Alison Irving, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Alison IrvingMany people have heard of the idea of “Quaker” as a verb, as a way of being. I was asked to speak at Wahroonga about how my faith expressed my spirituality. Trying to understand how I “Quaker” on a daily basis was challenging. Not being particularly analytical, I had real difficulty in working out the relationship between work and faith, faith and work, yet I know that my faith has a huge impact on my work life.

I run a business as a specialist literacy tutor for students with specific learning disabilities who are mainstreamed at school. To attend, a child must have some form of diagnosis of disability. I don’t take an achieving child just to push them through selective school exams, for example. I take the strugglers, both in literacy and in behaviour. These are the interesting ones.

What schools, and society in general, rank as important, seems trivial in comparison to our individual self worth. The world’s values, in the Christian sense, are skewed towards money and achievement; success in school is often acknowledged only when it is academic or sporting success. However, what we as Quakers value does not mirror those values rewarded in society, regardless of whether society pays lip-service to the true ideal. Recently, I walked into an educational bookstore in Castle Hill. The store was geared for high-achievers, selective school examinations and educational success. There was nothing in stock to help the struggling child. In fact, what the “world” sees as important, such as academic success and achievement, tends to exclude those students who are less able academically, behaviourally or socially. They become the young, hidden, marginalised of our own society. A discussion of some of these children will give an idea of my job and how my faith impacts my work and vice versa. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

David: the beginning.

David was the person who first drew me towards special education. We never know what effect our actions have on others. David had been at a London primary school since he was 4. He had been in my class for 2 years and he was a nice enough wee boy. I remember a cheerful child in 1960s short shorts and a white shirt. We didn’t even realise that he was failing in reading. When David was 6 years old, he had a Welsh nationalist teacher named Miss Thomas, who hit him because he couldn’t spell the word ‘the’. There wasn’t much I could do at the time, because I was 6 as well, yet I clearly remember thinking, there has to be a better way to teach than walloping somebody.

I have always felt drawn towards the strugglers. At university, my electives were in special ed., language development and learning support. Later on, one of my own children was diagnosed with dyslexia. For me, teaching is at its most rewarding when it’s about lifting the struggling, teaching the child to believe in themselves, and turning a student around from failure to success. A fellow Quaker suggested to me recently that I have a passion for justice; I think in fact that it is a passion for both justice and mercy.

Rebecca: intercession and fairness, putting equality into practice

Rebecca was a child who never had a playtime. She was put down by her teacher, whom she had for three years running, and forbidden to read Harry Potter because it was “too difficult”. She was denied help even by her school principal. The exam board in New Zealand permitted Rebecca to have a reader, but the principal denied it. He thought fairness was everyone having the same; other children did not have a reader, so he argued, why should Rebecca? Rebecca suffered from a specific learning disability. His attitude was not unlike saying that if a blind child has a white stick, so should all the others. This man paid lip-service to equality without understanding that fairness is not about everyone having the same: it is about everyone having what they need. Literacy tutoring is about providing the students with those necessities, whether it is an assessment, appropriate intervention, scaffolding, techniques like mnemonics to help memory, organisation, or skills for survival. This is putting equality into practice by giving the students the tools for a level playing field. Fighting for this, once again, is “quakering”, it is justice in action.

Megan: Developing excellence and the Quaker value of integrity

Megan is a foster child. Her tuition is paid by the foster society. When working with her, I have a responsibility to her birth mother, to her carers and to the society, so there is enormous importance in being seen to have integrity in business dealings.

Firstly, there is the importance in being well-informed and well-qualified. In the business of special education there are too many charlatans and well-meaning quack practitioners. In my case this meant having a post-grad qualification in Special Education and continuing my professional learning through the Cheri conferences, the Learning Difficulties Coalition, SPELD and other professional bodies. I regularly attend conferences to ensure that I am the best that I can be, to ensure that the students can be the best that they can be. Keeping up with research is a vital part of integrity.

It is a weird world out there. There are a huge number of “treatments” available for children with specific learning disabilities. Parents who are desperate will turn to anything that offers a promise of help. My own daughter is dyslexic and I understand the drive to find an answer. Two of my students have been given cranial massage for spelling. This made them much more relaxed, but it failed completely to improve their spelling scores. Some people swear by coloured overlays, despite the lack of research demonstrating their efficacy. I have met children who have been walking backwards upstairs to help spelling! When the placebo effect is 42%, how does a parent decide what is worthwhile for their child?

As a Quaker, the value of integrity means only presenting interventions that have been scientifically proven to work, using peer-reviewed research, and which have measurable effect sizes. To do otherwise would feel dishonest. Furthermore, it means keeping exact records and data on a daily basis, measuring progress or lack of for each child, so I know exactly how much a child’s work is improving, and then writing reports to reflect on the student’s improvement and to set new goals. Giving structure to a child’s learning is important, but so is being prepared to abandon the plan to suit the needs of the moment. There are often emergency sessions in learning support, when bullying, panic about assessments or another crisis are more important than the planned activity. For Megan, I requested a full assessment from an education psychologist, which provided direction for the way forward.

Lucy: Batting for the losing team

Lucy was a wee girl in Year 5, who turned up one day and said, “it was awards day in assembly today”. Naturally I asked her if she had won an award. Her reply, “I’ve never had an award,” broke my heart. This was a child on the losing team. Her learning disability permeated her entire existence. She was even dropped from the primary dance group, the one thing she enjoyed, for not being good enough, the only child to be dropped. At school, Lucy was lost and confused. Picking up a child from a situation like this is difficult. Boosting confidence on its own is counterproductive. It’s no good saying to a student, “well done for trying hard”, when the child knows that they have been unsuccessful. Most awards that children with literacy problems receive at school tend to be for trying hard or for finally managing a neat piece of work, as if tidy writing is a measure of self-worth. To be confidence-boosting, praise must be specific and it must be targeted so that every one of our children know that they are important. Many of them, like Lucy, struggle to understand that academic achievement is not a measure of personal worth. Worth is intrinsic to each person, regardless of their performance in reading. As Quakers, we know that there is “that of God in everyone”. Helping the child to see their own spark is vital for their self-worth.

Mike: teaching responsibility and ownership

For Quakers, our learning and progress in faith is our responsibility. We do not hand it passively to a pastor. Children at tutoring are encouraged to believe that “My learning is my job.”

Mike was the king of excuses. Nothing was ever his fault and there was always a reason why he hadn’t done his homework, hadn’t brought his books, hadn’t remembered to hand in work at school. This was bad enough when he was in Year 5. He came back to tutoring as a failing Year 12 with the same problem. Part of being a Quaker is taking ownership. It is my job to teach that to the students. There is a poster as the children walk into the room that says:

My learning is my job. It is my responsibility.
I provide the effort.

It is not my teachers’ responsibility.
Teachers provide place, support and information.

It is not my parents’ responsibility.
Parents provide support and help.

 It is only mine.

Fortunately, Mike learned this lesson just before HSC. He began to take responsibility for his own progress with positive results and is now at university.

Others blame their lack of homework on memory issues, so we work on techniques to boost memory and organisation, not just for tutoring, but also for school. Tutoring is a “No blame society!” in which we work the problem together to find solutions.

Bethany: seeking acceptance

Working the problem together to find solutions takes time, yet time is something that some parents find difficult. This is a hard paragraph to write, because so many parents are wonderful, understanding and patient with their children’s problems. Unfortunately, occasionally there are parents who find the issue of specific learning disabilities beyond their understanding. They desperately want to help the child, but often seek for a “magic”, instant solution. Bethany’s mother is just such a parent. Having found school easy, she struggles to comprehend Bethany’s problems. She insists frequently and loudly that Bethany should try harder, work harder, practice her spellings more. Whatever Bethany achieves is never quite good enough. Quakers believe in the intrinsic worth of each person, just as Christ did. Bethany’s on-going work includes providing her mother with specific data showing her child’s improvement, and praising the child in front of her mother. Accepting the child we have, with the problems that they have, rather than the child we would like to have, and rejoicing in the skills that they do have, can be a steep learning curve for some parents. Bethany is actually quite a bright student with strong gifts in creativity. Slowly, her mother is being encouraged to see this for herself.

Mark: teaching acceptance

Just as Quakers promote the importance of equality, so part of my job is often to teach children to be more accepting, especially children who have been the target of bullying. It is about teaching the children to cope with bullying and not to bully themselves. Some students lack the skills to understand what is, and what is not, acceptable and often they copy what they think are acceptable ideas, modelling their own behaviour on the behaviour that they have received. Fifteen-year-old Mark had to learn that acne isn’t “dirty”, in fact that children with acne often spend more time and effort on their appearance than those who are unafflicted. He needed to understand that older citizens do not have special “old people” feelings that make them worth less than the young. Helping him to see that everyone is relevant is an integral part of “Quakering” and the acceptance of all.

Myself: Accepting non-acceptance

Quakers frequently have to accept non-acceptance, yet maintain their own standards. Walking the narrow way can be uncomfortable, even as we walk cheerfully over the world. Being a Quaker, choosing the non-violent way to live, choosing to accept others and to welcome them, is a choice that others might find threatening, and it can affect our comfort zone. Rejection is painful, while accepting it and moving on regardless is powerful.

In general, some teachers do not like tutors, even though we have come from the ranks of the teaching profession. Mainly, this is because there are so many strange and unresearched interventions available. These give tutors a bad reputation. Tutors carry the image of being uneducated and even unprofessional. A tiny number of teachers feel threatened and can be rude when they deal with tutors. Fortunately, many teachers, however, are wonderful and supportive of both parents and students, and are a delight to work with. I have had to learn to cope with the rejection and not to let it impact my performance.

Finally: the lessons

Tutoring has helped me to put into practice the knowledge of the importance of every child. They have given me lessons in humility and in perseverance. They have taught me so much, about values, about battling against enormous odds, about not giving up and about sharing the successes. I can say with honesty that these children are amazing and worthy of far greater respect than they often meet in daily life.

Why do I do it? I think it’s about both justice and mercy. That is how I “Quaker”, it’s about doing what is right, and it is fulfilling, exciting and humbling to find that my faith and my work are inseparable.

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