Written by Mike Savona
Suzanne Garnett is a talented young educator in the School District of Philadelphia. A teacher of grades 1 and 2 at Roosevelt Elementary in Germantown, Suzanne arrived at her present position by non-traditional means and despite significant obstacles.
Suzanne was born and raised in Northeast Philly to immigrant parents – her mother from Trinidad and her father from Guyana – and grew up the child of a single mom. At a relatively young age, Suzanne learned that she suffered from an auditory processing disorder, a learning disorder that requires her to take longer to process and comprehend information than other students. “It’s a learning difference not a learning disability” Suzanne tells me. This difference shaped Suzanne’s young life and has informed her work as an adult in both positive and negative ways.
As a student, Suzanne found that her learning difference was often misunderstood. Even at home her own grandmother didn’t comprehend or fully appreciate the nature of her auditory processing disorder. As a result, Suzanne faced discrimination both at home and at school because of her learning disability. As she grew and advanced to high school, the negativity and discriminatory attitudes of her peers only became worse. “On a daily basis, I found myself facing bullying and discrimination because of my learning difference” Suzanne tells me, “but more surprising was the racism that went with it.” “As the black child of immigrant parents with a learning disability, I faced a trifecta of discrimination” she says.
Despite the negativity and prejudice she confronted while in school, Suzanne was never deterred. She chose instead to take the negativity and use it as an inspiration to do better. “The negativity actually motivated me” she tells me, “it made me push myself harder to achieve.” Suzanne focused herself on her studies and graduated from high school at Archbishop Ryan in 2014 and finished her Bachelor of Science in rehabilitation and human services at Penn State Abington in 2018. She is presently pursuing her masters in special education at Grand Canyon University. “Because of my own experiences, I have a passion for special education” Suzanne tells me, “we need more advocacy about learning differences because it leads to broader and better understanding about these differences.”
After working a number of jobs, Suzanne accepted a position as an individual aid at a special education school in New Jersey. This led her to a classroom support position in an autistic support program in the School District of Philadelphia, and ultimately to the classroom teacher position she holds currently. Despite the challenges posed by teaching during a pandemic, Suzanne loves the work she is doing. “I really feel connected to my students – I know and understand the challenges they face and I think that helps me to reach them in ways another teacher may not be able to do” she says. “Once the restrictions imposed by the pandemic are lifted, I have plans to engage with my students and their parents in a multitude of ways” she says.
When asked what inspires her to complete her goals, Suzanne is quick to respond. “My mother” she says. “She was a single mother for 12 years and always encouraged me to love myself and to know that it was ok to learn differently.” Both that positive reinforcement and the negative impact of discrimination and prejudice that she faced in school have helped to shape her into the person she is today. “By facing discrimination first-hand, I’ve learned how to respect others and to accept respect when it is offered. I don’t judge anyone” she says.
I ask her what success means and she pauses briefly before responding – “I’m still working on that” she tells me. “I think we all continue to work on being more confident and comfortable with ourselves” she says. “For me, I think success will be measured by my ability to give back and to help little kids learn and grow despite the challenges they face.”
Her drive to engage with people and to foster greater understanding of learning disabilities is the central focus of Suzanne’s future career plans. “I want to start a non-profit that advocates for greater understanding of learning disabilities and other disabilities” she tells me. “I was lucky – I had my mother to speak up for me when I was a student. I want to be there to do that for other kids who aren’t so lucky.” Ultimately, Suzanne would like to establish her own special education school dedicated to working with kids like her and to help them realize that “it’s ok to learn different.”