Getting on at work
Having studied to be a Spanish teacher, adversity in the workplace forced Michelle Paradies, from New York, to consider other options. But was it all to do with her stammer? She explains all here.
“Your cooperating teacher is unwilling and unable to accommodate your stammer in the classroom. You are therefore being removed from the placement.”
I was in my last year of university studying to become a secondary school Spanish teacher and those were the words of the program supervisor.
I was given two options: leave the program and graduate without the license required to teach in a public secondary school, or stay an additional semester and re-take the work placement with a different teacher. I knew a third option: a discrimination lawsuit – what they did was illegal. I knew that but I also knew that I had to graduate and move on with my life. I took the first option and decided to press my luck with finding a job in a school that used a different license scheme.
Sadly, people who stammer frequently report experiencing adversity in the workplace, but can it be directly attributed to stammering? I decided to study Spanish because I liked the subject and because I wasn’t particularly good at anything else. I envisioned myself leading students on trips to Spanish-speaking countries and cultural sites, not fighting endless battles to get unruly teenagers to develop academic competence in a language that some of them spoke better than me.
After graduating I had a terrible first year of teaching and went home crying almost every night.
I realised that my speech might be an issue but I never contemplated what could happen. After graduating I had a terrible first year of teaching and went home crying almost every night. I was asked to leave at the end of the school year. The reason? Incompetence. No mention of stammering. I found another school but the day-to-day experience was the same. The end conversation with the administration however, revealed that they were unwilling to work with my stammering, along with other factors, and I was again asked to leave.
Is stammering always to blame?
I read that approximately 45% of all new US teachers leave the profession within five years. I was part of that 45%. It’s easy to blame stammering but is it justified? No. If I didn’t stammer would there still be a high probability that I wouldn’t have been successful? Yes, probably.
It hasn’t been an easy road. I have been fired three additional times and forced out of one job due to new management. In fact, research also suggests that 75% of employees leave or are forced out of jobs because of their manager. Certainly not all of the 75% percent stammer; I stammered noticeably in all four of those workplaces but it wasn’t the reason for the job loss. Unfortunately, jerks abound. Some people are promoted into management positions not for what they know but rather who they know. Often they seek to make a name for themselves by treating their staff as brutally as possible. It's a tough market even if you don't stammer.
Onwards and upwards
Since those two years teaching, I have garnered more than 15 years of professional experience and stammering has never again come up. I have a degree in Spanish and Masters degrees in Administration and Teaching English as a Second Language. I’ve held a variety of positions in education, charity and social services sectors, all of which have been in high-pressure, client-facing, communication-centred roles. I'm now a program manager and I also teach English as a Second Language to adult students.
One memorable moment in my career happened in April 2006. I was working for a social services organisation as a program coordinator and had given notice that I would be leaving. My position was offered internally to a person who didn’t stammer yet she declined saying, “That role is very people-centred and requires a lot of speaking. It isn’t for me.” That from someone who doesn’t stammer.
More awareness needed
I asked some former colleagues what they thought about my stammer. “When we spoke on the phone for the very first time you stuttered at the very end of our conversation. I wasn’t sure if it was just a moment of not finding the right words or if it was stuttering. You could engage in both small talk and high-level conversation stutter-free 90% of the time, so I was puzzled what could trigger it,” said one former colleague, a language proficiency assessment professional.
Since then I’ve held a variety of positions... all of which have been in high-pressure, client-facing, communication-centred roles.
“I observed you stutter a few times in conversation, which I did find curious, but only considered it in the moments of occurrence,” said a higher education administration professional.
There’s clearly a great workplace demand for more and better information about stammering. Perhaps the best way to meet that demand is by showing, not telling. It’s critical that people who stammer achieve high levels of education and establish careers – particularly in roles that require ‘excellent communication skills’. Only then will we break the stereotype that so many people have of stammering.