Dyslexia is described as a learning disorder that involves difficulty in reading due to problems in identifying speech sounds and how they relate to letters and words.
Rick Crook, the Bishopslea Preparatory School headmaster who is dyslexic himself, joined Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube on the platform In Conversation with Trevor to share insights on the condition.
Crook (RC) told Ncube (TN) how he battled with dyslexia and shared his journey to be one of the top educators in the country despite the condition. Below are excerpts from the conservation.
TM: Where did you go to primary school because that is where dyslexia ADT begins to manifest itself?
RC: I was born in Zimbabwe and my parents were living in Tsholotsho at that time and then I moved to what is now Esigodini.
I spent the first two years there of which I do not remember too much about that.
My father then got transferred to Bulawayo for my Grade 3. As with many dyslectic children, the problem starts manifesting at Grade 3.
TN: So clearly something happened in Grade 3 that makes you remember. Can you share with us what you experienced?
RC: I was at Milton Junior School and in Grade 3. I was bottom of the C stream and I remember being considered for the D stream.
I could not read or spell, I did not have any arithmetic ability at all and I think I was a nightmare to the teachers.
I do remember the odd thing with being sent to the headmaster many times, standing at the teacher’s desk where she would mark with one hand and hold a stick with the other hand and whack me at the back of the legs every time I got something wrong.
I believe at that stage there must have been something wrong with me.
TM: What did that do to you at that particular time, if you can remember?
RM: It is an acceptance that you are not going to be different to everybody else and an acceptance that you are not doing well academically and you might as well try because if you are going to try and you are not going to be acknowledged anywhere, then what is the point?
So those years from Grade 3, 4, 5, my father, who was an agriculturist, decided to go into education.
We went to England for a year, I went to two schools in England then came back, but right up until Grade 6, which I repeated in Bulawayo and I believe there was absolutely no hope for me whatsoever.
If you saw my books, everything was just red and typical dyslexic and EDD.
TN: Did you and your teachers know at that particular time you were dyslexic?
RM: Absolutely not. They did not know.
TN: What did the beating, being number last in the class, what did that do to you as a person?
RC: It takes away any dignity and it prevents you from having any expectation of yourself.
That is very significant that you do not see a prospect, you do not know where you are going, what you are going to do.
You can see where everyone is going and you can see how they are progressing and how they are coping in that situation and you are not so. You wonder what actually is going to happen to you.
TN: Did you get the sense that anybody else around you understood what you were going through.
RC: No. I remember being isolated and feeling very lonely.
TN: What did that do to your attitude towards education?
RC: I just did not like school to be honest. I hated it.
TN: Why did you continue going to school?
RC: My father was a headmaster and my mother was head of the maths department at the senior school I ended up going to. The only reason I ever sort of managed to pass the basics was through being dragged, kicked and screaming by my parents.
TN: Let me share my experiences with you. My very first experience was repeating Grade 1 and I had this vivid experience of sitting in class, everybody being asked to go in front of the class on the blackboard to write the word that the teacher wanted to be spelt.
The word that my teacher wanted me to spell on the blackboard was ‘boy’ and I could not spell ‘boy’.
I was beaten big time by this lady who had taken a liking to hating me and on that particular day she beat me to the extent that my bottom bled and when I got home my grandmother was livid.
I was in the rural areas. My grandfather wanted to go and fix this teacher, but my wise grandmother said if you do that you are messing up his education.
Let us find other ways of dealing with it. Like you, Rick, what it made me feel was that going to school every day was a nightmare and I hated it.
The kids laughed at me, the teachers never looked at me, if they looked at me I was an object of derision and they laughed at me.
Going to school became torture and a nightmare. Rick, let me come to you. When then did you discover there was something wrong with you, Grade 6 going forward?
RC: When I repeated Grade 6 that was a problem because having CONTINUED FROM PAGE 5
to repeat but going into Grade 7 I was with many people, you end up at some stage having a brilliant teacher and I had an excellent teacher in that grade.
He saw something in me, he pushed me and my Grade 7 year was probably the best year I ever had in school because of the teacher.
TN: Do you remember the name of the teacher?
RC: I do not remember. I remember very few names. One of the things about my condition is it affects people in different ways, but I forget names all the time.
I can be here talking to you and somebody comes and I will say Trevor, how are you doing to that person I would have met and I would have forgotten your name.
TN: I am exactly like that. You tell me your name now, I forget it the next moment. It is part of a conditioned disorder, very frustrating, but that is reality. You just embrace and live with it. You do not try and do stuff that you cannot do. So that teacher came and made a difference?
RC: He made an incredible difference and I succeeded.
TN: Do you remember in particular what this teacher did that made you turn around?
RC: Thinking back, he focused on my strengths, not my weaknesses, and that has been one of the things that we will be talking about as we go through.
One of the tactics is focusing on the strengths.
When I did, I managed to get into the stream at the senior school and when I got into senior school, of course, there was Latin.
So I ended up straight bottom in the class, but I managed to stay there with many coping mechanisms.
TN: What were your coping mechanisms?
RC: My spellings. I could not spell and I only learnt to spell in my 20s.
It was horrific and, of course, when you are in primary school you want to write neatly because then everybody is writing neatly and you do try and all that happens is the more neat you write the more spelling mistakes, so you end up with this whole page filled with red.
When I started in Form 1 and I realised that my spellings were going to throw me out, I was going to have a serious problem with it, I developed a style of writing that can only be equated to a doctor’s scrawl. So you could read and make up what I wrote, but for the teacher it really was not worth the energy to go through how many spellings, that is if there were any spelling mistakes and that got me through my senior school and tertiary education.
If you asked my personal assistant, I think she is the only person in the world who can translate it even now.
TN: The similarities, we have not discussed this, but there are similarities there.
For me prior to being discovered by this teacher I had the worst experiences I have just related to you, a terrible experience with one teacher.
For the teachers that are in this audience, the message that I would like to share with you right now, Rick being a teacher himself and a headmaster is, you have an amazing role in shaping these kids, you can destroy them or you can build them, the choices are up to you. The teacher who beat me so hard almost destroyed me. The truth is up to now I live with the scars of the abuse that I experienced.
The verbal and the physical abuse never goes away.
It attacks my confidence. If you look at me in a strange way I do not know, I begin to question myself.
In Grade 6 I remember the teacher who discovered me, Mr Mafundi Mpofu.
He did something that was amazing. He gave us an assignment, you know what teachers do, they walk behind you and see what you are writing.
He saw what I was writing and by the way my experience was, I would never lift my hands in class because I had been told that I was dull and I believed it.
So Mr Mpofu stood beside me and said Trevor it’s amazing what you have written, stand up and share with the class.
I was shivering, jelly knees. I read what I had written and the class clapped their hands.
The first time in my life that somebody had affirmed me, the first time that someone said I could do something.
That was a turn for me and as God would have it the Grade 6 teacher was also my Grade 7 teacher and I passed my Grade 7 with flying colours having been number last.
If there were 38 students in class from Grade 1, I was number 38 but the transformation took place in Grade 6 and 7.
I went to one of the best schools in Bulawayo, Mzilikazi High School.
So teachers can make children that are dyslexic or you can break them if you do not understand what it is that you are supposed to be dealing with.
So Rick I think we have talked about your journey, you are now a headmaster and you have done something amazing at Bishopslea, which is to create a stream, a way of encouraging these kids as they come in as they learn.
For the benefit of everyone else, what do you think are the indicators, how do you identify that a child is dyslexic, ADD, ADHD?
RC: There is a long story involved in it. The two need to be separated although a child who is dyslexic or ADD is more likely to be both, we know that the genes are very close together and the effects are very different.
They do need to be looked out independently although in the classrooms, but there are different strategies for each one combined, that is what helps a child.
If we start with dyslexia obviously the child battles to read, spell and write.
The Grade 1 and one manages to get through, Grade 3 is where the problems start to manifest themselves and I did not know I was dyslexic, it was something that was not well known those days and it was only known as an adult after I qualified as a teacher that I was dyslexic.
I had been teaching here for four years, I left and went overseas, where I spent 11 and a half years and at the initial I went to Greece, where I spent nine years in total and taught at this school that big British international school, which was headed that time by the headmaster who had founded and run Marlfield School in Somerset for 23 years.
He had been asked to go out of retirement to go to Greece to sort out the problems that they had when they thought to build the school and I started teaching there and he had theories on dyslexia. I think he was dyslexic himself and he mentored me.
It is through him that I started my journey on dyslexia and I realised what I was and from then on where we have got to now with this ELP.
It is a series of events that have happened through those years.
Basically starting off, I was teaching there and what we did those days was make extra money, you could basically double your salary by going to teach private lessons in the evening.
Teaching Greek children how to speak and write English but of course when you got to do that, the Greek alphabet is completely different from the English alphabet.
You go in as a dyslexic and I was glad they did not know but you go in and teach somebody how to speak English when you cannot really do it yourself.
So the methods of teaching, reading in those days in English schools was basically look and say, you have a card, piece of paper with the word cat on it and you show it to the child and you say this is a cat until the child memorises that.
Now you go to a Greek child and say this is a cat and they look at you and say really what is cat.
After you work out that there is only one way to teach the English language and that is you have to sit down and teach all the sounds and then teach the logic behind the word, why the word says what it does and give them the tools in which to be able to do it themselves because when they learn Greek they learn it phonetically so you do that and the most incredible thing happened because I was teaching children from as young as seven years old till their late teens and this journey of teaching children a second language and going through it to say this word says this because of this and I would say goodness that is why it says this.
I learned more than the children that I was teaching and the parents were paying me.
It was actually quite ironic, but I did learn and from those years of teaching a second language. I learned to spell.
Jack Meyer, who was the head of the school, I had gone back to university to the UK to further my studies for a year, came back and while I was teaching there, he asked me to go back to Greece and take over a new branch of the school that they had opened.
He made me a headmaster at 28 and at that age I was into that process of learning how to spell so when I became the head, the first thing I did was go into the Grade 1 classroom and ask how they were teaching and that is when I realised I thought there is a problem with the way in which we teach.
We spent two years teaching children words and to memorise words, reading the vocabulary to get through those first two years is about 500 words.
A child of average intelligence is memorising them and remember to them, it is a picture or a hieroglyphic, it is not a word, we are calling them words but they are just memorising shapes.
They get through the reading scheme and that is why many of these children are able to do it because even if they do not do the whole 500, they do enough to get through a number of books.
Of course, when you get into Grade 3, reading vocabulary increases to about two and a half thousand words of which you cannot memorise two and a half thousand words.
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