In this article, I would like to share with you my ‘story’ of how I became a ‘dunce’ as a young child and, how nearly 50 years later, I was able to free myself from my ‘dunce’ mindset through the power of self-coaching. The definition of a dunce is a slow learner and even someone stupid. You don’t hear it much these days, thank God!
My pre dunce memories
I started school in September 1969 at the young age of four years and four months old. My memories of my early school days and the preparation for the big first day are still vivid in my memory.
I also still remember my mum and dad trying to teach me how to spell my first name. I struggled but I believe most four year olds would have too.
During my first year at school I wasn’t asked to write my name, in fact, there was no emphasis at all on teaching us how to write. Instead we played with toys, drew pictures, made models, and had lots of stories read to us. However, things were going to change in my second year.
The day I became a dunce
Unfortunately, due to a family holiday to my father’s home country of Sicily overrunning, I missed
the first two weeks of my second year at school. As a result, I remember feeling quite lost during the morning of my first day back in class. I could sense that I had missed out on something. It felt like I was a stranger in the classroom as the other children had already formed friendships with each other and so didn’t interact with me very much. I felt lonely and outside of the group, which wasn’t a good feeling. As an adult I learnt that I am an extrovert and thrive on lots of social interaction.
To make matters worse, in the afternoon, the teacher asked us all to sit at our desks so that we could continue to learn our letters. As I had missed the first two weeks of school I felt overwhelmed when the teacher and my classmates sang the alphabet out, which they must have learnt whilst I was on holiday. Then I felt confused when the teacher began writing letters on the board and asked the children in the class to sound out the letters. I stared at the shapes of the letters and didn’t know what sounds were attached to them. Not long after this the teacher wrote three sets of two letters on the board which I very quickly found out were the letters ‘th’, ‘sh’, and ‘ch’.
After she wrote these letters on the board, she asked individual children in the class to sound
these letter combinations out which they were able to do. Then she asked me. I tried to
make the sounds ‘th’, ‘sh’, and ‘ch’ but found this difficult to do. She sat down next to me
and showed me where I needed to put my tongue in my mouth to make the sound of the letters.
However, despite ther instructions, I still wasn’t able to make the sound of these letters in
the way she expected me to.
Then she asked everyone in the class to write these letters down in our books. I tried my
best to complete the task, but couldn’t get them to look like the letters the teacher had written on the board. She must have seen me struggling and came and sat next to me again. I remember
her putting her hand over mine to guide my pencil and getting annoyed when she let go of my hand and asked me to write the letters by myself, which I wasn’t able to do. I was five years old!
There was a table in the classroom with lots ofdifferent sized paper on it. The teacher rolled up a large sheet of paper into a cone shaped hat and then drew on the front of the hat, what I thought at the time was, a semi-circle. She then came over to me, took me by the arm, and walked me to the front of the class, where she announced something – which I can’t remember – as she placed the cone shaped hat onto my head. She then walked me over to the corner of the classroom and turned me around to face the wall. In my innocence I wasn’t sure what was happening. I heard the teacher sayingsomething to my classmates and I heard some of the children laughing at which point I felt tearsrunning down my cheeks and my chin dropping to my chest. Being made to wear a dunce’s hat and being forced to stand in a corner was the ultimate humiliation for a child who couldn’t do what they were supposed to do. It was considered a punishment and a way of getting you to improve. It was cruel.
I stood for quite some time before being allowed to sit back down. Over the course of the next few days I was put in the corner of the classroom wearing my dunce hat every time I got something ‘wrong’. Not surprisingly, at some point during this ordeal I gave up trying to learn and felt myself ‘switch off’. I was dyslexic, but sadly the term was not understood then.
It’s quite sad to think how a negative early childhood experience can have such an impact on us. In my case, I disengaged with learning and turned my hand to becoming a ‘trouble maker’ – which I’m not proud to say I became very good at. I went through the rest of my school life believing that I was a dunce and unable to learn. Consequently I left school with no qualifications and was functionally illiterate. On leaving school I had the reading age of an eight year old child. Needless to say, I was unable to get any work that required reading and writing skills, which limited my prospects to jobs that only involved manual labour.
Becoming a boxing coach
When I was around 14 years old, I was in a gang in Birmingham and heading in the wrong direction in life. My fellow gang members and I were into petty crime, vandalism, and fighting – which I feel
embarrassed to say I excelled at. To help develop our fighting skills, several gang members and I
joined Birmingham City Amateur Boxing Club. However, on joining the club we were soon told by
Frank O’Sullivan MBE (one of England’s most famous boxing coaches) that if he found out that we
were fighting on the streets that he would throw us out of the club. Fortunately for me and my
fellow gang mates, Frank took us under his wing and supported us to develop the self-discipline that goes hand in hand with learning to box. Frank invested a lot of time in us and encouraged us all to stay out of trouble. Thankfully, he had a huge positive influence on me and by the time I was 18 years old I was no longer a member of the gang. Instead, I was cutting my teeth as a boxing coach under Frank’s mentorship.
Discovering the power of self-coaching
I first became aware of the power of self-coaching when I started to learn how to become a boxing
coach. I soon realised that part of the process in becoming a coach involved me applying the
coaching theories, methods, and techniques that I was being taught on myself so that I could ‘test
them out’, see if they worked, and tweak them to suit the context that I was delivering them in. I
realised that I was, in essence, coaching myself to become a boxing coach. This doesn’t seem much
of a revelation now, some 37 years later, but at the time, it was one of the most empowering
moments of my life.
On discovering the power of self-coaching, I started to apply it to other areas of my life. I began to self-coach myself to learn to read and write. And, after 13 years of self-coaching my reading and writing skills were at a good enough level for me to attend university to study for a degree in
Community and Youth Work. On completing my degree, I then self-coached myself for 16 years and 10 months through my doctoral studies which focused on the subject of dyslexia. As part of my
doctoral studies I used a form of self-coaching over a six year period to overcome severe dyslexia. In addition, I developed intervention to support fellow ‘severe dyslexics’ to self-coach themselves to overcome their dyslexia related difficulties.
However, despite my self-coaching successes in the areas noted above, the ‘dunce’ label that I had
been given as a child continued to negatively inform my thinking. This manifested itself in me
experiencing chronically low levels of academic self-esteem, self-worth, and, confidence, and an
unshakable sense of feeling inferior to my academic peers. But most of all, deep down, I felt a sense of shame and guilt for not having been able to learn as a child, which, as silly as it may sound, affected my ability to feel proud of myself in any area of my life.
Self-coaching within the coaching career
I have been a coach, in one guise or another, for around 37 years. As mentioned, I began my
coaching career as a boxing coach at the age of 18 . Then in my second year at university at the age of 32, I began to develop my dyslexic and educational coaching practice. And, at the age of 48, in 2013, I began to deliver achievement coaching to children and adults. I continue to deliver coaching in these three main areas.
Whilst the coaching I deliver in the three areas mentioned above have different focuses, I place a lot of emphasis on supporting my clients to develop their self-coaching skills so that they do not
become reliant on the need for a coach. One of the benchmarks that I use to measure my coaching
success is to see how quickly I can make myself redundant. Naturally this is counter-intuitive in a
financial sense but it is a strong indication of the effectiveness of my clients’ self-coaching skills.
My floppy hat experience
Two hours before my graduation at the University of Birmingham, which took place nine months
after I had successfully defended my doctoral thesis, I stood in line waiting to be fitted out with my robe and floppy hat as is the custom at graduation ceremonies in UK. As I waited, I reflected on many of the things that I had gone through during the 16 years and 10 months that it had taken me to complete my doctoral studies. I reflected on how I had managed to coach myself to overcome all of my dyslexia difficulties during the first six years of my studies. I thought about how, on starting my studies, I could only type around 120 words per day using one finger, and how five years into my studies I had successfully coached myself to touch-type which meant that I could write thousands of words each day. I remembered how I had calculated in my tenth year of study the number of hours that I had sat at my desk studying, which I had worked out to be around 22,000 hours.
As I got closer to the front of the queue I saw dozens of robes and floppy hats lying on several tables that had been pushed together in the centre of room. As I moved forward in the queue I continued to reflect on the things that I had experienced during my time as a doctoral student.
Within several minutes it was my turn to be fitted with my robe and floppy hat. As I waited for the assistant, a young woman in her mid twenties, to find the robe and floppy hat that had been reserved for me,something quite surreal and totally unexpected happened. The image of me as a little boy standing in thecorner of the classroom wearing a dunce hat flashed up in my mind’s eye. This unexpected flashback caused me to feel quite emotional, which surprised me as I thought I had addressed the emotionalcontent of this childhood experience many years earlier.
I think that the assistant must have realised that I was emotional as she touched me on the arm and
gave me a sympathetic smile before asking me to hold my arms out so that she could put my robe
on me. I closed my eyes in an attempt to stop the tears that had formed in my eyes from rolling
down my face and as I did so, I found myself playing back in my mind the moment that the
tears had welled up in my eyes some 48 years earlier and how my chin had dropped to my chest in
shame as I stood facing the corner of the classroom.
I then had a very strangest experience. With my eyes still closed, I felt my consciousness expand into a space that was much greater than the space that I usually perceive my consciousness to occupy.Then in a sudden flash I was standing as an adult in my childhood classroom. I felt my heart racing asI knew that something really strange was happening to me. It felt so weird being back there. I could see in great detail the faces of my classmates, the picture that hung on the walls,and the collage of artwork that covered the back wall. And, in one of the spookiest moments in my life, I could see the solitary back of a child, which I knew was me, standing with his head down in the corner of the classroom wearing a dunce hat.
I walked over to the little boy and stood next to him (me). I suddenly felt compelled to say something to my former self. I bent forward at the waist and whispered strongly, “Come on lad lift your chin up. The shape on the front of your hat isn’t a semi- circle, it’s the letter ‘D’ and it stands for the word ‘DOCTOR!’”. As soon as I finished whispering this Ifelt something touch my head which instantly pulled me back to reality at the very moment that the assistant was putting a floppy hat on my head.
Then in an extremely spontaneous manner, at the very moment that the assistant had finished
adjusting my hat I stood bolt upright, put my feet together, my arms down by my sides, and
lifted my chin up high. For the first time in my life I felt proud of myself. I wasn’t feeling proud of myself because I had managed to coach myself to overcome my dyslexia or that I was just about to graduate. I wasn’t feeling proud of myself because I would be entitled, after graduating, to use theletters ‘Dr’ before my name – I had lost my ego in this area many years before. Rather, the reason that I felt proud of myself for the first time in my life was that I had finally been
able to successfully coach myself, albeit in a somewhat surreal manner, to take off my dunce hat and for the first time in almost 50 years, hold my chin up high!
Where I’m at now
It’s been just over two and a half years since I took off my dunce hat and held my chin up high. I’d like to report that I have been able to keep my dunce hat off permanently but that would be a lie. As uncomfortable as it is for me to say, I wear my dunce hat more often than I ever wear my floppy hat.
I still experience, in various degrees of severity, all of the issues that stem out of the day I became a dunce. I am still applying self-coaching in my own life to overcome these issues. And, I am still supporting the clients that I work with to develop their self-coaching skills so that they can, as I mentioned earlier, make me redundant as a coach as soon as they can!