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In grade school some teachers thought I was “stupid.” In middle school some thought I was a cheater because my grades were “too good” for a student like me, and in high school my guidance counselor encouraged me NOT to go to college because I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I heard these things because I have dyslexia and (still) struggle with reading and writing.

Thankfully, my parents were so encouraging; they always told me that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do once I set my mind to the task. They also told me to never use my dyslexia as an excuse. I didn’t. Instead, I focused on my strengths and found strategies that worked for me. I went to college and then to graduate school and fulfilled my dream of becoming a special education teacher.

I also became an advocate for change to help kids with learning and attention issues here in Iowa, but we need more parents, educators and other concerned adults to join the effort — and not just here, but across the country, where one in five kids have learning and attention issues. We also need to raise awareness so people understand that kids with learning and attention issues are just as smart as their peers.

That’s why I was so excited to participate in a public forum on Jan. 6 in Des Moines, hosted by Understood. This nonprofit was launched in 2014 to inform and empower parents to get the support their children need. Understood provides daily access to experts and a community of supportive — and vocal — parents. This type of resource is something my parents could have only dreamed of having.

Understood is starting to mobilize parents in a way that will help elected officials keep kids with learning and attention issues top of mind. I was thrilled when I was asked to join Understood’s Iowa advisory committee. This effort is especially important right now as states are scrambling to make sense of the massive changes in federal education policy that were signed into law in December.

This type of movement didn’t exist when I was growing up. People were not aware of the challenges faced by kids like me; few people understood what my family was going through. I felt alone with my struggles. I can remember how frustrated I was in grade school being in the lowest reading group when I really felt that I could succeed at the higher level. I would always sit and listen to the advanced lesson rather than doing my own work.

Because of my differences, I had trouble knowing where I fit in the world. That ended when I was 13 and joined a swim team. I took my frustrations out on the water. I also discovered that swimming was a huge strength for me. In high school, I landed a full scholarship to a Division I university where I was captain of the swim team all four years and missed nationals and Olympic trials by hundredths of a second.

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All of my success in college happened despite my high school guidance counselor telling me not to waste my parents' money on higher education. I remember him telling me to get a job and be happy with a simpler life. I am forever grateful to another counselor, who called me into his office and encouraged me to apply to schools and use my swimming as an avenue for success.

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In college, I found another place where I fit: studying to be a special education teacher. Teaching is my greatest passion. I’ve received awards from Sioux City Community Schools, University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, from CLD (Council for Learning Disabilities) and from LDA-IA (Learning Disabilities Association of Iowa) for the progress my students have achieved as a result of my instruction.

My goal is to help more than just my own students to succeed, however. Along with many other dedicated people, I’m working to raise awareness and support for all kids with learning and attention issues in Iowa. I urge parents, teachers and others to join the movement by emailing iowa@understood.org.

This year presents a huge opportunity for change, and I’m thrilled to be joining with Understood to make a greater impact. Our kids need more voices speaking out for them. They need to know their families, schools and communities support them and are working to help them find the place where they not only fit but also flourish.

Together, we can do that.

Paula Hamp is a special education teacher in Sioux City, president of Learning Disabilities Association of Iowa and a member of the Understood Campaign Iowa Advisory Committee.

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