By Tallulah Bygraves, Selection Manager at Teach First and former Science Teacher
Before I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, there were several points in my life when I got that sinking feeling that something was probably ‘wrong’ with me. By the time I started applying for graduate roles I was convinced of it, but without the hard evidence I never felt I had legitimacy to be open with employers.
When I was 16 I had a friend whose mother was a special educational needs coordinator at a local college. After spending much of one summer in and out of their family home she asked if I had ever considered seeking assessment for dyspraxia. At first I was a surprised, then I was embarrassed, and finally, with a nudge from my friend who exclaimed that his mother thought almost everyone had a condition of some sort, I sat comfortably in denial.
A year later I went to an optician for a routine eye check. Not knowing the difference I happened to book my appointment with an ophthalmologist. After running all sorts of tests on me, he informed me that I had no depth perception. None. When I looked at him blankly he went on to explain that I saw the world in 2D, delivering one of my favourite lines “most people’s eyes work as a team. Your eyes aren’t team players.” As I left he asked whether I had ever been assessed for dyspraxia.
About a year after that during my first year at university I signed up to take part in neurology trials at UCL. I took part in over 15 trials, until one of the professors took me aside and told me that I had ‘low brain activity’ and that I was not an appropriate subject for any further trials. I rather defensively told him I was studying at Imperial. He explained it was nothing to do with intellect but meant that I was likely to have an underlying condition that required my brain to seek external stimuli and that as a result I probably liked to surround myself with people, struggled to complete repetitive tasks and got bored easily. I didn’t see how this separated me from any other undergraduate student, but as I walked home I had to admit that a pattern was emerging.
My parents spent most of my early childhood worrying that I was ‘brain damaged’. As a baby I stared into oblivion, irresponsive to the noise or activity that surrounded me. I took a long time to crawl, and when I finally found my feet I fell over constantly and walked straight into walls. My speech was garbled and I mixed up my P’s and F’s. The GP advised they test my sight and hearing but the results came back clear. Finally, they arranged to test my IQ. Both my parents feared the worst, I had missed all the usual milestones by a significant margin. The results surprised everyone, at 3 years old I had the IQ of a 7 year old. As anyone with experience of specific learning differences will know, I was a text book case, but in Cornwall, in the mid-eighties, I went undiagnosed. The advice my parents received was to get me into a good school and not worry about me.
To some extent it was good advice, I often wonder if a diagnosis would have held me back. I’ve worked with many children with learning difficulties and I’ve seen first-hand how the right support can set them up for success just as surely as the wrong support can stack the odds against their favour. I’ve met children who live and breathe the mantra “I can’t do this”. In my experience it is the hardest barrier of all to break down.
So for better or worse, and despite a whole host of signs and symptoms, I managed to make it to 27 without a formal diagnosis. I was still unusually clumsy and my short term memory meant that I had to put in extra effort to appear organised but most of the time I could masquerade as competent. I only needed 6 hours sleep and I hated being bored; these two factors allowed me to make up in effort what I lacked in efficiency. In psychological terms, I was coping, I had finally got to a place where life was pretty manageable, and it bored me half to death. The trouble with having a learning difficulty is that you spend your life doing things that scare you. The trouble with spending your life doing things that scare you is that it’s habit forming.
So I applied for the Teach First Leadership Development Programme, to fast track my way to qualified teacher status. My success hinged on my ability to overcome my greatest weakness, planning and organising, and in many ways that was why it appealed. It was hands down the hardest and the greatest thing that I have ever done. The home lives of the children I taught and their ability to connect to my lessons was far harder to manage than my timetable and assignment deadlines. I learnt to prioritise, to focus on what was important, to be realistic and to say no.
I also learnt to ask for help, and to explain what I found difficult – this was a turning point for me and led to a formal diagnosis of moderate dyspraxia. My visuospatial skills placed me in the bottom 13 percentile of the country. As a result, I was given my own classroom to teach in, as opposed to teaching in 8 different rooms - this had made finding equipment or remembering seating plans a nightmare! I was also able to appeal for extra time on assignments when needed.
When I look back at all the times in my life where flags were raised, it seems obvious that I had a learning difficulty.
If I’m honest, I knew by the time I was at university, but I didn’t feel like I could make a valid claim as I had no paperwork to support me. I sat all my exams and went through several assessment centres without extra time. When I applied for jobs I never checked the box requesting information about a disability and I told myself that I would put in the extra work to compensate so that no one noticed.
As Selection Manager at Teach First, I hope that applicants like me are in the minority. I would like to urge all applicants to let organisations know if they experience difficulties sooner rather than later, and not to fear discrimination or judgement. Every company is different but we don’t ask for paperwork, just for details of how we can help you to be the best version of yourself. In today’s job market, companies have policies and formal processes to support you, both in your application and within the job role. My advice is take full advantage of these and don’t look back!