Editor's Note: This article is being featured on The Huffington Post as part of its Greatest Person of the Day series.
It was the same thing year after year: A small percentage of students in class struggled with reading because of dyslexia.
And there wasn’t much she or any other teacher could do to help.
“I really didn’t feel prepared to teach them,” said Tolson, who was at a school in Fairlawn at the time. “I was curious. I was wanting to help but not feeling trained.”
It wasn’t easy for her to stand by while children struggled to read in her classroom. She knew they’d head off to the next classroom, and then the next grade, and face the same hurdles.
“I felt like I had to do something," she said. "In the nine months that I had them I was responsible to create readers and to make a difference."
The special education director at her school led her to the Orton-Gillingham method (methods are multi-sensory in approach and include tactics like skywriting, writing in sand trays, letter tiles and other manipulatives).
She then took a class at Notre Dame College on Orton-Gillingham, which many educators revere as the most effective in teaching students with dyslexia.
She was hooked.
“I thought, ‘This is my passion. This is what I love to do.’”
INTO THE WORLD OF POLITICS
Tolson now is a certified academic language therapist who works with students reading one to three levels below their current grade level. She's also been a board member with the Northern Ohio Branch of the International Dyslexia Association for nearly 10 years.
When the association’s legislative committee challenged board members to meet with legislators, she took the challenge. She met with Ohio Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Jackson Township) inside a coffee shop about two years ago and shared with him her knowledge of dyslexia and the challenges it creates within schools.
She told him about the workshops she taught through the Stark County Educational Service Center and how receptive local teachers were to the problem of dyslexia.
“Teachers wanted to learn, and they were hungry for it,” she said.
It was after their talk that the idea for was born. The bill encourages Ohio's Educational Service Centers to hire dyslexia specialists to provide training for K-4 teachers to help them work with dyslexic children.
Tolson and Schuring worked side by side the past two years in advocating for the bill, which Schuring said may be difficult to pass because of the poor economy. He assured her that he would help her write a bill that could and would become a law.
“I went into the meeting feeling like I was going to teach him something,” Tolson said. “But he taught me something. He taught me how politics work.”
Schuring said he was impressed with Tolson’s deep passion for helping children with dyslexia and her dedication to a worthwhile cause.
“Rebecca was tireless in her efforts to help me get the legislation through the General Assembly. It was a true pleasure to work with her, and I am very happy that she has received this recognition for her hard work.”
BECOMING A LAW
Their hard work led to the June 22.
It then headed to the Ohio Senate, with a vote of 90-1. The bill will go into effect shortly after being signed.
Tolson had talked with North Canton Patch after the victory, saying legislators supported the bill because of emotional testimony from doctors, neurologists, licensed psychologists, language therapists such as herself, and parents.
Sue Boettler of Canton, who , testified over the past year. (You can see a letter she had sent to legislators in the PDFs section of this update.)
Boettler was able to give an account of the struggles her son faced in school because of his dyslexia. Her words reaffirmed just how important House Bill 157 was to students across Ohio.
"It’s a tough issue with my son. The schools weren’t prepared to recognize his disability and basically he was missed. He didn’t start getting tutoring until he was 16, and he should have had it at a much younger age."
She commended Tolson on her energy level, commitment and ability to follow through with a goal.
"The world needs more Rebecca Tolsons. She’s the kind of person who decides to make a difference and is doing it.
This is legislation that’s been needed for 30 years.”
'ONE SMALL PERSON'
About being named North Canton Patch's Person of the Year, Tolson said she was shocked at the community's support and humbled that so many people value her and the work she does.
"I’m humbled there’s that many people out there who feel that what I do makes a difference," she said.
“I feel like I’m just one small person among many fabulous teachers out there. ... It was just that simple meeting that drove us into writing a bill and creating something new across the state.”
Rebecca Tolson featured on North Canton Patch:
— A "The Growth Chart" parenting column in wich Rebecca, husband Todd and son Robert, a cross country runner, were featured. Tolson said she's preparing for her "next big challenge in my life" — the Boston Marathon on April 16. She qualified in October 2010 with a time of 3 hours and 46 minutes and is looking forward to the discipline, training and experience involved.