Unlocking Dyslexia’s Doors

A sixth-grade social studies teacher at Indian Creek Middle School, Rob Gourlay overcame one of the most frustrating impediments to education anyone can meet.

by Nat Narwell

It is not unusual for a line of students to form outside his classroom at the beginning of each school day at Indian Creek Middle School. The incoming sixth graders are initially a bit startled to see older students on their hall and at the doorway to their homeroom.

“I tell them,” Rob Gourlay said, “those are my students from last year and the year before who come by to start their day with a hug and a ‘have a nice day’ and to tell me something—any one thing—that I might not know, so don’t worry, I’ll be seeing many of you doing the very same thing next year, too.”

The sixth-grade social studies teacher, co-chair of the school’s social studies department and assistant softball and soccer coach chuckled as he relayed the vignette. Then he continued.

“The deal is, I never know what any of the kids will say to me,” Gourlay said, “but they have to say at least one thing to me in order to get the hug.”

It can be refreshing to find a teacher who, in this litigious day and age, relates to students so well and gives of himself so freely, a teacher who knows the importance of such a simple act as giving out a hug while engaging students in providing evidence that they learned something new over the course of a day. It is also startling to learn that one reason Gourlay keeps encouraging students to explore the wonder of learning as a lifelong journey is because of his own experience overcoming one of the most frustrating impediments to education anyone can meet: the learning disability known as dyslexia.

“A lot of folks are misguided about everything dyslexia entails,” the effervescent Gourlay said. “It’s not just a situation where letters are reversed and words are jumbled. For me, as I read, words would simply drop out or be missing in a sentence, and when I in turn would write a report, I’d have to proofread it over and over, as words I thought I had put on paper would simply not be there.”

“It’s not just a situation where letters are reversed and words are jumbled. For me, as I read, words would simply drop out or be missing in a sentence, and when I in turn would write a report, I’d have to proofread it over and over, as words I thought I had put on paper would simply not be there.”

Indian Creek Middle School Social Studies Teacher Rob Gourlay

Frustration was a nearly constant companion for Gourlay as he was growing up and trying to read voraciously, for he loved history and anything related to social studies. He grew up in the Gwinnett County public schools back in the 1990s, when there was a stigma attached to anyone classified as “special education” and everyone labeled with the term “learning disability” was thought to have something wrong with them.

“The best decision ever that my parents made,” Gourlay said, “was to enroll me in a private school. At Stone Mountain Christian School in 1993, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and began a four-year program which entailed one-on-one therapy. I was so obsessed not to let this disability hold me back that I was able to complete the four-year program in just two years.”

Gourlay first appeared at Indian Creek as a paraprofessional in 1999 and now celebrates 20 years at the middle school. He completed his undergraduate degree program at Mercer University in 2002 and has been teaching social studies for 16 years, in addition to helping coach basketball, softball, soccer and robotics along the way. He earned his master’s degree in curriculum instruction and assessment in 2005, and he added his specialist’s degree in 2013. One might wonder what comes next for Gourlay. 

“Well, I’m two courses and a dissertation away from my doctorate,” he said, “and I’ll be happy to go to any school that will have me, as I really, really would like to get that Ed.D certification.”

Gourlay explained that he has always been driven to further himself though education and to never stop learning. His infectious enthusiasm spreads today, as it has since he joined the faculty at Indian Creek, not only through the students at the school but beyond. He is currently serving a two-year term in the inaugural class on the newly formed Teacher Council of the Carlos Museum at Emory University. Field trips to that incredible facility serve to fascinate students of all ages, adults included.

“I’ve never hidden my dyslexia and my learning disability from my students,” Gourlay said. “In my opinion, if you hide it, it seems that you’re buying into the notion that there’s something wrong with you, and I want my students to understand that we are all unique, that we all have obstacles of some sort to overcome in life and that you cannot just stop and feel sorry for yourself.”

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Gourlay’s social studies instruction is his fully informing the students on how dyslexia has affected him. He actively solicits their participation in double-checking what he writes on the board or to find any mistakes on paperwork he may have inadvertently made.

“I tell them from time to time that I know within a few minutes of awakening each morning if it’s going to be a great day for me or if it’s going to be a somewhat challenging day,” Gourlay said, “and I find that by being honest with them and working together, it encourages them to learn as much as they can in their own individual ways.”

While Indian Creek has become his home away from home, Gourlay is married to Lee Ann—herself a teacher at Middle Ridge Elementary School—and a father of two boys, 14-year-old Brett and 11-year-old Sam. His youngest son has the dubious distinction of being one of his father’s students.

“Well, that’s a study in progress,” Gourlay said with a laugh any parent can understand, “but as with all of my students, I have him ask the questions they might not ask other teachers, too.”

Gourlay feels that the struggle with dyslexia has helped make him a better teacher, as he can relate better to kids who have problems in school. He still faces the ongoing struggle and triple-checks his own work, which helps his students realize the importance of checking their own. The effectiveness of his approach is easy to see. One needs only to look at the kids lining up for a hug at the start of each school day as proof. 

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