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Free article: A day in the life … of a specialist disability tutor

Published: Tuesday, 11 February 2014

In this regular feature, we look at what a usual day holds for a professional who works with students with special educational needs. Here a disability tutor, Jane Stothard, takes us through her day.

One of the unexpected advantages of my daily routine is that due to the fact I fit my sessions in around the students’ lecture timetables I receive very few requests for an early start. I am lucky in that I am able to start the day with a leisurely breakfast and a quick dog walk before meeting my first student, post rush hour!

As part of a close-knit team of specialist disability tutors based within a Hertfordshire university, I work on a one-to-one basis with both undergraduate and postgraduate adult students with diagnosed disabilities. My room is tucked away in one of the most inaccessible corners of the maze-like campus, which makes finding it for the first time a challenge for many students! It does, however, provide a quiet, private working environment. I largely support students who are studying degree options ranging from nursing and midwifery to psychology.

On a typical day, I often start by meeting a student who has recently been diagnosed as dyslexic and is likely to have very mixed expectations about whether or not support will be useful for them, or even if it is worth accessing at all. The idea of one-to-one support is both appealing and daunting in equal measure! Often students have gone for assessment after finding the first year at university a struggle, either scraping through assignments or failing them after months of effort. A diagnosis of dyslexia may come as a relief, as it offers some explanation for this struggle.

They appear at the initial session, hopeful that they will finally be able to overcome some of the most frustrating aspects of being a dyslexic student. Many newly diagnosed dyslexic students gain huge reassurance from being able to discuss how they think and work and from realising that they are not ‘weird’ or ‘hopeless’. Often they are at the end of their tether, believing that they will never fulfil their potential. It is hugely rewarding to observe their development as students. So many times, students describe their extreme frustration at knowing that their subject knowledge is excellent but not being able to express their thoughts on paper. They are very grateful for alternative approaches that allow them to draw on their strengths rather than being plagued by their weaknesses.

Later in the day could bring an appointment with a student who has recently come to university from school, where they may have known about their dyslexia and received support which has provided them with a range of strategies for their academic studies. Such students sometimes decide that they need only the occasional study skills session, when or if they are confronted by an assignment that requires new skills from them, as they are already independent learners. Others may be curious about whether or not I have any tricks up my sleeve that can help them approach revision and exams differently. They may decide a monthly meeting is sufficient to keep them on track and provide any guidance needed.

I tend to work through lunchtime, as it may well be the only time the student has to fit in a support session. Mature students, who may be returning to education as long as thirty years after they left school, are often trying to juggle running a family with academic commitments, and for them lunchtime sessions are particularly welcome. Sometimes a diagnosis of dyslexia that comes in middle age is not easy to process. The very idea of returning to an academic institution may well have been terrifying for them, not to mention the prospect of academic writing. Such students find themselves re-evaluating unhappy experiences from their schooldays with a new insight and understanding.

It can be very helpful for these students to be able to discuss the wide-ranging aspects of their lives that have been affected by dyslexia. They embrace their support sessions, avidly experimenting with as many multisensory techniques as they are offered. Many mature students are more than happy to give any strategy a try if they think it will help. I have had student nurses squawking with laughter over the invention of rude mnemonics to help them remember the spelling of vital vocabulary such as ‘diarrhoea’ and ‘anaesthetist’! I find that students in their forties and fifties are very willing to try out tricky spellings using a wooden alphabet, once they can see it is a method that works and allows them to memorise the previously unfathomable vocabulary needed for exam answers.

One of the privileges of providing support is to be able to witness the change in students who have been on the point of giving up their courses, who become increasingly confident and independent in their studies. So much so that it is not unusual for me to receive a phone call from an ex-student, six months or a year after they have graduated, where a voice says ‘Hi, remember me, I’m coming back to do a post graduate course.’ They are clearly enjoying their new-found academic confidence! It is also rewarding to know that many of our students go on to mentor other dyslexic students who they come into contact with in
the workplace.

My working day often runs well into the evening with a Skype session, which offers flexibility for students trying to balance the demands of practice placement and meeting assignment deadlines. They are often on a placement that includes night shifts so we can Skype once they have returned home at an hour that is convenient to them. Skype relies on the student being organised and sending me any work they wish to discuss in advance, but hopefully it enables them to plan and time manage their forthcoming week and to double check that they have interpreted assignment briefs correctly. For students who are completing courses via distance learning, Skype tuition enables them to access study skills support without having to travel long distances to the university campus. Both the student and myself appreciate being able to eat and sort other family members out before scheduling in a Skype session. As one midwifery student said to me before an evening Skype, ‘I won’t even mind if you sit in your pyjamas!’ I don’t, I hasten to add, but it’s tempting! 

About the author

Jane Stothard started her career as an English teacher in secondary education. She has been a specialist disability tutor at the University of Hertfordshire for ten years. 

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of SEN Leader magazine.