“I've got something to tell you. I'm dyslexic”: The lived experiences of trainee teachers with dyslexia

Published: 
August 2021

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 104

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study the authors used interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA: Smith & Osborn, 2008) to explore the lived experiences of seven Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) trainees with dyslexia in the UK and gain an in-depth insight in to how each trainee made sense of their own unique, ideographic experience as both teachers and learners.
They examined their journey throughout their PGCE course, encompassing their experiences learning with their initial teacher education (ITE) higher education institution and with their placement schools.
To address these objectives, the study explored the following research questions (RQ):
RQ1) What are the placement-based experiences of trainee primary and secondary school teachers with dyslexia enrolled on a PGCE in England?
RQ2) What are the university-based experiences of trainee primary and secondary school teachers with dyslexia enrolled on a PGCE in England?
RQ3) Are there experiences unique to being a dyslexic trainee teacher in either the primary or secondary sector?

Methodology

Design and participants
This study used purposive sampling.
The study was advertised during lectures on a PGCE course and through word of mouth.
Inclusion criteria required participants to self-identify as dyslexic.
Seven participants took part in a semi-structured interview.
Open ended questions were used to encourage participants to relay detailed, considered accounts.
Data were transcribed verbatim and analysed using the principles of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA; Smith & Osborn, 2008).

Data collection
Individual interviews were conducted between September 2019 and May 2020.
Given the sensitive nature of the interview, all participants were reminded they did not have to answer any questions they did not wish to, were offered breaks and reminded of their right to withdraw.
Questions were open ended and written to be respectful and sensitive whilst being clear and concise.

Data analysis
Data were analysed in accordance with the principles of IPA (Smith & Osborn, 2008).
This methodology is contingent on a small sample size which enabled a thorough exploration of each case before commonalities were identified across all data.
IPA acknowledges that the communication between researchers and findings is not a direct one (Smith & Osborn, 2008).
Not only does it rely on participants making sense of their own experiences, but also the researchers attempting to make sense of a participant making sense of their own experience, a phenomenon termed double hermeneutics (Smith, 2015).

Findings and discussion
This study aimed to bridge the gap in knowledge between the experiences of dyslexic primary and secondary school trainees and explore their experiences as learners within a higher education institution (HEI).
The authors explored participants’ experiences in their placement schools and in their HEIs.
This provided a novel insight into this area of research which has focussed predominantly on primary school trainees in placement settings only.
They have found similarities in experience between the primary and secondary sector, such as inefficient mentoring, the process of managing disclosure and managing the demands of lecture-based learning in HEIs.
They have also shown how there were unique experiences for those in secondary ITE.
For instance, participants had particularly negative experiences when they were training to teach English and in providing feedback to exam groups.
IPA methodology allowed them to explore the nuanced and unique perspectives of trainee teachers whose voices may have otherwise gone unheard.
Using this approach allowed participants to speak freely about issues that were pertinent to them which, in turn, led to unexpected and valuable insights.
However, due to the small sample size, these findings cannot be generalised to all trainee teachers with dyslexia or to other ITE providers.
The authors also acknowledge that most of their participants were female.
Future research may look to address this imbalance by recruiting dyslexic male trainee teachers, specifically.

Placement experiences in primary and secondary settings
The personal narratives of all trainees enrolled on both the primary and secondary PGCEs implied that having ownership over how and when to disclose their dyslexia was an integral part of their experience on the course and in building their professional identity.
However, each participant did this of their own volition, with little discussion from the university support services as to how this could be achieved.
Even though the participants in this study were happy to disclose their dyslexia to placement schools, others may prefer to have had their placement school already informed by the ITE university.
This finding highlights the need for greater discussion between the ITE university and the trainee with dyslexia about how their disclosure to the placement school can be managed (Griffiths, 2012).
A trainee might want to make the disclosure themselves; they might prefer the ITE university to do it before they arrive at their placement school or they may not want to disclose their dyslexia at all.
Participants in both primary and secondary settings acknowledged that they brought strengths to the profession.
For example, they often turned compensatory strategies in to positive or creative learning experiences for their classes.
They also had a greater degree of empathy with pupils with dyslexia.
Trainees stressed how they were aware of their status as a role model for pupils with dyslexia and wanted to use it to motivate and support them.
Given that trainee teachers with disabilities are sometimes viewed as a threat to high standards (Griffiths, 2012; Riddick, 2001), this finding points towards celebrating the positives trainees with dyslexia bring to the classroom.
Across both sectors, participants highlighted mentors as fundamental to the success of their PGCE experience.
Trainees expressed how they found it rewarding when mentors stressed their strengths.
This suggests that if mentors stress a trainee's strengths, it is likely to develop their confidence and give them a platform on which to succeed.
Despite these positives, in some instances, experiences of mentoring in primary and secondary settings were sub-standard.
Participants often valued and were receptive to genuinely constructive feedback.
However, the way some feedback was phrased was often judgmental and critical, without being supportive.
At times, mentors made trainees feel as if they were unsuitable to be teachers.
It demonstrates how mentors understood dyslexia from a deficit perspective, underpinned by a medical model of disability.
The findings suggest that there is lack of professional knowledge and training for mentors in supporting a trainee with dyslexia.
Training should look to re-define and re-frame the language used in relation to disability, to language that values functional diversity (Campoy-Cubillo, 2019).
Indeed, this is particularly important when we consider that effective mentoring is pivotal to an inexperienced teacher's professional development (Glazzard & Coverdale, 2018).

Primary and secondary HEI PGCE experiences
The university-based portion of the PGCE also posed challenges for the study’s participants.
Some explained how they found the lecture format challenging.
Others cited how they were unable to access reasonable adjustments in the lecture; the conduct of other trainees led to the whole cohort being asked to stop using technology.
This became problematic for dyslexic students who used technology to aid their learning.
Whilst there is no indication that dyslexic trainees were being targeted deliberately, this finding shows how the needs of dyslexic trainees were overlooked.
This suggests that there needs to be an increased awareness and understanding of dyslexia amongst the higher education community to ensure that technological accommodations are not removed.
Initiatives such as awareness days and seminars for all students and staff could be one potential solution.

Experiences unique to secondary school trainees
Whilst a portion of the findings have been in line with the work undertaken in primary schools, the authors did have findings specific to training in secondary schools.
Firstly, there was a perceived incongruency between training to teach English and having dyslexia.
The two participants training to be a secondary school English teacher perceived a discourse of negativity towards being both an English teacher and a person with dyslexia.
Potentially this discourse is perpetuated by a misconception that because dyslexia results in inefficiencies in spelling, reading and decoding (Lyon, Shawaywitz, & Shawaywitz, 2003), dyslexic people are perceived as somehow less capable of teaching English.
Another key finding was related to the emphasis placed on written feedback, particularly with GCSE groups.
The UK's Independent Teacher Workload Review Group stresses how providing written feedback on pupils' work has become disproportionately valued by schools.
In the schools in which the authors’ participants were placed, pressure was placed on the trainees to perform a “quick turnaround” of written feedback.
One school even gave the trainee full class-sets of books to mark, without a staggered build up.
This led to them feeling overworked and overwhelmed.
In reaction to the unreasonable marking expectations placed upon them, the participants began building their professional identity around the fact that they found marking difficult.
Providing written feedback resulted in unnecessary stress; this appeared to stem from an incongruence between best practice in marking work and school culture.
This could potentially drive teachers away from the profession as some schools promote unsustainable workload in contrast to government advice.

References
Campoy-Cubillo, M. C. (2019). Multidimensional networks for functional diversity in Higher Education: The case of second language education. In C. Savvidou (Ed.), Second language acquisition - pedagogies, practices and perspectives (pp. 1e21). IntechOpen.
Glazzard, J., & Coverdale, L. (2018). It feels like its sink or swim’: Newly Qualified Teachers’ Experiences of their Induction Year. International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, 17(11)
Griffiths, S. (2012). ‘Being dyslexic doesn't make me less of a teacher’.School placement experiences of student teacherswith dyslexia: Strengths, challenges and a model for support. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, (12)
Lyon, G. R., Shawaywitz, S., & Shawaywitz, B. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53(1)
Riddick, B. (2001). Dyslexia and inclusion: Time for a social model of disability perspective. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 11(3)
Smith, J. (2015). Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods (3rd ed.). SAGE Publications
Smith, J., & Osborn, M. (2008). Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In J. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods (pp. 53e81). Sage. 

Updated: Jan. 13, 2022
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