Sharon and Ben
Hi, I’m Sharon and I am just a Mum! I get told off all the time for saying, “I am just a Mum”. To be honest, I can’t think of any other job that even comes close to being as important as Ben and Lewis’s Mum. It might only have three letters but I believe it’s the most powerful and biggest three letter word in the dictionary.
I asked a close friend to send me questions to answer, because the one question I dread more than any other is “tell me about yourself.” Most days you can’t stop me talking, but that question stumps me every time!
I came to New Zealand in 2003 from Scotland, backpacking with my suitcase. I loved it so much I stayed, and met my husband David, and we now have two amazing boys called Ben and Lewis. Ben is the reason I am on this learning journey with you.
What was your motivation for establishing the Dyslexia New Zealand Evidence Based Support Group?
When I started my journey with Ben in 2018, I was clueless – honestly, it’s true!! I hadn’t even heard of the terms Balanced Literacy, PM books, predictable texts – never mind the Science of Reading. I had no idea what to do and I was completely freaking out!
I went on a two-day course with Learning Matters and crikey did it blow my mind. It was more information I could have imagined. I remember writing notes and notes and thinking I will look that up later. I still have those notes, and when I look back over them I have “?”s written next to most of the notes. That was my code: I need to learn more to understand how to help Ben.
I couldn’t believe what I was learning in those two days. It was not my child’s fault or my fault, or in fact the teacher’s fault. It was the approach Ben was being taught to read with (Balanced Literacy) that was failing him. I finally had the answer to my question: “Why couldn’t my son read?”
After the course, I realised most parents were like me: they didn’t know why their child couldn’t read and blamed themselves, and many of them had also watched their happy child disappear in front of their eyes as the child faced this huge, draining, seemingly hopeless task.
I created the deb for parents like me who needed a safe place to learn, a place where the information was backed by evidence, and a place to belong. I also realised that if anything was going to change, the group needed to be a place of support for everyone to learn. It needed to be a safe place for teachers, RTLBs, RTLits, Speech Language Therapists, Teacher Aids, SENCOs, anyone who was working with dyslexic children.
What were your biggest challenges at the beginning of your journey with Ben?
My biggest challenge was not being heard, and being dismissed as a parent when I started raising concerns about my son’s learning at school.
How did you overcome them?
I educated myself by reading everything I could get my hands on. I completed my training through ISMLE in Australia. I learned to give myself a voice and I became my son’s biggest advocate.
What has surprised you the most about your journey so far?
This is a great question, because there have been so many surprises. One that most people don’t know is how much I hate to write and how long it takes me to write a file or a post. I tend to second-guess myself. One of my biggest surprises has been that my need to help and get the right information out there to stop a parent walking in my shoes, pushed me to write the posts and documents.
My second big surprise is how the deb took on a life of its own. It’s not a group anymore; it is a community full of members who want to support and advise each other.
I still remember the day I started the group. I was sitting in the car while my husband drove us across town, the boys in the back tormenting each other as boys do. I turned to my husband and said, “I need to share this information with others, how else are they going to know how to teach their child how to read?”
What would you like parents to know?
NEVER give up, no matter what challenges or obstacles are in your way. Every child can learn and every child can learn to read. Educate yourself, learn and understand what your child needs to be successful at school and, most importantly, be in their corner advocating for them. Be their voice!
What would you like educators to know?
Please don’t dismiss parents and think they are “only parents” and what could we know. Parents have the time and the determination to investigate and research for their child. Listen to what they have to say. Instead of feeling threatened by what you hear, get excited and start educating yourself, because you have just been given the KEY to help every child, including the 15% no one mentions in your class – to teach them how to read.
I would also like to say THANK YOU to all those educators who did listen; the deb page wants to recognise you because you made the change and for many it was a difficult change and now more kids are learning to read, and, much more importantly, we have more kids who want to learn and believe they can learn.
What would you like political decision makers to know?
I love this question and I will try and keep my answer short!
Think bigger than your campaign; think big-picture stuff and stop trying to earn votes to stay in power, do what is right. Education is the most important thing we can give a child. It can determine their whole life. A poor education has knock-on effects in later years, on employment, mental health, welfare, income and quality of life.
Big-picture thinking is needed again; the education system is split up into so many areas and each is split into units who all work individually and all have their own boss making decisions. As my Mum would say, “Too many chefs spoil the broth.” If you want your education system to be inclusive, start with your own Ministry; bring it together and stop outsourcing to companies and start doing things in-house. Start educating your staff on what is on offer.
I know you’re busy, but please STOP and remember when you read papers and make decisions that it’s not about votes, it’s about a child’s life and their future. If you don’t understand enough, ask the people living with it day-in and day-out. Not the people who you employ to run reviews that target a specific audience. Children are our future, so let’s set them up to be all they can be.
What has this journey meant to you and your family, especially Ben?
Another great question. This journey gave us back our beautiful, smiling, happy boy, and it gave Ben an understanding that it is okay to be Ben and that he just takes longer to learn.
What are you hopeful for?
That one day the Government makes a stand and overhauls the education system and recognises that they need to make decisions on how children are taught in New Zealand. It is not good enough to hand out guidelines.
These decisions should be:
- All teachers should be educated in Structured Literacy so they can support all children regardless of their age.
- Support staff need to be educated and supported to understand learning disabilities and anxiety, with access to evidence-based resources and materials and training – not PDFs of information. Knowing what dyslexia is, is very different to how to teach a child with dyslexia to read. This should be funded by the government, not the individual teachers or schools.
- All intervention is paid for by the government; if a parent is paying, it’s not an inclusive education system.
- I saved the best for last: the REMOVAL of Reading Recovery from New Zealand, and the millions spent on it each year to be invested in training teachers in an evidence-based approach – Structured Literacy!!!
I also want to thank my family my husband David, and my youngest son Lewis and Ben for putting up with me when I am on the phone to a member or I am replying to messages or comments. Your support means the world to me. My last and biggest thank you goes to Ben, for giving me the strength to do what I do, and for saying, “It’s okay, Mum, you can answer the message – that Mum needs you more than me right now.”