Teachers role in teaching students with Learning Difficulties

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It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore a great deal of publications which refer to diversity in the world. Firstly this phenomenon mainly preoccupied the business world but now is becoming more familiar in the field of education. Terms like differences, similarities, equality and individuality are some concepts that were used by a great deal of scholars in order to define diversity (Lumby and Coleman 2007, Cole 2006, Davies 1990). The concept of diversity includes except of the differences in race, culture, ethnicity, religious, colour, country of origin, age, (Mamman 1999) and also disabilities and specifically learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia and dysnumia (Raphael et al. 2001). As a result, according to Davies (1990), I strongly agree that the main aim of the leaders and the teachers of a school should be to make education both more efficient but also more equitable to everyone regardless any diverse features and needs.


After I have finished my degree in Classic Studies and Philosophy, my priority was to teach the Greek language. Leaving in Manchester and studying at the University as a postgraduate student, the opportunity to teach in the Greek school in Salford was great for me. By teaching in that school I have realized that there are a number of problems such as confusion in the leading part, in the policy of the school, the involvement of the prise and the unwillingness of some of the parents or the members of the committee to cooperate with the teachers.

After the first days in school, I have realised that one of my students could not follow my instructions in order to complete his activities in contrast with the rest of my students. Although he can understand and speak Greek at a great level, he cannot read or write. That made me think that this student faces some problems like Dyslexia and Dysgraphia, terms that I have heart from other teachers in Cyprus or other classmates in school and university as their personal problem but I have never deal with situations like that. After a talk that I had with his parents they confirmed to me that their child has learning disabilities and in the English school has a teacher who helps him individually based on his needs.

This situation is a big challenge for me as a new teacher with little experience. Questions like how I could include this child in my class environment when his peers can complete their activities very fast without too much difficulty, and also how I could protect this child in order not to feel isolated or disadvantaged from his friends challenged me. As a teacher one of my purposes is to prepare young people for adulthood by feeling confidence and embodied in the society and not isolated and different. Also the awareness of the school environment, which is unfamiliar with this situation was another one barrier for the proper help that I needed in order to deal with this.

Through this essay I have the opportunity to analyze the barriers that teachers who are in the same position like me have to deal with and also I would like to highlight some recommendations in order to help these children not to be discriminated against or isolated because of their special needs. This is a valid area of investigation because I probably may face this phenomenon again in the future and I should be prepared to face it based on my knowledge and experience. The purpose of this essay is firstly to examine the type of research taking place in order to enrich my knowledge in this field and to examine whether more projects and research are needed to be done in this field in the Cypriot school society. The centralise character of the Cypriot educational system does not give place and authority to the principals and the teachers to deal with each situation individually, something that should change based on examples from other countries which do not have such as centralized system and the effectiveness of their schools is higher. Also, the lack of research in this area and the pros and cons of the application of a more student centralized policy based on the individual needs of each student are concepts which needed more research in order to give light in what is happening in our educational system and try to face it by applying new educational methods for meeting them.

The focus of my study is in both Cypriot and English environment because my work experience is limited as a result I made a combination of my experience as a student in a Cypriot school environment, where I am going to work after my graduation, and my current job in a Greek school in Salford. Additionally the little literature research in the Cypriot context was the main factor that I based my literature review more in international sources. However, this topic about students with learning disabilities has no boundaries. Students and adults face problems like that all over the world and educators should be in a position to help themselves by surpassing any barriers and challenges and by implementing a more student based policy and learning processes based on the specific needs of each learner.

Learning Disabilities (LD) defined

Generally speaking, learning disability (LD) is a term which describes problems that affect the brain's ability to receive, process, analyze, or store information (Raphel et al. 2001). These problems can be an inhibitor which prevents students for learning as quickly as someone who is not affected by learning disabilities. Specifically, Raphel et al. (2001) mention three main categories of these disabilities which are the Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Dysnumia, problems which can make it difficult for a student to read, write, spell, or solve math problems. Mercer and Mercer (1993) include in LD people with problems with poor memory, or attention deficit disorder which has to do with the person's ability to concentrate or focus. In addition we can include in LD situations where a kid cannot follow directions for a game or is struggling to do work which he or she should be able to do easily. Following Reiff et al. (1993) and Kirby et al. (2008) who talked about LD in adulthood, they point out that these are lifelong disabilities and affect each individual uniquely. In some cases difficulties affect only one specific functional area of the person in contrast with some other cases where problems affect the social and emotional reactions of a person.

Based on the findings from research programs which are supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, it is interesting to highlight the dimension between IQ and achievement of learning. Following Lyon (1996:64), IQ does "not adequately identify learning disabilities, particularly in the area of basic reading skills".

Dyslexia and dysgraphia defined

The most common verbal learning disability is dyslexia. The word dyslexia comes from two Greek words: dys (δυσ-), which means abnormal or impaired, and lexis (λέξη), which means word. Dyslexia causes trouble recognizing or processing letters as a result big problem in reading, word recognition and poor spelling (Kirby et al. 2008). On the other hand, dysgraphia causes problems in writing tasks or assignments (Raphel et al. 2001). Finally, dysnumia is the difficulty to handle number and make simple calculations.

Coping with learning disabilities can be challenging

Being diagnosed with a learning disability does not mean a student cannot learn, graduate, receive postsecondary education, and lead a normal adult life. Reflecting on Tebo (2002:48), "the most challenging may be how to balance the special needs of some students with broader educational goals for the entire student population". The specific approach that these children need and the treatment of each case individually are the main issues that a teacher has to take account in order to help the child to face his/her fears and start deal with his/her disabilities in a mainstream environment. Additionally, it is interesting to highlight that the implications of these efforts reach beyond the culture of the school, the educational policies, the governance of the school and the whole society and the civil rights which are determined from the loyal system of each country (Tebo 2002).

Taking steps to manage the disability can often cause disagreements and barriers from teachers, leaders, government or even the parents. Personally talking, the main barrier for me was the fear of the unknown (because of the lack of experience in teaching) and the lack of knowledge about pupils with LD which made me nervous and stressed. However, after a logical thinking I concluded that this could be my opportunity to prove that nothing is impossible. The first thing that I decided to do was to make a research in the literature about LD in order to acquire the basic and appropriate knowledge to help this student by being aware enough to deal with a learner with LD and to be able to meet their fears and the way they are thinking. Moreover, after this essay and based on the knowledge that I will gain it will be important and useful to inform the rest of the teachers about problems like that and recommend some suggestions for their appropriate treatment.

Generally speaking, innovations and changes in an organisation and specifically in a school are not all the time acceptable and very often people resist in any kind of changes in their workplace. This is inextricably linked with the culture of each organisation. While a variety of definitions about organisational culture have been suggested, I will use the definition of Gilmore (2009:101) who saw organisational culture "as a system of beliefs and actions that characterize a particular group. Culture is the unique whole-shared ideas, customs, assumptions, expectations, philosophy, traditions, mores and values- that determine how a group of people will behave". A current definition which is very similar with what Schein (1985) suggested almost 15 years before.

In the school in Salford, most responsibilities are with the headteacher who decides and guides the school based on the Greek system and following the curriculum and the books which are coming from the Ministry of Education in Greece and Cyprus. Also Church has the responsibility to keep the children close to the Orthodox religious, the ethics and the customs of the Greek civilization and culture. This kind of system is referred from Davies (1990) as 'centralize', something that is also apparent in the Greek and Cypriot schools. The influence of the government and the church in the school curriculum and the school decisions, is significant standardized and strict. Reflecting on Michaelidou and Pashiardis (2009) and Pashiardis (2004) Cypriot education is completely 'Centralized' and 'Conservative' something that is apparent in the Greek school that I am working at. A more democratic culture will give flexibility to the teachers to face each occasion differently and also will give the opportunity to the students to express their selves and their needs. Also flexible approaches to teaching and assessment methods are needed something that can be achieved by addressing personal challenges and organizational barriers.

With regard to the recent Legal system in Cyprus, where I come from, the law provides concrete rights for special-education students. According to Phtiaka (2000) the Special Education in Cyprus started in 1929 with the function of a school for Blind people. After a great deal of decision and Laws that the government passed, they concluded in the 2000's Act which ensure the integration of children with Special Needs in Mainstream Schools. However, after informal discussions that I had with some teachers in Cyprus they pointed out that "Education Act typically covers students with special needs and a lot of new teachers make master degrees and further studies in special education but the whole system is more experimental yet". Consequently, the theory and the Law exist but the practical application of them is in confusion.

As concluded from the above discussion, the bigger challenge for the teacher and the leaders of a school is the successful inclusion of pupils with LD in mainstream education. According to a definition provided by Gibson (2006:317) in his article from the English government's Green Paper in 1999, it is argued that inclusion is a continuous process and not a decision or a static rule. Specifically it is noted that:

"By inclusion we mean not only that pupils with SEN should wherever possible receive their education in a mainstream school, but that they should fully join with their peers in the curriculum and the life of the school...rather than be isolated in special units (DfEE, 1999, p.4)".

It is generally accepted that the inclusion of these students in a mainstream school and particularly in the same class as the other students of the same age will be very helpful in the socialization of these pupils. Excluding students with LD is like ignoring the needs and the feelings of these children and exclude them from the social environment of the school. Following Tebo (2002:51), "inclusion has been a boon to the learning and self-esteem of children with special needs and has enriched the learning environment for peers as well". In turn, these children feel included they should feel that their 'voices' are listened to and that they have the power to influence change by expressing their identity as learners, something that teachers should provide to their students through good communication and by showing them that they want to help and support them. Happier learners are also more effective.

Unfortunately as Connor and Ferri (2007:64) note, words like 'special or disability' are synonym with "exclusion, segregation and marginalization" something that inevitably should change and this should take action from the very early age of the child. School is the place where personalities are formed and shaped and exclusion from the school environment could influence negative the self esteem of a child and may lead him/her in isolation. According to Gibson (2006:315) most disabled people are victims of the "Culture of Silence". The fear of the rejection or the isolation makes dialogue and the need to seek help unattainable. This silence is a big barrier which extends the problem of inclusion. Policy, teachers' and leaders' behaviours and the way of thinking should change in order to get rid of phenomenon like this (Pijl and Frissen 2009).

How to surpass the challenges

It is essential for teachers, family and friends to realize that they can help people with LD by understanding that they are not stupid or lazy, and that they are trying as hard as they can. It is also important to recognize and appreciate each person's strengths, and reward every effort that they make because this gives them incentives to move on and improve. Ainscow (1995 cited in Pijl and Frissen 2009:370) highlights that "Implementing inclusive education is about schools and teachers changing practices in order to combat segregation". As a result, if schools want to protect children with LD, they can only do that by acknowledging and addressing the special educational needs of the school culture (Corbett 1999).

Changing the culture of a school means that customs, assumptions, expectations, philosophy and beliefs should change something that is very difficult but unavoidable and is something that a leader should be able to do (Schein 1985). Moreover the awareness of the staff regarding Learning Disabilities' needs and ways to face them is quite important. This will help them to realize the necessity of change in order to improve the quality of education. Teachers should be capable enough and informed about how to deal with students with problems in reading and writing. Pijl and Frissen (2009:368) draw our attention by saying that "the quality of schools depends more on the schooling, training and attitude of its teachers than on rules and supervision from outside the school". As a result, some workshops and training programs which will emphasise the strengthening of traits, abilities, ideas, beliefs and goals of the teachers in order to get the appropriate knowledge, to improve their practices and grow their self-confidence are necessary (Pijl and Frissen 2009; McLaughlin and Thurlow 2003; Ennis 1978). Training programs which will be funded by the government as the whole educational system is based on the Ministry of Education and Culture (Pashiardis 2004). Educators from the Ministry of Education can ask feedbacks from other countries where similar programs were applied and follow some examples of workshops and training programs which conducted with success and adjust them in the Cypriot educational system based on the teachers' needs.

Regarding to Tebo (2002:50), the most appropriate method for effectiveness in this case is the creation of an Individual education plan. "The plan must have specific goals and milestones, and must ultimately strive to provide the student with the opportunity to come as close as possible to learning the same things as his or her peers". Each student has different needs and the teachers have to know how to help the student individually and choose the appropriate method to help him/her based on this specific lacks. Teachers should be able to make any arrangements and changes in the curriculum in order to meet the needs of their students with LD. The curriculum in these cases should be more flexible, problem-oriented, problem-based and also problem-solving (Corbet 1999; Boud and Feletti 1997; Dimmock 1995). Following a curriculum which is setting learning challenges to the students and which responds to their diverse needs will help the inclusion of students with LD (Ofsted 2004). Also teacher should prepare different activities, maybe easier for these students and also try to make their problem invisible in their peers. Discretion is very important for learners with LD in order not to feel uncomfortable and unable to their peers.

According to Byron et al. (2005:31) disabled people should take part in the curriculum planning in order to have an active role in their education and feel that "teaching is through them and not about them". Every child matters and must count and the educational system should provide this opportunity in order for all the students to have access to the general education curriculum (McLaughlin and Thurlow 2003). In younger ages, parents could suggest what the needs of their children are, and suggest some ways to face them. Parents' help through their participation during the decision making of the curriculum review but also during the whole practical application of any changes and the cooperation with the teachers is a crucial factor for the effective inclusion and satisfaction of the students (Mercer and Mercer 1993). However having in mind the centralized system which exists in Cyprus, this is a big challenge which definitely teachers and leaders should take account.

On the other hand, leaders should help teachers by encouraging and motivating them, giving them direction and mission to continue with their effort and also to inspire them by giving them ideas based on their knowledge and experience (Ennis 1978). Capabilities and properties that a leader according to Huczynski and Buchanan (2007), Law and Glover (2000) and Francesco and Gold (1998) should have and are these which distinguish him/her from a manager. Leaders should have the highest vision in their mind in order to help the school and the teachers to reach their goals. According to a definition provided by Mullins (2002), leadership is the result of the influence in the behaviour of one person to other without threats of violence. During this process, the goals of a school can be achieved through team working and coordination, something that in my case and in most schools is missing. Generally, an effective leadership presupposes self awareness and integrity of leader's character in order to be able to empower and give vision to the teachers to achievement the school's targets.

In addition, it is necessary that teachers make frequent evaluations in order to check the behaviour and the academic process of pupils and raise the quality of learning by deciding the most appropriate way of learning (Dimmock 1995). That Mercer and Mercer (1993:19) call it as 'monitoring'. This will help them to evaluate if the methods that they apply are effective or not in order to change or modify their approach. If the approach is effective then teachers can move on, unless following Mercer and Mercer (1993) they have four choices. To repeat the same instructions, to modify them, to change the teaching strategy that they used before or replace the task with an easier one. After a frequent assessment the teachers should provide feedback to the students which should be individual in each case highlighting the correct and incorrect responses and also inform the students about their progress (Mercer and Mercer 1993).


In my case, where the school is small (only 75 children in the whole school) and some more problems with the leading part of the organisation are existing, it will be good to start with a discussion with the parents and informing them about the changes following their children's needs. Following Gibson (2006) encouraging dialogue will help us to brake and surpass the 'Culture of Silence' which prevents the inclusive education and parents are a supporting element which can help in their children inclusion (Connor and Ferri 2007).

Based on my recent experience children with dyslexia and dysgraphia need more time to complete their activities and in more cases need more details in order to understand what they have to do in their activities. As a consequence I explained to parents that this is a slow process and we should be patient and try hard in order for the student to improve his skills in writing and reading without being strict with him. Moreover I clarified that their help in this stage is valuable. Helping him with his homework is an essential factor which will support the student to improve his skills because the time that we have in the class (only once a week) is not enough for the child to consolidate whatever we are saying and more practice is needed. Furthermore all the previous recommendations like training, individual plans, cooperation with the leader, flexible curriculum and frequent evaluations will be very helpful for me in order to help the student not to feel isolated, but part of the class and also reach the best results and improve his knowledge.

Concluding, this paper has given the main challenges that a teacher may face in a class with students with Learning Disabilities and also some recommendations for their effective confronting has been suggested. Teachers should face all the barriers that arising and put in practice all the suggestions with no fear and willingness in order that these students do not feel isolated and helpless. Learners with LD should not be labelled but identified in a learning environment which should be adjusted in their needs, something that is big challenge for the educational staff. However, as Pashardis (2009) notes, successful leader and teacher are these who believe that everything happens for a reason. Based on the Roman motto "carpe diem" I will face this opportunity as a challenge to prove that students with LD should not be excluded from the environment that they want to be in, but we have to adjust the environment in their needs. Implementing 'good practice' which should be appropriate each time based on the different personalities, teachers should face these situations with love and patience because what these students need is compassion, care, fairness, love, and tolerance.