Meet the teacher who couldn’t read

John Corcoran took extraordinary measures to keep his secret.

He acted up in class, preferring expulsion to anyone finding out. In college, he recruited some buddies to help him confiscate a professor’s filing cabinet to gain access to tests. He talked the talk of a college-educated professional. He even taught for 17 years in California and had reasonable success with his students.

All the while, he couldn’t read. And he didn’t learn until he was 48 years old.

Corcoran shared his story Thursday with an audience, which included more than a dozen teachers, at the Independence Institute’s new Freedom Embassy building in downtown Denver. (His wife helped keep him on track, and you can hear her voice in the podcast.)

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With money made in real estate, Corcoran founded the John Corcoran Foundation, which provides access to phonics-based tutoring services for children and adults who don’t know how to read or are below grade level. It also works with college teacher education programs to make sure new teachers know how to reach all students.

Corcoran has also written books, including The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read and The Bridge to Literacy: No Child or Adult Left Behind.

He said it’s time to banish the term “learning disabled.”

“We are able to learn,” he said. “If I learned to read at 48, I should have been able to learn at 8.  I bought into the big lie that something was wrong with my brain.”

Corcoran, who said he has an “oral language processing issue,” said the key lies in instruction. He said we have the knowledge to teach all people to read – but lack the will to make it happen.

John Corcoran

“If we teach our children to read, we are going to fill a big hole in America’s soul.”

Corcoran grew up in a literate home with a family who loved him. He slid through the early grades with teachers assuring his parents he’d get it. In the upper grades, he acted up rather than risk getting called on or having anyone find out he still couldn’t read.

”I was a loser by the time I was 8 years old. I was in the dumb row. The dominant language in the schoolhouse is the written word.”

Suspensions and expulsions followed. As he grew older, he got into sports and became a sought-after athlete with charm and social grace. He learned to keep his mouth shut – and to cheat. He dated the valedictorian and hung out with his college-bound peers so he could emulate them.

He was awarded an athletic scholarship and attended the University of Texas at El Paso, then called Texas Western, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and business administration. He ended up teaching for 17 years, relying heavily on guest speakers to fill gaps caused by his hidden illiteracy.

“Nobody enabled me. I was surviving, I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t believe anyone could teach me to read.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.