Educated Woman of the Week- Karee Atkinson

Karee Atkinson
President, Decoding Dyslexia Utah

Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Brigham Young University and University of Utah, Political Science and American History.

Tell us about your school and/or work life:
I am currently the President of Decoding Dyslexia Utah. Decoding Dyslexia Utah is a volunteer grassroots movement driven by Utah families concerned with the limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities within our public schools. We aim to raise dyslexia awareness, empower families to support their children and inform policy-makers on best practices to identify, remediate and support students with dyslexia in Utah public schools.

Tell us about your life outside of school and/or work:
I am the mother of 4 wonderful kids; Michael who is 9-year-old, Sarah who is 7 years old, Rebecca who is 5 and our two-year-old ball of energy… Abigail. I have been married to Craig D. Atkinson for 12 wonderful years. In our family, two of us have an official diagnosis of Dyslexia and three others have been “identified” as having characteristics of Dyslexia. We are blessed to have Dyslexia on both sides of our family tree, and because Dyslexia is highly inheritable, our family faces this challenge as individuals and as a group. On a personal level, I love reading, cooking and gardening among many other things. Picking something fresh from my own backyard and turning it into a wonderful meal is a source of great joy for me. Our favorite activities include camping and hiking as a family.

How did you know your path or decide your current path?
It all started when I noticed my oldest son was struggling to learn to read in first grade. At this point, all the alarm bells started going off because I am Dyslexic myself. I asked his teacher if he could be Dyslexic and she said she didn’t know enough about Dyslexia to tell. After nearly six months, we were still being told “it would be fine,” “he was doing great” and “he didn’t need any testing by the school.” This didn’t feel right, so we decided to find out for ourselves…. So, to make a long story short, he is Dyslexic. I felt the need to help him immediately because one of my most hurtful memories of school happened in 6th grade. Grade school had been wonderful for me up to that point because I was identified as Dyslexic and the teachers saw the “whole” me, not just my struggles. Even though I wasn’t given the correct interventions at the time, I had been encouraged, given chances to succeed and was happy in school. That ended in 6th grade when I was in an Honors English class. Even though my reading comprehension and love of literature had become personal strengths, my spelling was horrible, and my grammar was really poor (something I still struggle with). My 6th Grade Honors English teacher was one of those people who equated spelling with intelligence… and I was not meeting her standards. We had had a 100-word spelling test, graded by a peer in class, where I had misspelled over 80 words, including the word “two” (I had written “tow”). After she saw the test she had me stand up, gather my books and said: “Honors English is not for everyone.” I was then escorted to a new “Regular English” class.

The new class turned out to be a huge blessing because of a wonderful teacher, Mr. Fairbanks, but I will never forget my feelings that day. When I saw my son start to struggle, all I could think was “That will not happen to my child!” So I started learning more and more about dyslexia. I found help for my son and a passion for helping other families and their children. There is no reason that ANY CHILD should ever be ashamed of the way they think and learn.

Are there major obstacles still limiting your achievement? What are they, and what could be done about them?
My greatest barrier has been finding balance. Balance between my volunteer work and my family’s needs. Balance between my personal strengths and weaknesses. Balancing the needs of different individuals and groups to find a path towards improvement for all students. On an individual level, I have found balance between my strengths and weaknesses by recognizing them and asking for the help I need. Until graduate school, I tried to hide my Dyslexia and the challenges that came with it. It didn’t work very well. One day, my Master’s Thesis advisor finally asked me in frustration, “What is wrong with your writing?” I finally admitted to being Dyslexic and he asked why I wasn’t getting help. I had no answer because I had focused on hiding my weaknesses. I hadn’t put any effort into finding solutions and help. Approaching Dyslexia from the perspective of strengths and weaknesses is a much more successful paradigm for me personally.

I now ask for help editing my written expressions and tell audiences that “spelling errors are going to occur” when I am writing on a white board. I have learned not to worry about it. They can choose to be distracted by my spelling errors, or they can focus on the content of we are discussing. My strengths lie in verbal communication and recognizing the overarching patterns in an issue or the challenges facing a group working toward a common goal. I also have adopted the belief that; “Fair does not mean that everyone gets the same thing. Fair is when everyone gets what they need.” This helps me balance and readjust my focus on the needs of individual family members as they face the challenges that come to all of us.

How do you handle conflict resolution?
Some days I feel like I live in “conflict resolution” and I need to move! Creating an IEP (Individualize Education Plan) for students with disabilities and navigating the school system for a student with Dyslexia can be exhausting for everyone involved. The teacher, the parent and especially the child. Working with different groups to accomplish a common goal involves high levels of conflict resolution. For me, the most challenging arena for conflict resolution is when it is personal between two or more individuals. Some resources that have helped me the most are the books; “Crucial Conversations” and “Leadership without Easy Answers”.

At the heart of conflict resolution is our own personal belief in possibilities and our views other people’s beliefs. I believe that most people can work together toward a common goal if they respect each other, are honest, and agree to disagree without being disagreeable. We will never find people we agree with 100%. It is not possible. But we can always focus on what we do agree on and build toward the best solution for everyone involved. We can never let the “ideal” stand in the way of progressing toward a strong solution.

I also choose to believe that most people are trying to do the best that they can and are acting in an honorable way. We will always get more accomplished by being realistically optimistic than we do by acting on our perceptions around other’s actions, which are based on our own defensiveness or criticisms. To resolve a conflict, we have to be willing to move forward and keep trying.

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