I found out that I got an A in an exam today. I was so shocked by my good grade, I immediately picked up the phone to tell my mum the news.
“I’m proud of you, but you’re so frustrating”, my mum said in a slightly irritated tone. “Every time you hand in an assignment or an exam, you tell us it's the worst piece of work you’ve ever done. You try to convince us that you’re going to fail, but just like with this exam, you never do. When are you going to start believing in yourself?”
My mum is not alone in this frustration, many of my friends often comment on this too, and although I know that it's not unusual for people to doubt their work from time to time, I do think that I often take it to another level.
Though good grades have never come easy to me, academic success is really not an unusual thing in my life. I achieved A*s, As and a few Bs in my GCSEs and A Levels, and this July I’ll be graduating with a First in my degree.
Even so, these grades have done nothing to inspire any great confidence in my academic ability.
I can honestly say I have almost never felt like a piece of work I did was good enough, and even when I receive a good grade, I can’t fully trust my success, often choosing to believe that the person marking my work just felt sorry for me, or made a mistake.
Rationally, I know that my work can’t all be that bad, but there’s always a large part of my brain that tries to convince me that failure is imminent.
While there are many reasons why someone may feel the way I do, in my case, I know that a lot of my self-doubt stems from my early experience at school, as someone who is very dyslexic.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of six, and though the diagnosis came as no surprise (dyslexia runs in my family), my parents still struggled to come to terms with the news.
They knew from experience that I would probably struggle in traditional education, and they knew that no matter how supportive they were at home, my difficulties in school would be a drain on my confidence.
In the same year as my diagnosis, my school told my parents that they predicted I would need a lot of extra support to be able to pass any of my future SATs and GCSEs.
As strange as it sounds, I wrote backwards until the age of eight, which meant that for years my teachers couldn’t even read my work without a mirror. I made so many spelling mistakes, that I was the only kid in my class who never received a ‘pen licence’ in primary school (the certificate that allowed you to transfer from pencil to a pen), and I didn’t read my first proper book until I was 11 years old.
Almost every school report labelled me as ‘below average’, and in secondary school I spent the vast majority of my time in the bottom sets, with all the other kids who struggled to get good grades.
I appreciate that my school did try to help, but for me, this often just made things worse. For years they took me out of classes for phonics lessons, but this just made me feel singled out as ‘the stupid one’, and I missed out on many of the subjects I enjoyed. For four years, they also made me come into school an hour early to do an online maths program, but this just made me hate maths, and after being stuck on level one for months on end, I just felt defeated.
Though at school, I was a ‘bad student’ who hated learning, at home it was a completely different story. In my spare time I enjoyed science and history, writing stories, designing and making new things, watching documentaries and I frequently participated in complicated discussions and debates with my family.
At home there was never any indication that I was ‘behind’ or ‘below average’, because I wasn’t being graded, compared to others, or measured up against a set curriculum. Instead, I was lucky enough to have parents who just encouraged me to follow my interests and embrace my strengths.
In the end, my early struggles at school were not because I was ‘behind’, but because the education system I was in, was not designed for the way my brain works, nor is it designed for the way many children’s’ brains work.
As many as one in five people have dyslexia, so it's not good enough that the education system doesn’t work for 20% of the classroom.
Society often labels dyslexic children as ‘learning disabled’ because they tend to struggle within a traditional education system that values high grades and rapid understanding of concepts, while failing to realise that dyslexics actually have many valuable cognitive differences and strengths that should be nurtured and supported.
At the age of 14, things started to change at school. I got good grades, was put on my school’s ‘gifted and talented list’, and was suddenly considered a ‘successful student’, but it’s not because I’d experienced a change in capability or intelligence. I just stopped letting my school define what I thought I was capable of, I learnt to take advantage of my creative strengths, and I worked incredibly hard at everything I did.
Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson and more, are famous people with dyslexic minds who found success despite struggling in early education. Most dyslexics don’t go on to become famous, but many do go on to achieve great things, and it's not like this capability didn’t exist when they were children, often it's just not recognised until they get older or leave school.
I can’t speak for all dyslexics because each person's experiences are so different, but I’ve spoken to many over the years who like me, say that no matter what they achieve in life, they still carry the same feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt they felt as a child at school.
Scientific literature on dyslexic adults is lacking, but research does confirm that it’s common for successful dyslexics to be motivated by a need to prove that they’re not ‘stupid’. Though they’re often tenacious with strong work ethics, they also tend to be self-critical with an inferiority complex. Some even show symptoms of school-related PTSD.
Wouldn’t it be great if all schools could recognise a child’s strengths before they’re made to feel inferior? Grades aren't going anywhere, but this needn't be the only measure we use to determine a child's capability and success, and we need to find ways to help students improve their grades, without making them feel inadequate.
I’ve been lucky in many ways. Though I battle with self-doubt every day, I've been able to turn much of this into perseverance and determination. I've had constant support from my family, they have never made me feel bad about my dyslexia, and I’ve been given so many opportunities. However, the same can't be said for so many others, which is why it's especially important that something change about the way we teach our children in school.
In the long term, I think a change would benefit everyone, because although I’ve focused on dyslexics, there are so many children who are let down by the education system, and the effects of this can be felt right into adulthood, no matter how much they succeed.