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I’ll See it When I Believe It

Black and white picture of Don Johnston when he was a young boy.
As a student growing up with dyslexia in the 1950s, most people had very little hope for me. Not much was known about dyslexia back then other than what people saw.

What they saw was a troublemaker who couldn’t read. I heard that I was just lazy. I’m sure they would have believed in me once they saw a change, but that change would never come without believing first. They didn’t see the potential of the child hidden under the mask.

What did change for me was getting a teacher who believed! She saw the same things that my previous teachers saw, but she didn’t succumb to the perception laid out by my reputation. She saw past it. That teacher was my 8th grade English and History teacher, Mrs. Tedesco.
She told me that I could do better— that she believed in me. It was the first time I heard those words from a teacher. It set off a chain of events: reading my first chapter book in the 9th grade, high school graduation, college, grad school, and starting a business to help students like me.

How powerful a belief can be!

That whole chain of events was sparked by a simple belief. First, Mrs. Tedesco believed in me, and then she taught me to believe in myself. Once people could see these changes, it was easy for them to believe. But none of this would have happened without someone believing first.

We need to reject the pessimistic “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude and believe first!

You have students who are just like the kid I was—the one who hides his learning disability by acting out, the one who slid by, just passing. And you are Mrs. Tedesco to your kids. They look up to you and someday one will seek you out later in life, telling you about the flame you lit in him. Many more may never call you up, but they will remember the way you believed in them and helped them believe in themselves. A simple belief can set off a life-changing chain of positive events. Thank you for believing in your students!

~ Don Johnston, CEO and Founder, Don Johnston Incorporated and author of “Building Wings: How I Made It Through School.”

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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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