in a way that showed she had studied hard, knew the material and was capable of a high mark. I wonder if there had been more teachers in the education dept like you, if she could have ended up doing more than selling pizzas xx

  2. Wonderful post, Frank. You figured out the best way for Amber to show what she had learned and her strength in learning was probably auditory, not visual or kinesthetic.

  3. A teacher who is engaged with their students and goes out of their way to help them actually learn and not just pass the test can make all the difference.
    Great story, Frank! Hope Bette sees it.

    • Guapo,
      The idea for this post has been in my head for a long time … and I finally followed through with it. I emailed Bette last night, so I think she will. Thanks for the kind words.

  4. Great post! Many people misunderstand what LD means, including the students who are struggling with their disabilities. For some being suggested they get tested makes it seem that I think they are dumb. For most it sinks in, if they let it, when I say that being labeled LD actually means you are very bright but have trouble processing in one or two areas. And the specialists can help find ways to play to your strengths. Like testing orally, brilliant solution. The case that helped me really understand that the students really need the help of someone to show them how to showcase what they know, not cheat or lower standards, just be able to demonstrate what they know in ways that work for them involved a young woman who was thrilled to hear that I thought she should be tested. The realization brought her to tears as she said, “So maybe I am not dumb and lazy as my mom has always said.” She did well in that college writing class and graduated with an AA after a couple years. I never cheered so loud! Her mom did not attend.

    • Patti,
      What a fabulous story! Many thanks for sharing. As we know, there are many stories like ours …. yet, many others who never figured it out for whatever reason.

  5. The teachers I remember most are the ones who took a step out of their expected roles and demonstrated that they cared beyond test scores, they cared if their students knew HOW to learn and HOW to think.

    Good work Frank.

  6. I loved reading this story Frank, thank you for sharing. My step-mother was a teacher and the mother of a special needs child, in truth one of the reasons she became a teacher after becoming widowed. She fought hard in Texas to get special needs classes and changes to curriculum in our schools. Her journey with the Texas Board of Education and her small town was amazing. I think she would have loved this story.

  7. I can identify with Patti’s story. I knew a beautiful young lady who was very bright. She was in general classes, constantly struggled yet had never been tested. When I suggested testing and then she received the results, she dissolved into tears. Finally she understood why school had been so hard, why everything had been a struggle for so long. Finally, she had answers at age 16…a long time to experience school without any assistance. She went onto college where she received accommodations and graduated. She has held several jobs, some better than the one before, some not…gradually still gaining more and more confidence in her abilities. She’s in her 30′s now and was recently accepted into law school to start in the fall part time. She got into a more prestigious school which only accepts full timers, but she chose the less prestigious one in order to attend part time. Her story is still unfolding.

    • Georgette,
      Cheers to this woman!!!!! Once the door become unlocked, she proudly walked through and embraced the climbing of the stairs. Many thanks for sharing this story!

  8. What a well-written and inspiring story! I plan to share your post with the university student teachers I supervise.

  9. Nice story and an interesting topic for discussion.
    Yes different people have different abilities, but if you have the time and patience with them and make lessons interesting most people can learn.
    The trouble is that the system has little tolerance for people on the fringes of the “normal curve” whether that be those with learning difficulties or those who are very gifted academically.
    And it goes on through life, if you don’t fit into a pre determined slot and the drones who administer things can’t tick a box on a form for you, then you will face difficulties.
    And of course there is the other side of the equation, teachers with teaching disabilities and I’ve had experience of one or two of those as well.

    • Fasab,
      As you mentioned, there are many aspects of this story that our worth discussion – so let me add this one. The “system’s” organization works against things like this as well. I can’t recall if it was this situation or not, but I recall meeting with Amber during lunch … that is, both of us were eating at the same time … of course, in school, that’s only 30 minutes (bell-to-bell).

      • Oh yes, we have kids that are taught in a separate classroom because of challenges and they are violent, kids going through inclusion (their learning disabilites are great, but they don’t leave their classroom – someone comes to them and helps them), a group of special needs kids, and a very high portion of kid with autism, A.D.D. and A.D.H.D.

  10. What a great post — thank you for being willing to share even your shortcomings. I have long suspected that the “LD” label is just the net that catches all the students who don’t fit the mold in the education system’s giant factory. I felt it from the other end — I was always a brilliant test taker (a perfect mold fit), but that did not mean I retained the knowledge, and I was often a lazy student. I am certain that if they changed the “mold” a bit, I could easily be an “LD”.

    • Twixt,
      Many thanks for your kind words. LD definitely has a formal definition, yet it covers a range of disabilities – so it’s more than just a cast of misfits. On the other hand, I will not try to define it. Nonetheless, it’s probably something that many don’t understand.

  11. Great post Frank.
    I remember going to school my physics teacher would tailor tests for different kind of learning abilities. My mind tends to rush too my finger have a hard time catching up, and even when I read over what I’ve written I fail to see typos, unfinished sentences, because my mind it’s already set on something.
    Never had issues in school or college tho, thanks to my friends who would always proof read my essays lol

  12. I really admire that you came to a place of recognizing multiple learning styles. I think so many young people are saddled with very strong and impenetrable labels because they don’t process and retain information in typical fashion, but they do know the information. That was such a progressive approach to test in a conversational manner! And from the friends of mine who have struggled with their children’s education, the best results have always been in the homes where Mom is a tiger on the subject. They haven’t been popular with teachers and within school districts, but they get results. To you the science teacher, my five-year-old Sophia told me on the way home from school yesterday that she LOVES science. LOL! Not yet completely sure what that means to her, but I had to smile. I promised her lot so of exposure when she gets out of school next month!

    • Debra,
      Thanks for sharing your perspective and experiences to this post! Proactive parents are fine – but their trick is finding people who are willing to work with them instead of the parents bullying everyone.

      In terms of Sophia, she’s at the impressionable age, so it could be the aspect of tricks and magic that are fun … then again, maybe she likes thinking and problem solving.

  13. What a lovely story … you know how to tell .. a story, Frank. I think we all have a teacher that became extra close to us … Mine was Mr Larsson. Fantastic post, Frank.

  14. I never really “learned” how to handle folks with LDs, including the “simple” boy I shared years of grade school with, or my work cube-mate who was deaf. Thankfully, my parents taught me early on to treat individuals as individuals – great advice, as I’d learn later.
    Good to see you could recognise Amber’s abilities, rather than getting hung up on whatever limitations she might have had. (And I completely understand Amber’s problem – I can neither write nor type as fast as the thoughts come. And that FAR predates my “can’t find the words” problem! :) )

    • John,
      It took me a while, but I finally learned something. In terms of LD, whether its teachers, students, parents, or the general public, there’s a lot to learn!

  15. Great post, Frank. How fortunate for your students that the teacher was open to learning. Sometimes my students teach me very important lessons, as long as I am open to being taught – bravo to you for sharing this experience!

  16. Frank, Working with developmentally disabled adults I am shocked everyday. It is amazing when these adults are paired with the correct teacher and mentor how they blossom. They are amazing human beings. Many myths of developmentally disabled have been busted due to my employers willing to take a chance on my clients. :)

  17. Thankfully there are teachers like you, Frank. You were so thoughtful to think of giving the kid an oral exam.
    I see school groups with their teachers at my cash register every day and I’m sorry to say that so few teachers help the young kids with their purchases or even stand with them and help them while they pay.

  18. Yes, this is what I do. We work with instructors to get the best out of the students with LDs. Teachers like you Frank make all the difference in the world to these students and to us helping them. Great story. And if my old tag still pops up, it’s me KJ. Thanks for visiting!

    • Rogue,
      See … I knew you would appreciate this post. I know it was months ago when I mentioned it, so I’m glad you got to see it. Thanks for the kind words!

  19. Pingback: Flashbacks: On Education | A Frank Angle

  20. My one daughter has a learning disability that affects her reading & writing. She is currently in her fourth year of university. Some classes she struggles with, others not. Some professors will give her oral exams, which she aces, others won’t (too much work for them, she’s been told). At the same time, some days she will admit to having a learning disability, some days not. She is exceptionally smart, and has developed coping mechanisms for school, but it is still difficult. She is determined to graduate, and she will this year.

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