Eastern Montana College alumna TerraBeth Jochems knows the effects of dyslexia can extend well beyond the classroom. Her mission is to help students overcome these obstacles and achieve their dreams.
“If I never do anything the rest of my entire life, I know I was successful at that one thing,” she said.
As a certified Barton tutor at 3H Tutoring in Billings, Jochems works with children and adults who struggle with language-based learning disabilities. She believes reading is a right for everyone, and that students with dyslexia are no exception. This belief has fueled her long career in education and continued work with students after retiring in 2016.
A new direction
As a Billings Senior High School graduate, Jochems decided to become a journalist. She attended the University of Montana, hoping to pursue a career writing about social issues and poverty. She was certain that career would take her to Bangladesh.
Things didn’t exactly go as planned.
When her mother became ill, Jochems returned home to Billings. She attended Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings) in the English program, and her instructors quickly recognized her patience and concise writing. One instructor recommended she pursue education.
“He said, ‘You’ll be able to explain writing to kids,’” Jochems recalls. “I truly believe teaching was the direction all my instructors were pushing me in.”
Her instructors did more than encourage her – they inspired her. Jochems remembers each of them fondly.
“I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but I was afraid to because I was dyslexic,” she said.
Jochems had been diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. It was her own experience and the encouragement she received that made her shift direction toward a teaching degree with a reading endorsement.
After Jochems earned her bachelor’s degree in 1984, she volunteered at Garfield Elementary as a reading tutor. Working her way up to a full-time teaching position, she returned to her roots at Billings Senior High School when the elementary school closed its doors. While teaching there, she had an epiphany.
“You cannot teach reading without teaching spelling rules,” Jochems said.
She began using American Sign Language, along with spelling rules and the sounds of the English language, to teach reading in a different way. This intensive phonics-based approach was especially helpful to students with language-based learning disabilities. According to the International Dyslexia Association, these disabilities affect an estimated 15-20 percent of the population and cause difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.
Jochems saw an opportunity to reach children who might be teased or drop out of school.
“Every chance I could get, I was working with kids,” she said.
Spread the word
Jochems has successfully helped hundreds of students learn to read and write. Even in retirement, she continues to work with children and adults with learning disabilities. Her youngest student is in first grade, and she is teaching a 33-year-old adult to read.
Jochems wants people to learn to recognize dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities, and come together as an informed community to help students. As she looks back on her career aspirations for Bangladesh and her journey to date, she has a message for current students:
“Don’t close yourself off to new ideas about where you think your life is going to go. Be open to new possibilities of what you can become, stick it out, and believe your instructors care about you.”