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Meet the teacher who couldn’t read

John Corcoran took extraordinary measures to keep his secret.

He acted up in class, preferring expulsion to anyone finding out. In college, he recruited some buddies to help him confiscate a professor’s filing cabinet to gain access to tests. He talked the talk of a college-educated professional. He even taught for 17 years in California and had reasonable success with his students.

All the while, he couldn’t read. And he didn’t learn until he was 48 years old.

Corcoran shared his story Thursday with an audience, which included more than a dozen teachers, at the Independence Institute’s new Freedom Embassy building in downtown Denver. (His wife helped keep him on track, and you can hear her voice in the podcast.)

With money made in real estate, Corcoran founded the John Corcoran Foundation, which provides access to phonics-based tutoring services for children and adults who don’t know how to read or are below grade level. It also works with college teacher education programs to make sure new teachers know how to reach all students.

Corcoran has also written books, including The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read and The Bridge to Literacy: No Child or Adult Left Behind.

He said it’s time to banish the term “learning disabled.”

“We are able to learn,” he said. “If I learned to read at 48, I should have been able to learn at 8. I bought into the big lie that something was wrong with my brain.”

Corcoran, who said he has an “oral language processing issue,” said the key lies in instruction. He said we have the knowledge to teach all people to read – but lack the will to make it happen.

“If we teach our children to read, we are going to fill a big hole in America’s soul.”

Corcoran grew up in a literate home with a family who loved him. He slid through the early grades with teachers assuring his parents he’d get it. In the upper grades, he acted up rather than risk getting called on or having anyone find out he still couldn’t read.

”I was a loser by the time I was 8 years old. I was in the dumb row. The dominant language in the schoolhouse is the written word.”

Suspensions and expulsions followed. As he grew older, he got into sports and became a sought-after athlete with charm and social grace. He learned to keep his mouth shut – and to cheat. He dated the valedictorian and hung out with his college-bound peers so he could emulate them.

He was awarded an athletic scholarship and attended the University of Texas at El Paso, then called Texas Western, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and business administration. He ended up teaching for 17 years, relying heavily on guest speakers to fill gaps caused by his hidden illiteracy.

“Nobody enabled me. I was surviving, I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t believe anyone could teach me to read.”

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