When I realized I wanted to get out of the special education position I was in, I had no idea where I would go. I had heard of Orton-Gillingham but I didn’t really know what it was.
I was still passionate about education and I felt committed to the students I was teaching. But I was exhausted. My program was substantially separate, meaning my middle school students were in my class for the majority of the day, and when they attended other classes, like social studies or gym, they were attending with the support of paraprofessionals. Coordinating all those people and schedules, never having an empty classroom, and supporting children in both academics and social-emotional needs was more than a full-time job and I felt like someone was always getting short-changed.
Although being in a public school classroom limited what I could do in some ways, I also found a lot of satisfaction working with a team and helping my students succeed in our school community. But I felt like I really didn’t know everything I needed to to help them grow. Then I had a couple of lucky experiences that led me to become an Orton-Gillingham tutor.
Frustrations and Opportunities
I got my undergrad degree in psychology, with an elementary teaching license, at a time when my university was just beginning to rebuild their special education department. My state (Massachusetts) had just rolled out its standardized tests for teachers (MTEL) and the entire school of education was trying to learn together what was expected of new teachers.
My courses on reading were almost all from a balanced literacy perspective. We learned about how to foster a love of reading, how to incorporate diverse literature, and how to engage students with books and learning. But we had just a couple of short class sessions on basic reading skills – phonics, sounds in English, assessment. The message was that, while we had to learn that stuff for the test, it wasn’t really what teaching elementary school would be about.
My entire master’s program in special education included one single class on reading and math instruction, called “Literacy and Numeracy.” I finished that master’s, went into a classroom teaching students with autism, and didn’t really question why we were only using sight word instruction programs. I moved on to a new school where some students were getting a bit of phonics instruction, others were getting mostly sight words, and no one was talking about whether one was better than the other or why. I dug into the closets and pulled out some dusty old readers to use with my groups. But I was still piecing it all together.
In 2014, a new administrator brought in an Orton-Gillingham trainer to train a cohort of teachers. Up until that point, many of the teachers of students with moderate special needs were trained in the Wilson curriculum, and students whose needs were different, or who needed more intensive reading instruction, were often being taught by tutors who contracted with the district. The administration decided to get some of their own teachers trained so they no longer had to outsource those services.
From the first class, my mind was blown! Here was all the stuff that I felt like I was missing. I had known just enough to know I didn’t know enough to taech reading effectively, and here was the missing piece. Or the many, many, missing pieces.
I realized that not only had I not been taught to teach phonemic awareness, decoding or spelling, but I hadn’t even been taught these skills myself. When I was growing up, whole language was the main method of teaching reading. Anything I knew about the writing system of our language came from my English teacher mother or things I inferred on my own from lots and lots of reading.
After 6 months of classes, papers and reading, and 100 lessons written and taught with feedback from our trainer, I was certified at the teacher level to teach using the Orton-Gillingham approach.
If you’re an educator who wants to learn more about becoming a tutor, check out my educator resources.
The Grass isn’t Always Greener…Until it is
With my new Orton-Gillingham qualifications, I applied for a different position in my building. I moved from teaching students with severe special needs (the designation in Massachusetts for the highest-need students) to students with moderate special needs, in a resource room setting. That meant they came to me for only certain subjects. I taught reading to some students, math to others, and a study hall-type tutorial to many of the middle schoolers. Better than before, but with a schedule of 30-45 minute groups throughout the day, nothing was as intensive as my students needed.
I started to tutor privately on evenings and weekends. At first, I was reluctant to offer Orton-Gillingham tutoring online, but as I learned new tools, I was able to offer better reading instruction online and I realized that there is certainly a demand for OG services everywhere, and some places just do not have enough trained teachers. Eventually, among the many changes brought in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic, I quit my teaching job and started to tutor full time.
Aah, finally. Now, through Deep Roots Learning Solutions, Inc., I have the freedom to meet students’ learning needs flexibly. I’m not limited by “service delivery minutes” or district policy. I love working with families to decide what students need, and how often, and offer it to them. And I love watching my students learn and grow as readers, as writers, and as people as their reading catches up to their other skills.
A Happy Ending…For Now
I’m so thankful to spend every work day teaching what I love. I am helping students learn to read and spell in a way that they will use every day for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes I get itchy, though, thinking about the students I’m not reaching. I know there are a lot of students, like the ones I used to teach in school, whose teachers don’t have the skills and resources yet to teach them in a way that’s consistent with the Science of Reading. So, while I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me or for my company, my goal is to bring good reading instruction to more kids, especially kids in my community.
If your child needs more help to become a skilled, confident reader and writer, contact us today for a consultation and free demo lesson!