My Journey from a Student Who Stutters to a Teacher Who Stutters

scott-kerby Scott Kerby
This article was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of the CSA Newslettert

When I think of my chosen profession, and how it came to be, I see that being a person with a mild to severe stutter has played an important role in defining who I am and what I chose to do as an occupation. For the past twelve years, I have been teaching in the public school system, and currently, I’m a Special Education teacher at F.H. Collins high school in Whitehorse, Yukon. Before that, I was involved in instructing outdoor education and leadership programs based out of Toronto.

I believe my interest in teaching is related to my interest in helping others, which has been strong enough to overcome the challenges I face as a person who stutters. Over time, my perserverance and patience has developed – heightened by life’s many experiences – and have helped me to be a better educator and a more compassionate person. During my public school years, I never wanted to be the teacher at the front of the class. But the challenges of being a student who stuttered were instrumental in developing who I am as a person and my approach to people in the education process.

My Student Years

As a student with a stutter, my earliest recollections of ‘feeling like something was up’ occurred when a speech therapist pulled me out of my Grade 4 class to do some fluency testing – which I failed. I remember a little room, being nervous, and stuttering through a series of tasks. My parents used to drive me twice a week to a therapist’s office in another part of Toronto for speech therapy sessions. But during both my elementary and high school years, I don’t recall thinking “Gee, this speech therapy is really working for me. If I apply my strategies, I can attain greater fluency”. I think I was too young and too rambunctious to be concerned with my speech. As I became older and understood a bit more about stuttering and fluency techniques, I learned to control it more.

A pivotal point occurred in Grade 10. One day after class, my geography teacher pulled me aside and brought up the subject of my stuttering, and of speech therapy. This candidness was the exception, and greatly appreciated. This teacher stands out in my memory for taking an interest in the well-being of a student, beyond course curriculum – and taking initiative. He is definitely a role model for me.

During my elementary school days, I don’t recall stuttering being detrimental aside from specific situations or activities. These would usually revolve around asking or answering questions in class, the dreaded public speaking contest, reading in front of the class, and verbal activities where all students participated sometimes under time-pressure – not fun for a child who stutters. It was during these times that the fear-factor would hit - the nervous foot tapping, pounding heart beat, fear, and most commonly avoidance.

I continued with speech therapy in Grade 10 and then in Grade 13, learning techniques similar to PFSP (rate control, gentle onsets, linking words and phrases etc). During these periods, I benefited from therapy and eventually developed my “really really fluent speech in a therapists office” which continues to this day. One step out of the office, however, and hit with a spontaneous question like “what’s my first name”, and I’d hit the reality-wall again.

As I entered high school, I remember being more aware of my stuttering, especially in classes. But outside of class I don’t think it significantly influenced my social behavior. Sports was a great outlet for me and I became involved in intramurals, rugby and cross-country running. My peer group had similar interests and I enjoyed sports. I don’t believe I participated in sports to avoid talking. That being said, I certainly didn’t join the debating club or run for Student Council President.

Challenges and Benefits

In retrospect, how my speech affected me most in my schooling was the resulting avoidance behaviour. In class I did not ask questions when I wasn’t sure about something, or speak up when I knew the answer. I did not contribute to group discussions and most importantly, for me, hid behind my fear of how I would be perceived by others. I was involved in the world around me, yet aware of when I was avoiding speaking situations.

I’d like to say that’s all behind me now – but it’s not. Some of the challenges I faced as a young student continue to this day – the difference is my awareness of these challenges and how I deal with them. As I mentioned in my introduction, my passion for helping people over-rides my fear of communicating with a stutter. Over 17 years in the role of instructor/educator, the degree of my fluency ebbs and flows depending on many factors, such as whether I have been in recent speech therapy or involved in self-help groups. Even as a teacher, my stutter has at times been severe – prolonged blocks, repetitions, and word gymnastics that at times I’m surprised my students can make sense of. There are other times, however, when there is greater fluency, and I’m verbal to the point that students want me to be quiet so they can do their work! Whereas certain circumstances – like making announcements over the p.a. system, for instance – are definitely more difficult, overall my batting average is moderate stutter.

My stutter has taught me the importance of patience and perseverance, which are two qualities that have aided me in my work with students with disabilities, including students who stutter. I have been told that my stutter has also been a teacher, of sorts – to educate others in the importance of accepting diversity, patience, and looking at the whole person. I’ve also been told by adult students that my slower and more deliberate speaking style is easier to understand. I can’t say I planned to talk this way. It has evolved over time, balancing strategies to maximize speaking fluently with conveying information.

My stutter is a part of me, whether a monkey on my back, or an appreciated gift. I’ll continue to teach for as long as I find it fulfilling and engaging. My stutter will be with every step of the way as well, keeping me humble and reminding me of the importance of doing my homework and getting involved in whatever your passions are regardless of whether you have a stutter.