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By succeeding with dyslexia, principal shows kids they can, too

Kennedy School principal Todd Goggleye visits Wednesday with Israel Sonara, right, and Cameron Selander in their classroom at Kennedy School. Forum News Service

WILLMAR — Todd Goggleye is proud of the story of a little girl who encouraged a classmate by saying, “Remember, you can be anything you want, just like Mr. Goggleye.”

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The special education students at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar were some of the first to know that Goggleye, their principal, has dyslexia, a learning disability.

Goggleye had kept it to himself for a long time, sharing it only with family and a few close friends. But now, in his mid-40s, he has decided that it’s time to share.

His memory of when he was diagnosed with dyslexia is not clear, because he was just a little kid, but he does remember his struggles in school.

Reading aloud was difficult. He had trouble spelling, and he didn’t want to take his turn writing on the chalkboard in class.

Bullies teased him and called him stupid. He reacted by getting into fights.

His mother would be called to school to talk about his behavior. He still has handwritten notes from those meetings that describe a bright child with a poor self-image who forgot words and would respond to any failure with despair.

Dyslexia can take many forms. In Goggleye’s case, it causes problems with vocabulary, spelling, word recognition and memorization.

“I can write something and think it looks great, but words are missing,” he said in his office recently. He keeps a well-worn dictionary next to his computer keyboard and double- and triple-checks what he writes, yet someone else will catch errors that he simply didn’t see.

“I have to stop and think about things” that might come naturally to someone else, he said.

He doesn’t deal well with distractions, either. At Kennedy he moved from an office next to the school office to a quieter one about 30 feet away.

Most people who know him, including staff members at Kennedy Elementary, have been unaware of Goggleye’s challenges. He has shared that he was bullied as a kid but hasn’t shared the reason.

“I’ve never been open about it,” he said, probably the result of learning to hide it when he was a kid. “It becomes a learned behavior; you adapt and learn not to share.”

Leading a school building and progressing in his career have led him to open up more about it.

“It’s a message to the community that we all have different characteristics,” he said. “I want people to know it’s OK.”

Goggleye takes the lead in urging administrators to attend individual education plan meetings for special education students.

“For me, I think it’s important for all administrators to know the special ed kids in the building,” he said. “I just remember the frustration as a kid, of just not getting it.”

Goggleye said he wants to support the efforts of all the students in the school.

“I want all these kids to succeed,” Goggleye said. “Every kid can succeed.”

Mike Lovestrand, a special education teacher at Kennedy, has been aware of Goggleye’s learning disability since they went to college and played football together.

With the principal’s permission, he has shared Goggleye’s story with his students with learning disabilities. He overheard the student using Goggleye to encourage her classmate.

The handful of students in Lovestrand’s small classroom on a recent morning brightened up when Goggleye walked in and warmed to him instantly.

“There’s a stigma involved” in having a learning disability, and it’s good for his students to know that their principal went through it, too, Lovestrand said.

He said it’s common that kids with dyslexia don’t like to talk about it, so it’s not surprising Goggleye hasn’t told many people.

“Kids with learning disabilities and dyslexia have coping skills that are unbelievable,” he said. Many have highly developed senses of empathy, compassion and creativity.

Lovestrand said he tries to get students to focus on their strengths rather than their perceived weaknesses.

“The challenge is trying to avert the social stigma,” he said.

“There’s a lot these kids can do, and it’s up to the teacher to find that,” Lovestrand said.

Goggleye has spoken to the staff about teachers who gave up on him along the way, Lovestrand said.

It’s important to all kids to have adults who care about them, Lovestrand said, and Goggleye understands that. “I don’t think you can teach an adult to be empathetic on that level.”

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he did not know about Goggleye’s learning disability until a few months ago.

It has not been an issue in his ability to do his job, and it may make him more driven, he said.

“Folks who have that tend to overcompensate,” Kjergaard said. “He works hard at what he does. … He does the job the way I expect him to do the job.”

Goggleye’s understanding of kids with special needs makes him stand out, Kjergaard said.

“I don’t have a learning disability that I know of,” he said. “I can tell kids they can be anything they want to be, but I haven’t lived their life.

“He has a connection I could never have.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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