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Least Likely to Teach: Student Overcomes Disability, Pursues Career in Teaching

Valencia Winston was the daughter of two educators, but was not the expected straight-A student. She hated school due to her challenges from a learning disorder known as dyslexia. According to Child Mind Institute’s Understanding Dyslexia and How to Help Kids Who Have It, “Dyslexia is a disability where one’s brain has trouble processing both letters and words.” While Dyslexia is not a reflection of a person’s intelligence level, this has led dyslexia to become widely associated with difficulty learning to read, write and spell. Despite these odds, Winston overcame her disability and ended up with a successful career in Communications and, to her surprise, eventually became an educator with a goal to help students through their academic struggles.

“I hated high school, middle school and elementary school. In kindergarten, I cried every day,” said Valencia Winston as she recalled her experiences as a student in primary and secondary school. “I was frustrated because I had no idea I was Dyslexic until maybe my senior year of high school.” Dyslexia can undermine a student’s performance in the classroom. Some of the symptoms include having difficulty copying down notes from the board, becoming frustrated while reading, trouble spelling common words, and reversing letters and numbers when reading.

Winston remembers, “I often felt very lost in school. I felt that teachers and administrators treated me as more of a project than a person.” According to Child Mind Institute’s Understanding Dyslexia and How to Help Kids Who Have It, “when dealing with dyslexia, it is important to address the problem early to receive instructional help and accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act such as extended testing time. Students that don’t get help until later in their educational journey will get behind academically.”

Despite her learning challenge, Winston said she managed to earn average grades as a student by reading books more than once and trying to memorize almost all the material. After her high school graduation, Winston promised herself that she would get far away from schools. She aspired to work in a career closely linked with the music industry and declared her major in telecommunications. Four years later, she obtained her degree from Alabama A&M University and moved to Atlanta with the intention to work in radio.

She ended up working at a treatment facility for violent youth offenders and disliked it because it reminded her of school. However, Winston’s determination to work in entertainment did not fade. While working at the treatment facility, she began interning with BMG distribution, then-parent company of Laface, Arista and RCA records. Six months later, she got a job with BMG distribution in Charlotte, North Carolina working as a field marketing representative. “I loved it and did that job for ten years in various states,” she said. “The reason I left was that I was about to be a mother. My mother had gotten very sick as well. So, I came back to Tuscaloosa.”

When she returned to Tuscaloosa, she began searching for a job. A school principal her mother had worked for as a school counselor offered her a career in education. Winston took the position. Though she did not have a background in education, she completed a series of required online classes to become certified to teach film and media. She became determined to be the kind of teacher she would have loved to have in high school.

“I make sure that I’m open to identifying where my students are struggling and keeping the class light and fun. I relax rules and trust that they can somewhat manage themselves. If and when things start to become problematic, I step in.”

And her efforts do not go unnoticed by students.

“Ms. Winston is hilarious and not like other teachers because she takes a different approach to teaching,” said student Jeffrey Carpenter. “She finds a way to balance being entertaining and teaching at the same time. That’s something most teachers can’t do.” Winston incorporates physical activities, marks based on effort and ideas, highlights key words for each lesson, gives plenty of time for homework and meets regularly with parents. These classroom strategies are also known to aid the growth of Dyslexic learners. “She’s special and is like a mom to students. She cares about our growth and talks to us about where we are struggling in a caring way. That is why she is everyone’s favorite teacher” said student Jeffrey Carpenter.