Jenny Tebbutt is aiming for equity in the school system

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Jenny Tebbutt is the Managing Director of Raising Achievement Ltd, a Bay of Plenty-based company which works to raise the achievement of at-risk groups within the education sector. She is also a consultant with Education and Achievement Association (formerly ADHD Rotorua) and volunteers her time to work one-on-one with families. She is a passionate advocate for learners who learn differently and since 2000 has been sharing her goldmine of knowledge.

Jenny was a model school student. Organised and conscientious, she was the kind of kid every teacher wanted in their class. But things went downhill halfway through secondary school. Despite an above-average IQ and hours of meticulous study she failed School Certificate as well as her first round of 6th form exams, and eventually dropped out of school altogether. How did it all go so wrong?

Jenny was 40 before she understood. She was a trained primary teacher and SENCO (Special Education Needs Coordinator) and decided to return to tertiary study in 2002 to convert her Diploma in Teaching into a Bachelor’s degree. In her first lecture she sat engrossed as the Sociology tutor talked about perceptual learning styles and how effective learning strategies can help students learn better and faster.

For a student who had flunked school, returned as an adult to gain her 6th form qualifications and then worked her butt off at Teacher’s College to earn her teaching diploma in her early 20s – all the while terrified she was going to fail – this was astounding news.

“I thought, if this lady is right, I’m 40 years old, I’m a teacher, a SENCO and I know nothing about learning, and that is a problem.”

The lecturer painted a picture of the type of learner Jenny recognised as herself – pouring over books for hours, learning by rote, and cramming the morning of an exam, often resulting in marginal success. Effective learners, Jenny heard, used strategies, like mind maps, that aid comprehension by creating pictures and links in the mind; they identify key words and they relate the learning to their life experience.

Doubting the learning strategies espoused would make a difference to the outcome, Jenny set out to prove the theories incorrect. She threw out everything she knew about learning and followed the lecturer’s study advice in the lead-up to her first test, believing the effort would be in vain.

Out of the 200 students on the course, Jenny topped the class. She went on to repeat this study process in the final exam and came second. From that moment she became a straight-A student.

Simple strategies

The mind map learning strategy had worked a treat for Jenny and it was one of the keys that changed everything. Learning skills and strategies that make learning easier for struggling students are a vital part of learning and teaching for all at-risk learners.

Jenny’s personal experience was a driving force behind her desire to become a specialist teacher supporting underachieving students to success. Her business, Raising Achievement, runs face-to-face and online courses for teachers, SENCOs and teacher aids across Australasia to gain more knowledge in ‘differentiated teaching’, learn strategies to meet the needs of different student types and learn how to use screening tools and resources.

“Given my IQ I should have sailed through the school system but I was actually able to fly under the radar because I wasn’t comprehending the learning. The mainstream suits many students but we now know there are up to 22 percent of students in the school system who learn differently.”

Jenny calls them third wave learners – students with specific learning differences, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, auditory and visual processing disorders, the three types of ADHD and children on the autistic spectrum, including those with Asperger Syndrome. Many of these children have been through several of the good intervention programmes, such as reading recovery and literacy programmes and had additional support but, academically, are still performing well below their chronological age.

“I say to teachers that one key thing to take from our seminars is to explicitly teach metacognitive strategies in their classroom as our third wave learners don’t pick up strategies the way other learners do.”

Through pre and post testing Jenny is able to show significant gains in student achievement once difficulties have been identified and acted upon.

Equal opportunities for all learners

“Historically there were a whole group of students who fell out of school without qualifications. It is only now that we are beginning to understand the issues better,” says Jenny. “While I think we’re getting better at identifying differences in learning, teachers are still, by and large, taught how to cater for the mainstream. I’m interested in making sure education changes so that all groups have an equal opportunity.”

And that starts with understanding the child and finding their strengths, says Jenny. Many children will be incredibly creative, for example, but their brains are not wired for words. It’s about finding the right strategy that works for each child, based on, for example, multisensory teaching (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc), providing structure, and teaching to the developmental stages of learning. Screening for underlying issues is also critical.

Third-wave learners have underpinning cognitive weaknesses that prevent them from accessing the school curriculum. For some, they may have perfect vision or hearing but their brain isn’t able to process what they are seeing or hearing well. Many students also have more than one learning difference which adds to the challenge.

For parents with concerns about their children’s learning, Raising Achievement is preparing an online parenting course which will be available later this year providing learning strategies, modules on emotional, social, behavioural and educational components, and homework support for parents.

More developments to watch out for this year are Jenny’s three new books, including one aimed at teachers and one for parents. The third book, Jenny’s Ride for Education, will tell the story of Jenny’s 2014 solo cycle ride from Bluff to Cape Reinga to raise funds and awareness for people with learning difficulties. Cycling 2140km over 27 days was a tough task for someone not physically fit, and overweight, she says.

“I’m not an athlete so I wanted to draw the parallel that cycling the country is like going through life with a learning difficulty. Every day it’s tough.”

See Jenny’s Ride for Education on Facebook. For more information on Jenny’s courses, visit raisingachievement.co.nz .