By Alexis Snyder | What is a teacher? Miriam-Webster’s dictionary simply states, “A person or thing that teaches something; especially: a person whose job it is to teach students about certain subjects.” However the role of a teacher far expands this simple definition. What a teacher has to offer is far greater than the subject matter they are teaching. They share their knowledge, ingenuity and leadership.

A great teacher supports the whole student and inspires them. I’m sure most of us can think of a teacher that had a positive impact on our life. The teacher you will never forgot. And for some, a teacher who had a negative impact. I wonder though, do teachers realize the impact they have on students? A teacher has the power to shape a student’s self-esteem. They have the power to build someone up and at times tear someone down if they are not careful with their words. Even teachers with the best of intentions can sometimes but their foot in their mouths. This is especially true when encountering a student with an invisible disability.

Millions of Americans are living with an invisible disability and are continually judged because they “look so good.” Having a disability that is not readily apparent can make it difficult for a teacher to understand and at times to believe.

Unfortunately students with invisible disabilities and illnesses often struggle with teachers who do not understand their differences. This has been all too true over the years for my daughter, who lives with an invisible disorder that causes fatigue and low muscle tone, pain and weakness.

One encounter, several years ago, still stands out in her head and mine. She had just started firth grade and her third year of guitar at local music school. She had struggled for a long time with a bar chord, and although she knew the fingering, she didn’t have the strength in her fingers to press down on the strings hard enough to play the chord smoothly. The teacher would not allow her to move on to the next level without perfecting this chord. Having mastered the rest of the skills to move up, being held back over something she had no control over was quite disappointing.

Although we had been up front about her low muscle tone when starting lessons, the teacher was just not getting it. So, one day after class I decided to speak with him. I reminded him about the decreased strength in her hands and the difficultly of the awkward finger positioning. I was shocked when he said there was nothing wrong with her that would prevent her mastering this chord and that she must not practicing enough.

He went on to tell me that she was not missing any fingers and to explain that even Jerry Garcia, who was missing a finger, never struggled to play the guitar. Even after I explained how muscle tone was involuntarily controlled by the brain he tried to tell me that muscle tone had nothing to do with neurology. (I can see her neurologist cringing as I write this.)

Needless to say, we didn’t get anywhere talking with the teacher and we left with my daughter in tears never to return to this school. She was so distraught she was ready to quit guitar all together. A few days later I contacted another school and explained what had happened. They were appalled and invited us in for a free first lesson. The teacher took the time to listen to her needs, find ways for difficult chords to be played more easily and was encouraging and supportive from that day on.

Fast forward to over two and half years later, where Sara is still a student of this dynamic music school and thanks to the compassion and understanding of one terrific teacher, her love of music and the guitar lives strong. And what about that chord she struggled with? After suggesting we change out the strings to a lower gauge, voila! It required less pressure to produce the perfect sound.

Although a couple of years have passed, the hurtful words of the previous teacher are still a vivid memory. Fortunately we were able to find a supportive teacher to make new happy memories with that Sara will take with her all her life. Thanks Derrick, for lifting Sara’s spirit and believing in her. Thanks for being one of those very special teachers who inspires kids and helps them achieve their personal best by playing to the beat of their own drum, or in this case the strum of their own guitar.

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