Student Well-Being Opinion

How School Can Make Students (and Teachers) Feel Dumb

Our brains don’t all work the same way
By Patrick O’Connor — June 28, 2022 4 min read
Image of support given to a student who is struggling.
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I was projecting a document onto the whiteboard when a student in the back of the class leaned over to her friend, whispered something, and they both started to laugh, glancing up at me.

“What?” I asked.

They were silent.

“What’s so funny?” I asked again.

The girl pointed at the whiteboard. “You used ‘are’ instead of ‘our,’ Mr. O’Connor.”

“Oh, thanks!” I said. “I’ll fix it.”

This wasn’t the first time I had made such a mistake, and after class the girl walked over and stopped in front of me, seeming like she wanted to say something. “Yes?” I asked, thinking she might want to apologize for laughing at me.

“It’s just that …” She stopped, trying to find the right words.

“Go ahead,” I encouraged her.

“It’s just that I’ve never had an English teacher who couldn’t spell,” she said.

I was stumped. I wasn’t sure what to say. I told her I’ve tried my whole life to become a better speller. “I’ve dedicated many hours to improving my spelling, but my brain refuses to cooperate,” I said.

My ineptitude at spelling is the main reason I stay away from the whiteboard. I’ll write on it before class and I’ll write on it after class, but I avoid it like the plague during class. Being an English teacher who can’t spell is humiliating—and I do my best to hide this flaw.

But it’s not just writing; when speaking, I’m prone to malapropisms, I get tangled up in syntax, I lose my place in my thoughts, and sometimes I stutter. Language is an ever-replenishing fountain of shame—and no matter how often I aim for eloquence, my brain eventually reveals the tongue-tied, sentence-mangling, word-abusing fake under the mask.

Once in college, I was on a first date with a woman studying to get a doctorate in English. I was doing my best to sound intellectual, when a group of cyclists sped by as we walked down a sidewalk.

“Looks like the Tour de Force,” I said.

“What?” she asked, unsure if she heard me right.

“They look like the Tour de Force,” I repeated, oblivious of my verbal blunder.

“You mean the Tour de France,” she said, laughing.

I laughed with her, but inside I felt ashamed.

Years earlier, in the 1980s, I was at a Mets game with my uncle and his girlfriend when I pointed down at the field: “Look!” I shouted. “It’s Dave Kingman!” Then, I leaned over to my uncle and asked, “Hey, what’s Dave Kingman’s first name?” He laughed and told his girlfriend what I had just said, and later, when we got home, he told my father, who just shook his head; it wasn’t the first time his son said something foolish like this. I burned with shame.

Later, in the 6th grade, my teacher had asked the class a question and when no one answered, he said, “Come on! Even Patrick could answer this one!” Everyone laughed. I laughed! But, inside, I wanted to slip out of a window and disappear. Another time, my neighbor’s dad stopped me when my stutter wouldn’t allow me to complete a sentence. “You stuttering idiot,” he said.

There have been hundreds of other moments like this in which I felt like the idiot they said I was. Even after graduating from college with honors, earning a master’s degree in education, becoming a high school English teacher, and getting published as a writer, I still feel like the idiot they said I was. I don’t know how to shake the feeling.

Recently, I sat down with a student who wrote an essay on how school can make children feel dumb. He has a learning disability that slows down his processing and scrambles his thoughts. He needs space and time to absorb and pick his way through information, draw conclusions, and then reorganize and express his thoughts in a way he likes.

He told me school discourages individual ways of learning, thinking, and communicating.

He told me school discourages individual ways of learning, thinking, and communicating. Teachers look for standard forms, in writing and speech, he said. Standardized tests, he pointed out as an example, award students who can think quickly and can retain and recall information under pressure, but not all people have brains that work this way.

Such tests—and education as a whole—weed out students like him and leave them feeling stupid. Many of his friends, he said, dropped out for this reason. They just feel dumb.

I could have told him that I was one of those students, that I spent most of my high school years in a cloud of disorganized thinking, that I was blessed to discover literature (not in any classroom, but on my own), and through reading I learned to write well, and through writing I learned ways of thinking and organizing my thoughts. I could have told him that I still struggle with my own intellectual inabilities, and these perceived flaws make me feel stupid almost every day. I could have told him this is why he never sees me writing on the whiteboard, because I’m an English teacher who can’t spell.

Instead, I kept quiet and just listened. I praised his ideas and the way he expresses them, and said I always enjoy hearing his thoughts. And when he walked out of my classroom, I think he felt smart.

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