Equity, Policy, Teaching

Teachers with Learning Disabilities: Modeling Coping Mechanisms in the Classroom

Editor’s Note: The following article is based on the author’s observations and experiences in the Israeli educational system.

Over the last twenty years, the inclusion of students with special needs in the education system has been encouraged by lawmakers, parents, and educators worldwide. Although schools are continuously improving their inclusion policies, the process of inclusion in society in general has not evolved accordingly – including in the teaching profession, itself. 

The inclusion of people with special needs is more than a phrase or a slogan. It is a process that encompasses society at large and is based on acceptance of those with special needs as capable of contributing to their surroundings rather than as a burden on society. Such values can be enforced by formal laws; however, they will be better implemented if there is a positive behaviour model that younger generations can imitate.

During the last decade, some teachers with special needs have begun teaching in regular schools here in Israel, but the path is not acceptable to all.[1] It behooves us to ask ourselves why.

In order to focus the discussion, I would like to direct this question to teacher educators. Although for the most part, children with learning disabilities (LD) are included and are able to study with their peers throughout the school years, when they ask to be admitted to higher education programs in order to become teachers, they are often frowned upon or discouraged, if not openly rejected. In many cases, the explanations they receive are based on the presumption that their diagnosed LD may prevent them from being effective professional teachers.[2]

How can we, on the one hand, include individuals with LD throughout their school years, claiming that they can contribute to society in many domains, while on the other hand argue that they cannot become teachers?

Identification, Adaptation, and Professional Training

The process of defining an individual’s special needs is based on a comparison with norms acceptable in specific domains and pertinent to the culture in which the person lives and studies. Although inclusion provisions vary from country to country, generally when test results indicate normal (or above) intellectual ability, special learning programs are developed to accommodate the student’s needs.[3] The goal of such special programs is to help these students graduate with their peers and continue studying in higher education.

The role of schools is to provide students with the tools they need for cognitive, emotional, and social self-development, thereby giving them the opportunity to identify their strengths. In the course of this process, some students with LD find that their strengths are in the domain of social skills, social communication, and teaching. Should these young adults be prevented ahead of time from becoming teachers because of their LD? Let’s remember that their abilities were assessed and they were given special curricula in order to be included – not excluded.

Modified learning programs are developed in schools in order to provide students with special needs the opportunity to succeed, but they cannot expect the same modifications to be offered when it comes to learning a specific occupation. A person with visual impairment, for example, receives modified texts at school; but clearly, this individual cannot chose to become a pilot. Unfortunately, the discussion about accommodation for teacher candidates with LD takes place in the absence a clear definition of the role of teachers and the corresponding qualifying criteria.

As long as there is no detailed description of the components of the teacher’s role that precludes students with LD, on what basis would we decide whether someone with special needs could or could not become a teacher?

This lack of clarity is the main barrier facing teacher educators. Not only do they need to plan and practice teacher-training curricula without the benefit of a guiding definition, they also need to decide how to modify the program to help students with LD. Teacher trainers should ask themselves whether the modified programs, which are intended to help future teachers cope with academic challenges, serve to make them better teachers. In these programs, there are students who typically succeed in all academic courses but struggle with their practicum, and others who can barely manage the academic demands, but are extremely adept at practical teaching. Should we forfeit parts of the academic curricula in order to help students with LD earn their teaching certificate? And if so, shouldn’t we also make allowances for any students who struggle with parts of the curricula?

These questions apply to the application and acceptance process as well. Here in Israel, all applicants take a series of psychometric exams when applying for teacher-training programs. Since these entrance exams are not modified for students with LD, and passing them does not predict applicants’ future success as teachers, students with LD may be accepted on the basis of interviews. If interviews provide useful information about one’s ability to become a teacher, why not interview all candidates and waive the psychometric exams for everyone?

Students with LD receive learning adaptations according to their needs throughout their studies, but the challenge at this stage of their education is to help them overcome their disabilities in a way that better prepares them for the practice of teaching others. Consider for example, the typical teacher task of writing on the board in class. How could a person who has spelling mistakes due to either dysgraphia or another learning disability cope? It would be unacceptable to allow teachers to model writing that includes spelling mistakes. Should this individual be prevented from becoming a teacher? Isn’t it possible that, despite his or her disability, this individual could acquire professional knowledge and exhibit an educational attitude suitable to the needs of children?

The answer should be based on the availability of adaptations. Proper adaptations might allow this person to become a teacher who can model for young people how to cope with difficulties. In contrast to a person with visual impairment who wishes to become a pilot, a teacher who has difficulty spelling can rely on a variety of technologies to compensate – a laptop, a word processor, or a slide projector.

The Importance of Inclusion

The inclusion of people with LD is a human value that reflects society’s understanding of its responsibility to care for everyone, as well as the understanding that every individual can contribute to society in a variety of ways. Beyond its social value, the success of the inclusion process relies mainly on the will of the society’s members to create a variety of adaptations.[4]

Recognizing the fact that each person has strengths and weaknesses leads students with LD to recognize their own strengths and empowers them to deal with their difficulties by finding the appropriate strategies that suit them. Often the accommodation provided to these students teaches them to deal with and overcome their difficulties in efficient ways.[5] By doing so, not only do they surmount the barriers, they also learn not to compromise the quality of their work.  

Beyond the personal example that teachers with LD can provide for their students, they also present students the opportunity to learn about and appreciate diversity.

The development of reflection and awareness, which are part of the process of understanding not only one’s difficulties but also one’s ability to overcome them, gives people with LD an advantage as educational leaders. The reflective process these people go through serves as a model for all pupils. Teachers with LD can demonstrate to their students that no one is perfect. Moreover, they can emphasize that everyone can find ways to deal with difficulties by learning more about themselves.

Teachers need to make sure that every one of their students knows how to study, and can understand and implement the material. And yet, many teachers, who have not specialized in special education, report that they either don’t know how to identify students’ difficulties, or they don’t know how to teach in the face of them.[6] In both cases, teachers with LD, who are inevitably aware of their own difficulties and have developed strategies to overcome them, can make excellent teacher candidates. Based on their own experiences, they can devise practical solutions for both aspects of the problem, guiding their students to identify the source of the difficulties and suggesting coping strategies. Teachers who have lived with a disability would not expect all of their students to study using the same method, because they understand at a personal level the meaning of “individual learning styles”. Differentiated teaching styles are a natural outcome of this understanding.

Beyond the personal example that teachers with LD can provide for their students, they also present students the opportunity to learn about and appreciate diversity. Students learn to acknowledge their classmates beyond their academic achievements. They learn that each one of them has unique abilities and that no one is perfect. Only by understanding this social point of view can true inclusion develop. Students may learn that everyone, including people with special needs such as their teachers and classmates, can and should contribute to others.


When people with LD recognize their difficulties and accept the responsibility for coping, they can integrate socially with others. They also contribute to an awareness in others that people with LD have the ability to contribute, if they are only given the chance to do so. 

The question of training people with LD for a teaching degree opens a unique opportunity for educators to discuss ethical, social, and educational issues. While the argument that having teachers with LD can harm the learning process may be justified in specific cases, as a global statement it causes general and sweeping harm.

In fact, there can be no single answer. Two people with the same type of LD will cope differently with their disabilities, and will therefore require different adaptations in the teaching program.

Based on the arguments presented here, educators should carefully examine their selection process for accepting candidates with LD to teacher-training programs, keeping in mind the lack of clear role definitions, the domains in which the candidates show strength, and the coping strategies they have already developed.

They should also consider requiring mandatory participation in strategy learning courses along with the academic adaptations that are already in place.

Finally, the decision whether or not to let teacher education candidates with LD graduate should be based, as with all students, on both academic achievements and a teaching evaluation. In the case of these students, however, the teaching evaluation must focus on the candidate’s ability to implement a variety of strategies in order to overcome individual special needs and become an effective teacher.

EN BREF – Quoique les écoles améliorent constamment leurs politiques d’intégration, le processus d’intégration à la société en général n’a pas évolué autant – même dans la profession de l’enseignement. Comment pouvons-nous, d’une part, intégrer des personnes ayant des difficultés d’apprentissage pendant leurs années scolaires en affirmant qu’elles peuvent contribuer à la société dans plusieurs domaines et, d’autre part, prétendre que ces personnes ne peuvent enseigner? La possibilité de former des personnes ayant des difficultés d’apprentissage en vue d’enseigner ouvre la voie, dans le milieu de l’éducation, aux discussions sur les aspects éthiques, sociaux et éducationnels de cette question.

[1] N. Green and L. Storm, “Teaching (Dis)Abled: Reflection on Teaching, Learning, Power, and Classroom Community,” English Journal 100, no. 2 (2010): 86-92.

[2] A. A. Einat, Rough Landing. Individuals with Learning Disabilities in Employment Arena (Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, 2009, in Hebrew).

[3] S. Vogel, G. Vogel, V. Sharoni, and O. Dahan (eds.), Learning Disabilities in Higher Education (New York: New York Press, 2003).

[4] L. Kozminsky, “Promoting Successful Adjustment of Individuals with Learning Disabilities” in S. Vogel, G. Vogel, V. Sharoni, & O. Dahan (eds.), 259-278.

[5] S. Vogel, G. Vogel, V. Sharoni, and O. Dahan (eds.).

[6] T. Talmor, “Educators’ Attitudes toward Inclusion,” in Inclusiveness – Learners with Disabilities in Education, S. Reiter, Y. Leyzer , and G. Avissar, eds. (Haifa: Achva Publication, 2007, in Hebrew), 157-196.

Meet the Expert(s)

Heidi Flavian

Heidi Flavian, Ph.D., specialized in learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She is a teacher-trainer at Achva Academic College of Education in Israel and promotes the process of inclusion throughout school and in the broader social environment. 

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