Courage Over Comfort

By Rhonda Lanie, IPLI Mentor, Principal at Howard Elementary School

Do you remember how you learned to read? The picture you see here is of a page from a Sally and
Paul reader written using the initial teaching alphabet (ITA). This alphabet was how I learned to read.
I know! It doesn’t look like English, does it? My elementary school offered the ITA program and the
traditional way of teaching reading. They hyped up the program to parents. Telling them that if they
chose to put their child in, they would learn to read and write quickly and fluently. Of course, my mom
wanted this for me, so she requested that I be in an ITA classroom. She trusted my school and their
support of this method of teaching reading. Honestly, I think she wanted me in this class because
Shawn Wood, who was in my Kindergarten carpool, would read his Spiderman comics and just about
anything else you stuck in front of him during our ride to the babysitter. I remember my mom being in
awe as Shawn flew through the superhero’s adventures with great fluency and expression. What
five-year-old could compete with that? So in 1976, while my friends across the hall were reading Dick
and Jane books with the regular alphabet. I was reading ITA’s Sally and Paul books. In hopes of
being a reader like Shawn.

ITA is a phonics alphabet of the 44 spoken sounds in English. The program teaches children to read
and write using the 44 sound symbols and then transitions them to the regular English alphabet. I
remember the day we started this transition in my first-grade class. Mrs. Kesler called my reading
group to the back of the room like she did each day. We put our chairs in a circle like usual, and then
she told us how proud she was of our reading and that we were going to start learning how to read
with the regular letters. Unfortunately, I don’t remember precisely what Mrs. Kesler said and don’t
remember that first lesson. I do, however, remember her giving us each a piece of candy from her
candy tin and alakazam; we were on our way to reading words with “real” letters.

As I was Googling ITA, several images of full-page text came up, and I have learned that I can no
longer read ITA. But back then, I was an ITA reading whizz. I learned to read quickly with this
program, and I must have made the transition to the regular alphabet well because I was always
placed in the high reading group throughout my elementary school years. However, my spelling was
and still is treacherous, and this would be an understatement. I spell phonetically and have little
understanding of spelling rules. Good thing for Grammarly. I am sure that how I learned to read
played a part in my spelling deficit.

Teaching reading has always been a tricky topic, and one would say there are two camps: the
phonics camp and the balanced literacy camp. Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of
talk about the Science of Reading. Recently, the IDOE released a document describing their early
literacy initiative, emphasizing the Science of Reading. I have spent my career in education devoted
and well versed in balanced literacy. Therefore, I have expected to see specific elements that align
with balanced literacy in classrooms and have coached teachers on incorporating these in their
reading blocks. So the announcement of this shift has left me feeling a little unsteady, and
admittedly my ego has reared its stubborn head.

Here is where I have a choice to make as a leader. Stick the course and close my mind to the
possibility of doing things differently because my ego has been bruised. Or open my mind to the
possibility of a different way becuse my ego has no place in my leadership. My work is about kids,
not me. Unfortunately, the former is where a lot of us leaders go wrong. We often like to think we are
open to ideas and change, but the truth is it is scary, and it takes courage to admit that you may have
been wrong or that you didn’t know better. Sometimes we don’t even know our ego is leading the way
until the damage has been done. Unfortunately, as educators, this damage can have an impact that
stretches way beyond our school walls for years to come.

The ITA program didn’t last long at my school. Maybe the teachers and principal realized the
outcomes were not as good as they had hoped. Perhaps some of the children were not transitioning
to the regular alphabet well. Maybe they realized kids left the program and couldn’t spell. Whatever
the reason was, it meant that those who promoted the program and swore it would make readers
like Shawn Wood had to put their egos on the shelf and shift their thinking.

My experience learning to read reminds me that many children learn despite instructional practice.
However, they might be left with gaps in their learning that can last a lifetime. As leaders, we have a
great responsibility. We need to keep informed and learn about best practices. We have to be open to
learning new things, even if it means abandoning things we hold near and dear. We have to be willing
to have hard conversations with ourselves and others. Our egos have to leave the room, and we have
to choose courage over comfort every single time!