How patience, attention saved a struggling learner

How patience, attention saved a struggling learner

Thirty five years ago Gary Cohen, a Minneapolis businessman, was a struggling learner. Here’s his story about how a sixth grade special education teacher saved him.

This is the latest installment in a series on The Answer Sheet called “Faces of Learning,” a national campaign designed to explore what powerful learning environments and highly effective teachers really look like.

The campaign is designed to answer the following questions: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?

Everybody, regardless of age or occupation, is encouraged to go to the campaign’s website and share their story, said the creator, educator and author Sam Chaltain, who wrote a book entitled “Faces of Learning” that tells 50 stories of defining moments in education.

You can share your own story here, and also find a free tool that helps assess individual learning strengths and weaknesses and also provides research about how different people best learn.

Earlier stories in this series on this blog can be found hereherehere.herehere.and here. And you can follow the Lifelong Learning series on WAMU radio with these and other Faces of Learning stories.


Here’s Gary Cohen’s story:

Thirty-five years ago, I was struggling to pass English. Last year I became a published author. How did I find my way from failing to where I am now? Someone took the time to ‘see’ me. In the sixth grade, I had a third-grade reading level and a fourth-grade math level. I struggled with graphomotor skills, low active working memory, and attention issues — none of which was really diagnosed at the time. Hardly a recipe for success in the classroom, particularly when my teachers didn’t really know how to engage kids like me. So I showed up each day, sat in my seat, stared at the chalkboard, and didn’t learn a thing.
It’s not like my teachers didn’t care. Knowing I was a struggling learner, one of my teachers asked me to spell ‘a’ during a spelling bee. I froze. That moment, which seemed to last forever, still haunts me, with the images of students staring at me, whispering their advice, while the teacher’s question rings louder than a fire station’s horn. I knew it was a simple, easy question, and that the teacher was only trying to help’which made my inability to answer even worse. Inwardly, I crumbled. It wasn’t about learning anymore, it was about my value as a person. That moment for me was the start of a downward spiral into shame, hopelessness and defeat.

Pat Zimmerman, a special education teacher, threw me a lifeline, but I let it lie in the water for a while. Sometimes when you’re drowning, you’re unable to see or unwilling to accept help. But Pat persisted. She saw my potential and, eventually, helped me to see it, too. When I came to Pat, I was usually demoralized and beaten. But by the end of each period with her, I was no longer slumped in my chair; I felt inspired and excited about the possibilities ahead. Pat ‘saw’ me. She knew that I had a voice and important things to say. She buoyed my spirits and convinced me that my mind was fine, just different. It brought information in differently, sorted that information differently, filed it differently, and retrieved it differently. She helped me see the gifts I was given instead of the deficits on which others had focused.

Not only did she help me craft narratives for my ideas and my coursework, she helped me craft a narrative about who I was and what I could become.

By ninth grade, I was not only doing my grade level of work, I was coaching other struggling learners at school during my choice time. A few years later, I graduated early and in the top 10% of my class. In college, I triple majored and graduated Magna Cum Laude. I went on to co-found a call-center company and helped it grow from two employees to 2,200.

And, last summer, McGraw Hill published my book, “Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.” I’ve passed Pat’s gift forward to many in my life’as a board member of “All Kinds of Minds,” as a parent, and as an executive coach. Thanks to her, I’m able to share the value of letting go of rigid categories and labels and celebrating the different way each of us learns. At the same time, Pat’s ability to understand me as a unique learner and to help me find and value my strengths demonstrates the power of an educator who understands learning diversity ‘ something I believe can help us transform our schools. Because there are countless students struggling in classrooms right now who are dying inside, just as I was. And I’m proof that an educator who truly understands learning can help those students find a brighter future.

Gary Cohen Managing Partner, CO2 Partners, LLC Minneapolis, MN


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