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Summer 2013

A Starting Point

She knew, the moment the door to her son's classroom opened, that her trip to the schoolhouse that afternoon had become a turning point. Anne Awuor, Ed.M.'13, originally intended to get to the bottom of why her young son, Ryan, was still struggling with reading. Then she saw the teacher. The teacher had been one of her students at the National Teachers' College in Nairobi, Kenya, where she was working as an English lecturer.

"The irony was almost comical," says Awuor, a recent graduate of the Language and Literacy Program. Not only had she taught this woman, but also she had just endorsed graduation certification for 1,000 other elementary school teachers and knew that none of the graduates were equipped with the skills needed to help kids, like her son, who struggled with learning disabilities.

"I returned home with a humbler mien than I thought I would ever assume," Awuor says. She also asked herself an important question: "What am I going to do about it?"

She initially turned to the Internet, devouring everything she could on learning disabilities and related teacher training, often printing out useful information and sharing it with Ryan's teacher. And although she was doing it to help her son, who, she now realizes, has dyslexia, she began to understand the problem was much bigger than that.

"I discovered that shortcomings at our college's teacher preparation program were symptomatic of similar struggles encountered in similar programs throughout Africa," she says.

She also had to face the "unmentionable" aspect — even talking about learning difficulties is often frowned upon in her community.

"It's a struggle for me to even talk about this story," Awuor says. "It's different in Kenya than it is here."

She decided that the only way to get a full understanding of the issue, and then figure out a way to improve teacher preparedness in Kenya and across Africa, was to leave and go to graduate school.

"Harvard accepted me," she says. "That was the first sign that I was doing the right thing."

Before leaving for the United States, though, she decided to start a reading clinic at her house on Sunday afternoons for Ryan, his friends, and children from the neighborhood who also needed help.

"I thought, Why teach him alone?" she says. "And we can't expect the teachers to do everything." The informal group, free of judgment and full of support, she says, was slowgoing in terms of improvements, but during the five months that they met, every child made gains in spelling and word recognition.

Now in Cambridge, Awuor has spent the past two semesters focusing not so much on being a reading specialist — her initial goal — but on teacher support and training, as well as policy.

"I have expanded [my focus] into policy issues — how policy can play a role in improving teacher quality that I feel will eventually trickle to how teachers are trained in specific subject content and teaching methods," she says.

As a student, she was also able to spend time during her practicum at an elementary school in Cambridge, which completely opened her eyes to the possibilities for students with learning issues.

"My mind was blown away," she says. "Wow! They have interventionists? Reading interventionists? Even behavior interventionists?"

At Commencement, her son — her dashing and charming son, she says — will be in the audience, watching his mother get her diploma. And when she looks back and sees Ryan, she says she'll know that the hard work (and the cold winter!) will have been well worth it.

"My son was a personal reminder of the impact that poor teacher preparation has on individual students, and I felt called upon to do something about it," she says. "Teacher quality matters. That's where we should start."