Nina Sinclair (left) and Sam Mayhew from Weston College
Having dyslexia has given a specialist practitioner deep empathy with students with autism and other disabilities and played a key role in a west country college’s holistic approach to both staff and learners
Nina had to wait until she began working at Weston College as a support worker before discovering she was dyslexic.
“I always knew from school I had a barrier to learning but never knew what it was. I’d joined a free employment course at the college and my tutor suggested I might try support work. It was only when I started training in that role that I got diagnosed.
“Providing class support for others and understanding more about learning barriers including dyslexic enabled me to utilise the strategies that I had developed. It motivated me to achieve my foundation degree in inclusive practice so I could give high quality support to others that I would have benefited from in my education. I was able to offer teaching and learning from a different perspective.”
Rather than seeing dyslexia as a barrier, Nina says working alongside it and creating strategies has made life easier. “It’s being able to say: ‘I’m dyslexic too’ to my students and colleagues - it’s something that frees them up to talk about their own learning challenges - areas that certainly do not make them unemployable.”
Accessibility training helps staff handle any Word doc
Nina’s case, in fact, is a typical success story of a dyslexic teacher. After starting as a support worker followed by three career ‘progressions’, she has become a specialist practitioner in autism (and employment), teaching across a wide range of courses. Now she can confidently ask for meeting notes to be written down or recorded and circulated and for colleagues to follow up quick verbal conversations with emails, so she’s able to retain the information.
She admits that she’s “awful” with dates: “I could misread 12th of the eighth as 12/9th and be a month late - or early. Verbal instructions fall through the net for me. But what really helps here is the accessibility training given to all staff on how to embed assistive technology within my role.”
‘Immersive’ readers are a godsend
Being honest about her dyslexia has empowered Nina to use assistive technology that reads text back to her. “It’s been a huge help as I now don’t have to read through lots of text for any reason … I just use a headset, listen, take notes and it all makes sense. It’s been of such benefit and support. I also use speech-to-text Dragon technology to write up things and then ask my line manager or another colleague to proof-read my work.
“I have to stay organised or everything can fall apart. I have to be able keep to a planned structure in lessons otherwise I can go off at a tangent and not deliver what I wanted.”
Being transparent about dyslexia pays dividends
How would she advise dyslexic people set on a teaching career? “Absolutely go for it! We need teachers with different backgrounds and support needs who can see things from different angles … students don’t want to be taught robotically by the same type of teacher - they need diverse approaches.
“The more transparent you are, the more freedom it gives you to specify what support you need; colleagues are more than willing to help and make adjustments for you. Whether you think you can teach or not depends more on your own self- confidence and self-esteem.”
Nina’s own experience has been positive throughout. “It’s been really eye-opening how supportive employers can be. I’ve been my worst critic but if you have a passion for teaching, there’s always a place for dyslexic teachers.”
What about access to other dyslexic staff? “We need a ‘society’ or anything structured or formal as it would segregate things more, but I’ve definitely got to know other dyslexic staff who can empathise and share how they teach and overcome their barriers through sharing our practice.”
Sam Mayhew cannot stress enough the importance of a whole organisational approach to inclusivity. Weston College recognises all staff (and students) as individuals with their own strengths and learning needs from the moment they apply for a job. “We want them to see the vibrancy through our inclusive approach and feel they can disclose their neurodiversity, like dyslexia and any additional support requirements they may have - though not everyone does.”
Sam assumes nothing before interviews. “We’re thinking how we can be inclusive through the whole interview process - including the information we give out; the phone conversations we ensure take place with candidates from the start to avoid them having to process reams of HR information; and follow-up phone calls before appointments are made to ask if everything was clear and do they need any further clarifications?”
Candidates given interview questions in advance
Some applicants with dyslexia and those on the autistic spectrum invariably find it difficult to answer interview questions and process the full information in a room with unfamiliar people, says Sam. “So giving candidates those questions up front before the interview ensures they have opportunities to bring in notes and other resources to help demonstrate their skills across a range of activities and not just focus on formal questions being fired at you.
“We hope people will see that our inclusive process shows how we value their different ways of delivering teaching and that they’ll never feel there’s been any barrier to stop them getting a job with us.
“We use various tasks to check out what sort of talent, creativity and solution-focused ideas applicants with dyslexia could bring to a job role. We see everyone we take on as an asset to our team regardless of their neurodiversity, we ensure managers understand inclusivity and get the best out of their teams by not treating staff all the same but according to their needs.”
‘Some of our best people are dyslexic’
For dyslexic teachers in post, any reports they produce on a learner’s progress can be proof read before being sent out, says Sam. “Filling a blank piece of paper can leave many dyslexic teachers not knowing how to start and write down their first sentence, so they may have a word-storming session with their mentor or line manager about their learners prior to preparing reports.”
She says some of the most successful staff in the college have dyslexia - they can quickly differentiate their teaching by creating new solutions, learning strategies and how to engage and improve a particular learner’s work.
Another key role at Weston to support all new staff is that of personal mentor; it can be particularly helpful if an employee finds out for the first time that they have dyslexia or they know they have the condition but fear that disclosing it could harm their career.
Candidates mush check out the training available `
“I’d hope if someone did not want to disclose their condition because of a previous bad experience, our inclusivity would convince them otherwise,” says Sam. “We embrace and celebrate their dyslexia and work out how to support them, whenever an employee chooses to tell them.”
So in a nutshell what workplace criteria should a job-seeker with dyslexia look for? “A key point to check is what sort of training and support does a college offer alongside the job on offer,” says Sam.
Flexibility around timetables is key
She also advises asking about dedicated, low-arousal spaces where teachers can take time out to focus on areas and meet deadlines - in large offices noise can be particularly distracting for dyslexic staff. Is there organisational support and flexibility around timetables, given the extra time such staff will need to be able to complete their tasks? (Managers should be aware that dates are really important to staff with dyslexia and they should not expect something like a self-assessment from such staff the very next day - maybe the teacher needs a couple of days spent working at home to complete important documents.)
And as for career progression? “People with dyslexia do really very well in our college environment,” says Sam, citing the stories of two colleagues with the condition. Both Nina Sinclair (see above) and Ben Hodder (featured on these pages in October) have risen respectively from support worker to specialist practitioner and from technician to dean of faculty. Dyslexia is less of a barrier, more of a springboard.