No (Wo)man is an Island: Asking a Fish to Climb a Tree By: Marialice Curran

Jrney is honored to be able to feature the third and final post in my #SWU series from Marialice Curran, reminding us all that identity is always evolving. It is the experiences we go through that make us into who we are. But in that process, sometimes our identity becomes stripped down to a label. Labels are harmful, yet we use them to make sense of the world. What if the only label we had was human? 


This post is part of a series in collaboration with F. Margret Atkinson and Bronwyn Joyce. I have literally started and ended every single day with these two extraordinary women for the past year. We have created a space, #SWU (strong women united), where we support, mentor and encourage each other. Although we are separated by geography and time zones, we have created such a safe haven to share our successes, daily wins, frustrations, and failures with each other. I have found that no (wo)man should have to be an island.


The #SWU identification can transcend gender and individuals; it is ultimately a rallying cry for everyone who wants to make a difference in the world, and I invite anyone who needs affirmation or can offer empowerment to join the journey with us. Collectively, our journeys might be on different tracks, but they will become interwoven as we continue to carve out time and space to be truly seen and heard.


Inspired by the John Donne quote and putting my own spin to it, “No (wo)man is an island,” is exactly how I’ve felt the majority of my life. Feeling isolated and misunderstood as a learner, I did not fit the model of a “regular” student and certainly did not feel welcomed in a traditional classroom. But I have found that using my identification can empower me to help others.




When I was in the third grade, I was diagnosed and labeled dyslexic. What an awful word diagnosed is, and being labeled is something that has haunted me the majority of my academic career. Time and time again, this label has tried to define me and limit my opportunities. To compensate, I used the smoke and mirror approach and perfected the art of storytelling, as well as how to be the class clown. This was my secret weapon, my ultimate superpower because it kept my secret safe. But the fact is, I struggled in a traditional classroom.


But, I remember every moment of the sixth grade because Mrs. Lane saw me as extraordinary. Every student should feel this way.  Each of us is a gift to the world. Imagine how different our world would be if we took the time to notice and recognize the talents that we individually bring to the classroom every day. Recognizing the gifts in others empowers the collective to engage in more positive ways, and that’s exactly what Mrs. Lane did for me.


When I was in junior high, I remember hiding in the bathroom because I didn’t want anyone to see me walking down that hallway to that room where only “those” kids went. I cried every day in the seventh grade, and my parents pulled me out of special ed. Although I never had to walk down that hallway to that classroom with those kids again, the label remained. 


As I transitioned from K-12 to college despite opposition, I was still the fish asked to climb the tree, often evaluated in ways that were guaranteed to set me against my greatest strengths. My identification was what empowered me. My K-12 experiences had prepared me to be flexible, adaptable and comfortable in uncomfortable situations; all are ingredients for being a successful risk taker. 


Teaching was never an option when I went to college. I was terrified of the thought of being exposed as a dyslexic teacher--I mean, who would hire a dyslexic teacher? It wasn’t until my senior year that I knew I would apply to graduate school for an M.Ed. and teaching license. During my graduate studies, I never revealed that I was dyslexic nor did I ever seek out any accommodations. I was focused entirely on being the kind of teacher that I needed as a student and was determined that nontraditional learners would never feel that way I did.

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My “label” is something I hide as a learner and as a teacher. But in knowing that my identification empowers me and others, it should come as no surprise that I began my teaching career in a middle school as a sixth-grade teacher, modeling myself around the teachers who saw me as extraordinary. For the most part, I kept my diagnosis hidden unless I saw a student or parents who needed a role model and I’d tell my story to inspire, but I’d quickly go back into the closet, mostly ignoring the fact that I was not a “regular” teacher (which matched that I’m an unconventional learner too).


Upon reflection, my teaching style has always been a facilitator, learning side by side with my class. I taught in a way that I could personalize learning for each student in my classroom. I was never the one-size-fits-all type of teacher. I loved teaching middle school, but in many ways, I still felt isolated in my profession. I began my career in 1993 and didn’t have my first email until 1998, so being a connected educator was not an option for me as a new teacher. 


After five years of teaching, I left the classroom to continue my educational journey. In many ways, the people who said I couldn’t do it or that it wasn’t an option for me, helped fuel me as I continued to pursue my education to the highest possible degree. As a Doctor of Philosophy, I have made it my life’s mission to empower others and personalize learning while amplifying student voice. Since 1993, my entire professional career has been centered on young adolescents. I have been a middle school teacher, middle school principal and was initially hired to build up the middle school program at the graduate level. 


Even in the positions as a middle school principal and associate professor, I felt isolated because I continued to teach as a ‘guide on the side not a sage on the stage.’ I did things differently in higher education and had students hosting twitter chats in class, conducting virtual practicum hours with connected classrooms across the country and around the world, and I asked both my undergraduate and graduate students to create their own assignments and due dates. I never passed out a syllabus on the first day of class, and students were asked to own their learning. Teaching this way might have made me a favorite with students, but it certainly did not make me popular with my colleagues. I felt alone as a faculty member, not because of my label, but because my ‘weaknesses’ had become my greatest strengths. 


It was during my years in higher education that I became a connected teacher educator and when I started to blog as the Dyslexic Professor. Blogging changed everything for me because I found my voice and was no longer ashamed or embarrassed about the label I had so desperately tried to hide for years. Instead, I started to wear it around like a badge of honor. The more I connected with people online, the more I felt I had found what had been missing my entire life. 


After ten years in higher education, I sought out a new adventure and walked away after receiving promotion and tenure. I had reached a point where I no longer wanted to be a part of the privilege; I wanted to continue to be about the change. I also knew it was time to expand my classroom and impact, so two years ago, I launched out as an entrepreneur to found the Digital Citizenship Institute (DCI), and this particular journey, out of all of them has been the most lonely experience. There have been more obstacles, failures, and disappointments and the majority of the time, I feel like a fish being asked to climb a tree. 


Luckily, I have always believed that nothing happens in a vacuum or just by accident, I have reached so many of my goals because of the influence of numerous people in my life. I learned from an early age that determination can change the course of a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a life. It was this quote from a college catalog that has inspired me the most, “Dare to do what you dream, search your heart to know what you most desire to do; then do it, for you can become be perseverance what you long to be.”

By: Marialice B.F.X. Curran

Special thanks to the people who believed in me: I’d like to thank my parents, my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lane, my seventh-grade teachers, Mr. McGrath and Mrs. Cronin, my high school soccer coach, Mr. Mac, my high school English teacher, Mrs. Howard and a student teacher named Ms. Loeb who literally saved me during Latin I. 


Marialice is a pioneer in digital citizenship and  developed and created the first 3-credit digital citizenship course for teachers. She has served as an associate professor, middle school teacher, principal and library media specialist. She is a researcher, keynote, international speaker and TEDxYouth speaker. Connect with her on Twitter @mbfxc