My wife, Risa, has been an educational therapist for four decades. She pushes her students to develop a positive mindset about their ability to learn. She helps them to develop persistence. She helps them find a sense of joy in learning.
It is a really hard job. She does her work in an office in our home, working one on one with students, so I’ve had more than a peek at her work through the years. I’ve seen her agonize over kids who struggle with brains and bodies that do not want to allow them to conform with the rules of school. I’ve heard her talk about advocating for students in meeting after meeting with administrators, some of whom were rigid or were slaves to dumb rules not made for students who are wired differently from most other kids. I’ve seen kids who have been handicapped by well meaning parents who help them avoid tough challenges because the parents so desperately want their children to be successful.
Often, by the time parents bring their children to Risa, a lot of bad things have happened to them in school. Kids are often failing, ditching, depressed, mocked or feeling absolutely miserable about school.
She used to say that she was in the “make school easier business,” but she has given up that slogan because it makes her sound like a tutor, not an educational therapist who pays as much attention to the psyche as the algebra. Risa is not just somebody trying to boost a “C” to a “B”.
Dealing with kids one on one is intense work. Risa develops a unique plan for each student with an understanding of their learning styles and strengths. About 10 years ago she had a student who was highly dyslexic and despised organized school. He felt like a failure in the classroom but was a gifted mechanic in his part time job. The young man dropped out of high school, but with the help of his family and Risa began an aggressive program to develop the math and reading skills which would enable him to grow into a highly valued employee in the family’s auto repair business.
Another student that Risa had a few years ago was about to be asked to leave an elite Chicago private school because he was extremely disorganized and could never hand in his homework on time. She helped him with organizational problems and aided him in learning how to manage his medication. He not only got his act together to go to college, but is now finishing Med School with an attainable goal of being a researcher.
Not all of Risa’s students reached their potential. One student that Risa loved deeply died of a horrible genetic disease at 14. Her issues were not classic learning problems, but trying to have a semblance of normality in her school life when her body was so out of control. Risa is emotionally involved with most of her students but none more so than with that loving child.
Sometimes former students come back when facing a special challenge. One young man with learning issues that had dogged him throughout his school career decided to join the Marine Corps. To be accepted, he needed to pass a minimum reading and math competency test, which he accomplished with Risa’s special assistance.
Because she often sees students for many years, sometimes over a decade, Risa develops close personal relationships with the kids and their families. She is Facebook friends with many former students today, including one who earned a PhD in English and another who has pursued an acting career and performed on national TV.
The term educational therapist also applies to the therapeutic work she does with parents who are often confused and depressed about the academic and personal struggles of their children. Risa spends a significant amount of her time counseling parents.
She has colleagues around the country to consult with, but today one of her closest consultants is our son Ari Graff, who has indirectly gone into her field as a neuropsychologist, specializing in testing people with learning issues. Risa and Ari often refer to one another, though their practices are not formally connected. They often lapse into talking shop at family gatherings, similar to how Noah and I sometimes discuss the machinery business.
In recent years, the terms ADD and ADHD have slipped into the common speech of school parents. Parents often come to Risa with more knowledge of their children’s learning problems than they might have had 25 years ago. But parents rarely understand that such issues will be lifelong companions for their kids, and that it may take a long time to understand the problems and learn how to deal with them at different stages in their children’s lives.
Risa and I have been partners through her 40 years of practice, and I have been a sounding board for her like she has been for me on business issues. She is circumspect about individual cases, but with her office in our home, I have had a chance to see her students develop over the years.
Her career has turned out to be an education for me.
Question: Was school a bad experience for you? Why?