Emerson and Georgette Dickman, Educators and Advocates
Jana Cook and Danielle Scorrano

Emerson and Georgette Dickman have been leaders for over four decades in dyslexia education, research, and advocacy—the definition of a power couple in education.  

Emerson Dickman, JD, has devoted his career in law to special education and child advocacy, specializing in the representation of children and adults with disabilities. He is past-President of the International Dyslexia Association and was a founding member of the consensus committee gathered in 1992 to create the legal definition for dyslexia. Georgette Dickman has dedicated her career to education, as a teacher, Orton-Gillingham therapist trainer, Director of the Children’s Dyslexia Center, and professor at the Center of Dyslexia Studies at Fairleigh-Dickson University.  

Individually and together, Emerson and Georgette Dickman’s impact on education and in supporting the livelihood of countless individuals with dyslexia is prolific and unmatched.  

Where did the shared passion for education and helping children who struggled to read originate? 

Georgette Dickman: My passion for education existed way before I met Emerson. As early as I can remember, I was determined to be a teacher! As one of the oldest of six children, my passion for education seeped into my assigned babysitting chores. I would coax the two youngest to be my students, [even] enticing them with treats on some days. Plopped at desks in my homemade classroom in the cellar, I taught them to write their names. Once that was accomplished, it was on to the alphabet, a commonsense curriculum prepared by a 9-year-old, uncertified teacher! The boys entered first grade with a splash but fizzled out quickly as both struggled with blending and segmenting. Committed to their betterment as a passionate educator, I stayed on as the homework helper with all their assignments through eighth grade. When I looked at colleges, I looked for teaching programs first. I never wanted to be anything else but a teacher.  

Emerson Dickman: Our first child was born with a disability. As a result, we both initially gravitated to the field of developmental disabilities.  

GD: Yes, my teaching career [had been] proceeding on target with the goal of certification as a foreign language teacher when our son was born with Down Syndrome. Being told there was nothing I could do to help him didn’t sit well; therefore, I switched my area of concentration to special education to learn all possible ways to support his development. 

My first teaching job as a NJ special education/nursery school teacher was with the ARC of Bergen & Passaic County. I was hired to develop and direct an innovative program for developmentally disabled infants (birth to three) and their families. For fourteen years, this important work brought me to an understanding that a teacher’s support does not occur in isolation, it exists within a family constellation. The child is the winner when the parents and teacher work as a team. This is equally true whether the student is an infant or a high school senior.    

A teacher’s support does not occur in isolation, it exists within a family constellation. 

ED: After leaving the Army, I went to Law School and began my focus on special needs planning, guardianships, and educational advocacy. Eventually it became clear that the scientific community in the field of developmental disabilities was more focused on how we can avoid children with disabilities than how we can help them. On the other hand, the field of learning disabilities and reading in particular was having “wars” and seeking answers as to how to help children with problems learning.   

My advocacy practice has turned into an obsession to know what the underlying cause of their difficulties was. Our mutual interest turned to the field of learning disabilities and reading in particular. I was interested in understanding the cause while Georgette was and is still focused on what needs to be done to help. 

Emerson, can you tell us more about your work as a special education attorney and child advocate specializing in representing children and adults with disabilities?  

ED: The focus of my practice has been the representation of individuals with disabilities and their families. I provide special needs estate planning, guardianships, and educational advocacy. The advocacy role focuses primarily on children with learning issues involving executive, theory-of-mind, and literacy skills. 

Georgette, how have you approached your work in changing the educational landscape to better support children who struggle to read?  

GD: As a graduate student at the Center for Dyslexia Studies my goal was to develop expertise in the Orton-Gillingham Approach; as the Assistant Director of the FDU Program, my goal was to encourage all teachers to learn and apply the Science of Reading in their classroom instruction. As the Director of the Tenafly Children’s Dyslexia Center, my goal is to provide the best instruction possible to our scholarship teachers and return them to their classroom armed with research-to-practice expertise for immediate use. 

Fairleigh Dickinson University Dyslexia Specialist Certificate Program was one of the first in the nation designed for general and special educators who wished to develop expertise in the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching literacy. Eager cohorts of teachers pursued knowledge and expertise to help students in their classroom who were struggling with the code.   

For many years, Arlene Sonday traveled from Minnesota to New Jersey to teach the basic, intensive weekend courses for the department. Luminaries in the field of dyslexia from around the nation lectured as visiting faculty, including Phyllis Bertin, Judith Birsh, and Gordon Sherman.  

In 1997, a partnership with the Scottish Rite Masons was forged establishing five Dyslexia Centers. Scholarships were established for both the children to receive tutoring and the teachers to receive Orton-Gillingham teacher training. Over the years, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of trained teachers who have taken training and return to their classroom with the skill necessary to provide informed instruction to all students, not just the students who are struggling.   

Emerson, you have shared your experience as an individual with dyslexia, and you are both parents of a son with dyslexia. What challenges did you experience in school and what were the things you wish you knew, both as a student and collectively as parents? 

ED: Dyslexia is not a death sentence! I was left back in the first grade, my brother (a highly successful attorney in Miami) in the second grade, and my mother in the second grade. Before there was much knowledge about learning disabilities, the main intervention was to leave the child back until they miraculously caught up. In the early 50s it wasn’t the stigma that it appears to have become today. What I wish the children of today to know is that we are all born with strengths and weaknesses. We don’t feel diminished because we don’t sing like Sinatra or play basketball like LeBron James; why should we feel inadequate because we don’t read as well as Sally or Marc? 

Our son worked hard and long to graduate from college. He now has his dream job, two beautiful children, and (like his dad) married a wonderful woman who can spell. 

GD: I think it’s also important for parents and children to know that when you’re in public school, services for students with learning disabilities are provided for them. In a secondary setting, however, you have to be prepared to self-advocate, to ask for the accommodations and services that you need to succeed.  

What do you wish more people knew about dyslexia? 

ED: Dyslexia is neither a curse nor a blessing. Dyslexia is simply a cultural challenge that can reveal our strengths if we confront it and our weaknesses if we despair. 

GD: In addition to that, dyslexia does not come in neat little packages; it occurs on a continuum and can co-exist with other weaknesses, such as processing speed and working memory issues that make remediation a slower process.   

Dyslexia is not correlated with intelligence. Dyslexia can occur in an individual who has strong talents in art, music, athletic skill, but not always. Above all, early identification and remediation aligned with the Science of Reading delivered by an informed instructor with the proper intensity for the student profile will minimize or (hopefully eliminate!) the struggle in acquiring literacy skills.   

In your prolific careers, what is one story that sticks out to you as a moment you felt grateful/proud for the work you’ve done?  

ED: Like everyone, we have made choices in life. There are wonderful, gracious, self-sacrificing people in this field. I am grateful for the friendships that I have made with those whose compensation has filled their hearts more than their bank accounts. To be considered a friend and a colleague is that for which I am most proud.  

GD: It is impossible to pinpoint just one moment! First and foremost, teaching is a vocation that gives you thousands of warm smiles, like when:  

  • you see a beaming teacher receiving her OG certificate at graduation,  

  • you receive a note from a grateful scholarship recipient,  

  • you read a card signed with thoughtful sentiment from your graduating cohort,  

  • a teacher shares data documenting student progress during seminar,  

  • you hear a departing student yell “great lesson, Ms. Georgette” as they exit the building,   

  • you receive an invitation to your student’s baby’s baptism,   

  • you read a college graduate’s note crediting the Center for changing his life,   

  • you receive a thank you card written proudly in legible cursive.    

Have you two ever disagreed about a certain piece of research, practice, or policy involving Dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities?   

GD: Emerson has always been keenly interested in the research. I am also, but I look at the research as it is translated into practice. How does this piece of research inform my teaching with this student?     

ED: Yes, we don’t disagree mainly because we don’t have to agree. I am not a teacher. Georgette will be seeking to learn something new to help her students until the day she dies.    

GD: I like to present a rationale to my teachers as to why a specific activity that we have included in a lesson has a track record for success. I encourage my teachers to share this information with their middle and high school student who might question the value of the remediation they are receiving.  

ED: In my work, I will be trying to learn something new [through the research] about why her students need her help, to the day I die. The day our oldest was born, he introduced us to a culture within our culture whose lessons and riches might have otherwise remained invisible to us. As I have said many times, don’t stick your toes in these waters because you will soon find the water over your head and the shore out of reach.  Working with and being of service to those with disabilities is more rewarding than can be imagined. 

What are the key lessons that you have learned in your work?  

ED: The culture in which we hope to belong determines the skills needed to be successful. Currently our culture values reading. To be as productive as we would like, we need to learn how to read. Two hundred years ago a good sense of direction was more important than reading. Now we have GPS, and reading is essential. The main goal of learning is to satisfy the needs of our culture, which are ever changing.  

Knowledge and humility go hand and hand. The more one knows the more one is aware of that which he does not know; what I call the Faustian Paradox. Those who are most confident are often the least knowledgeable. As K.G. Johnson has said, “Education is the process of moving from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.” The leaders in any field, especially those who seek to understand children, are obsessive seekers of knowledge because they never know enough.  

GD: I have learned quite a few including:   

Teaching is not a career; it is a vocation.   

A teacher’s workday doesn’t end at the dismissal bell.    

A teacher is a lifelong learner; and there is always more to learn.  

A teacher is responsible for staying current!  

A teacher must take the research and weave it into practice for their students.    

How can educators and families empower themselves to advocate for their children? 

GD: Knowledge is the key for both educators and parents. Knowledge provides empowerment required for effective advocacy. An educator must acquire a firm grounding and broad knowledge of the research and science of reading to be able to lead and support the Child Study Team in planning effective instruction for students.  Even the most gifted teachers cannot be expected to teach what they do not know. 

Knowledge is equally important for parents. Knowledge provides empowerment necessary for effective advocacy. Parents must “school” themselves in the science of reading and learn all they can by attending lectures, conferences, and workshops.   Knowledge will allow parents to make informed decisions regarding the appropriateness of services offered by the Team. Knowledge will position parents well as they request supports that are a good fit for their child’s educational struggles. 

ED: Yes, and we “empower” ourselves by empowering our children. Children who feel empowered wear their self-confidence like a suit of armor that attracts others to them because of its beauty and shields them from harm because of its strength. Like a tulip bulb buried too deep to grow to the surface, overprotection stifles exactly that which we hope to achieve. All children need to be prepared for, not protected from, the real world. The suit of armor is made up of a feeling of empowerment, a sense of belonging, and concern for the welfare of others. 

All children need to be prepared for, not protected from, the real world. 

Tell us more about your goals and hopes for the future of this work. 

ED: Thanks to Reid Lyon and many others, we now know how children learn to read, why some children have difficulty, and what needs to be done to help. Unfortunately, there are only small islands of competence, like The Windward School, that reflect that knowledge in their practices.   

GD: It is my wish that preschool teacher education is expanded to include information on language development and the science of reading. It is the preschool teacher on the front line of identification of language and literacy delays in 3- and 4-year-old children.  

In addition, I would like mandatory Kindergarten screening so proper supports are immediately available in September of the student’s official first school year. We lose precious instruction time in a “wait & see” model. 

Let’s change the “wait and see” model to a “find and fix” model. 

ED: The challenge now is to cross the bridge from research to practice so that all children have access to effective intervention. 

NOTE: All insights shared in the Q&A demonstrate the expertise and views of the interviewee. The information about providers and services contained in The Beacon does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward School.