The Teacher Who Couldn't Read

03/17/2015 10:24 am ET | Updated May 17, 2015

Recently, I heard a captivating story about a teacher who could not read. This story is especially compelling because I am a fourth grade teacher and illiteracy still plagues our society. John Corcoran went through most of his life without being able to read. Surprisingly, he graduated high school and college while he was functionally illiterate. He even taught high school social studies for 17 years and was a successful teacher.

This headline could be another sensational story about "How awful our education system has become." But, this is not a negative story. It is an empowering story of perseverance and the triumph of a man confronting and conquering his deepest, darkest secret to help himself and others.

John was doing OK in school until the fourth grade. This was the 1950s and unfortunately, the diagnostic tools were not what they are today. Thus, his reading disability went undiagnosed and he started failing in school. At first, like so many students, he let his frustration come out by acting out and getting in trouble.

Then, in the fifth grade, he saw how upset he made his parents and he decided he did not want to hurt them anymore. He knew he could figure out another way to get by. But, he didn't see any help with his problem, so he decided to fake it and cheat. He was popular and street smart, so he got through elementary school relatively easily. Then, in high school, he became a star athlete and had his friends help him graduate without much trouble.

An athletic scholarship got Corcoran into college, but he had to be more creative to survive in college. He worked harder than the average student to pass classes and also to hide this secret that he was carrying around, that he could not read. The most outrageous feat of cheating was when he actually handed a test out the window to a friend. Somehow, he went undetected and graduated.

Then, John becomes a high-school social studies teacher. The first thing he does in the classroom is to identify a couple students to help him. He has them read the morning bulletin from the first day on, even though the blurb at the bottom says, "Please do not let a student read this bulletin." This became a running joke in his class as the student read this every morning.

Next, Mr. Corcoran sets up his classroom as a discussion and debating class, where textbooks and traditional tests were never used. John was a dynamic and charismatic teacher. The students and administration loved him. He always got stellar reviews and had a good reputation as a teacher. Powerfully, Corcoran exemplifies how teachers may utilize their strengths despite their limitations to be successful and connect with the students. However, Mr. Corcoran takes this to the extreme by using these strengths to cover up his inability to read.

At this point, a sad and ironic situation manifests itself as Corcoran attempts to help the "troubled" high school students who are at risk of dropping out. He connects with the students and feels he can help them until he sees what they really need is someone who can teach them how to read. Tragically, he can't help. It breaks his heart to realize he is not able to help these students who need his help the most. But, even here, he keeps up the charade and tried to help where he can.

For 17 years, John Corcoran taught high school social studies. The questions I kept asking as I delved more into this story were: "How did he get caught?" and "How does he come clean?" He did get married and have a daughter. When he "reads" her bedtime stories, he would hold the book, turn pages and paraphrase the story, giving his own version. One night, unexpectedly, his daughter insisted he read a story he did not know. As he was making up the story, his wife walked by the room and heard what he was saying. She knew the story and realized he was not reading the story. They had a discussion and he admitted that he could not read.

So, John comes clean with his wife. Then, it takes all the courage he has to the public library to sign up for an adult literacy class. By this time, a nationwide adult literacy program was advertised and had made this possible. Mr. Corcoran leaves the classroom and becomes a real estate agent. He learns how to read, but that is not the end.

Here is where he takes his greatest secret and turns it into his greatest asset. This is extremely difficult but he reminds himself that this will help others who are suffering the way he had suffered, in fear and shame. John knows his story can be powerful and help reach some of the estimated 7-17 percent of our adult population that are functionally illiterate. He writes a book about his experience and his life. Corcoran starts a foundation to help bring the issue of illiteracy to the public and to enable people to profoundly change their lives.

When I was getting ready to become a teacher, I volunteered at the local literacy council. I taught for a year and absolutely loved it. I would come out after teaching a session and feel like I was walking on air. Seeing these people who had the courage to learn to read and take the extra time and effort to improve their lives was incredible inspiring and encouraging.

So, I make a call out to everyone, not just teachers, to volunteer at their local literacy centers. It doesn't take much time, just a little training and a commitment of a couple hours a week. Become part of the solution and make yourself feel really good.

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