This article originally appeared in The Beacon Fall 2016 issue.
Lessons learned lead to brighter futures for others
“Mom, it’s hard, but Ms. Frank believes in me,” were words recently echoed to Emma Frank ’10 by the mother of Claire, one of her newest students at a Montessori middle school in Wooster, Ohio.
“When I heard that, I felt emotionally moved,” recalls Emma. “As a kid that had difficulty learning, I could count on one hand all of the teachers that believed in me.”
Claire’s sentiments are ones that Emma knows very well. They were once hers, too. As a child with dyslexia, Emma knew the feeling of being stuck, frustrated and defeated. Now, as a teacher, she understands what it takes to ensure that her students give their best efforts and that she gives her best effort, too.
A former student returns to learn more
This past summer, Emma began to prepare for her third year as a teacher. “In my few years of teaching, I’ve noticed that there are so many kids who are facing the same academic challenges that I faced in school. Unfortunately, these students don’t have Windward nearby,” she says.
Emma grappled with how to spend her time off during the summer. “I was deciding between going to graduate school or taking a specialized course at the Windward Teacher Training Institute (WTTI). I thought taking the course at WTTI would be more beneficial,” recalls Emma.
While many teachers use their summer break to enrich their knowledge, it was special for WTTI to have a former Windward student take a class. “I received the best education at Windward. I felt compelled to enroll and bring the program back to Ohio with me,” she reports.
Emma’s dyslexic diagnosis came in second grade. “I had no letter-to-sound relationship. I couldn’t tell you what sounds letters made,” she recalls. “I had a lot of organizational problems. I couldn’t put my ideas in order, and I would get extremely overwhelmed with multi-step instructions.”
As a result of her academic challenges, Emma’s behavior in the classroom suffered as well. “I was the student who was trying to seek negative attention or be the class clown. I didn’t want people to notice that I couldn’t read, write, spell, or do math,” she acknowledges.
Recently, during a trip home this past summer, she dug up an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) from her elementary school files. “My teacher at the time wrote in the summary section, ‘Emma sees school as a social opportunity and really isn’t here to do work,’ and she was absolutely right,” recalls Emma. “I was really creative in being able to mask my inabilities.”
Prior to Windward, Emma believes she was only reading about 15 percent of the words in a book and making the rest of story up herself. One of those instances occurred with her beloved Harry Potter books. “Before Windward, I had read all of the Harry Potter books – or, at least I thought I had read them all. I remember being on a family vacation after Windward and re-reading the fourth book. As I was reading it, I finally realized one of the characters was a giant – I had no recollection of that character when I had originally read the book. After attending Windward, I was finally able to fully understand and enjoy reading books.”
After Windward: A life’s trajectory changed
Enjoying reading and developing learning strategies were two of the many accomplishments from her fifth and sixth grade years at Windward between 2002- 2004. “Although I attended Windward for only two years, it was a huge part of my life and changed my life’s trajectory.” Emma also started to be able to see herself as a student, and the momentum of her learning changed, too.
“After Windward, I went back to public school more confident, and I was able to learn more quickly than before,” she recollects. “Windward taught me that there is a process to learning, and you don’t have to get it right away. It’s not just sitting down, opening a book and remembering information immediately. You have to put work into wanting to learn.”
Emma’s years at Windward not only helped her succeed, they also gave her the ability to use her skills to help others. “I was born to be a teacher, and I’m very bossy,” she explains. During her high school years, she would tutor students several times a week in a local community center in Mamaroneck. She also expressed her creativity by starting an after-school art program that was free to elementary school children in the area.
A profession becomes a passion
During the summer between her freshman and sophomore year in high school, Emma traveled to a rural town in Mexico to volunteer in a classroom and teach with a group of other high school students. “The kids came into the classroom and were so excited to have a real teacher,” she recalls. “I loved the enthusiasm, and I loved being able to teach them the skills they needed.”
Helping others learn became a passion and strengthened her desire as a special education teacher. “I always thought I would be a social worker like my parents. I always wanted to work with kids with special needs,” she says.
Past lessons lead to brighter futures for others
Emma realizes that her experiences with learning disabilities are not just her own. “The notion of a typical learner is out the window,” she proclaims. “When I notice my students aren’t putting in their best effort, I can tell. Every time they try to get out of doing the work, I recognize the behavior because I used to do it, too.”
After graduating from the College of Wooster and working as a teacher in Ohio for a few years, Emma noticed that there was a real need to help students in her community. “The modern teacher almost has to be a special education teacher. There are so many needs to be met, especially in reading and writing. A one-size-fits-all education is not a reasonable goal. We need to take greater responsibility for how to teach students best. If we aren’t helping our students, it is not their fault. It is ours,” she stresses.
As Emma embarks on her third year of teaching, she recognizes the many things she can do for her students that really impact their academic success. She also looks forward to using the resources from the course she took at WTTI. In order to show her student Claire that she believes in her, Emma made sure to include her in discussing her learning strategy. “I met with her one-on-one and told her what our strategy was going to be. I want her to be a participant in her learning,” says Emma. “If she isn’t learning, it’s my fault, not hers. I’m going to give her my best effort."