By Cathy Pamelard
As part of Foote's Learning Support Program, I teach children with academic challenges. Many of these students have a learning disability such as dyslexia. In the younger grades, my daily work consists of teaching reading decoding, the comprehension of text, encoding and writing to students for whom these processes are often incredibly challenging.
These lessons tend to be very intensive and sequential and embed multisensory learning in the targeted tasks of the day. Each discrete gain a child makes represents hours of practice and engagement on his or her part. With this practice and the right instruction, students do make gains—one small success after another—week in and week out. There is nothing more exciting and rewarding for teacher and student alike than when a child who has had these challenges turns a corner and becomes a reader.
For older students, I teach writing, reading comprehension skills, research and some math, as well as organization and planning skills. I try to help students understand and build the components of successful student-hood, and develop the ability to track their own progress with their studies. “Okay, so there’s an essay due and a Latin test on Thursday, you’re missing one homework assignment and you have soccer until 8 on Tuesday night. What’s your plan?”
I count myself infinitely lucky to be able to work with children in this way. Along with the joy of being in the presence of young people, I like to believe that the work I do—like all teaching—has course-changing potential baked into it. I think of students from past years who have struggled immensely and gone on to become skilled readers, writers, thinkers and scholars. What could be more meaningful than witnessing these transformations?
As many readers may know, I lost my hearing over a period of 15 to 20 years beginning in my teens. For a long time, I missed sizable chunks of the soundscape around me, including human speech. I compensated by lip-reading and constantly tracking nonaural information. Until I got my first cochlear implant, I wasn’t completely aware of how much I was missing. After surgery, as I acclimated to new sensory information, I remember understanding the speech of my 2-year-old son from the backseat of the car for the first time. I remember hearing birdsong again.
The restoration of my hearing was something I never expected; it had been unimaginable to me just a few years prior. The challenges that I experienced with this loss are another reason I teach children with learning differences. My own difficulties have provided an understanding of what it’s like not to be able to do something others find relatively effortless and of the frustration and self-reproach this can engender when the proper intervention or recourse is not in place.
As I write this, we are deep in the murk of the COVID-19 pandemic. For most, this has meant recurrent losses of one kind or another: loss of life; illness; a long-awaited wedding cancelled; a sports season shut down; graduations, trips and once-in-a-lifetime events gone. While I count myself fortunate compared to many, my own family has experienced some of these losses and I have found myself shaken by events that are unsettling my family and community.
In the midst of this instability and seemingly unrelenting bad news, teaching represents the opposite of giving up. Although there is much we have sacrificed during COVID, much remains in the way of positive opportunities and actions to affect what’s to come. Teaching is one such action.
It’s been great to return to in-person teaching this fall and to working with students again, knowing that it contributes in some small way to something brighter and better than the current situation, something on the other side of this, something hoped for and yet, perhaps, surprising.
Cathy Pamelard is Director of the Learning Support Program and has taught at Foote since 2000. Her son, Marc ’19, is a Foote graduate and her daughter, Audrey ’21, is a 9th grader.
This article originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of Foote Prints magazine.