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The Teacher Who Couldn't Read: John Corcoran's Story

TeachHUB Interview

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The Teacher Who Couldn't Read: John Corcoran's StoryJohn Corcoran was a teacher with a bachelor's degree in education and business administration. He attended school for 35 years of his life, half of them as a professional educator. He accomplished all this while hiding the fact that he was illiterate.


Learn about John's incredible struggle to read and his dedication to promote literacy in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.

Yours is an incredible story of survival.  What has the experience of being functionally illiterate, learning to read late in life and finally becoming a published author taught you about yourself?

I bought into a big lie in childhood by believing that I could never learn to read or write. My experience as an illiterate who eventually became a published author is living proof that we should never give up on ourselves. If you think something is possible, it probably is. Against all odds, a small part of me never gave up hope that I might someday learn to read. Now my mission is to share hope with little boys and girls, adolescents, and adults who are just like me.

You are now the figurehead for the John Corcoran Foundation, whose mission is to fight illiteracy in children and adults. How does your foundation actively help struggling readers?

The Foundation tutors in Title I schools through Supplemental Educational Services using a highly effective online reading software program and 1-on-1 tutors. We also give free computers and internet access to the families whose children we tutor.

Our goal is to create a learning, reading and technology center in the homes of at-risk youth. In addition, we partner with evidence-based literacy providers across the nation to disseminate effective reading instruction to struggling readers of all ages.

How are you personally involved in the foundation’s fight against illiteracy?

Personally, I am involved in our public awareness campaign as an Educational Entrepreneur and Illiteracy Abolitionist. I share my story, articulate the problem and offer research-based solutions. We have a two-pronged approach to eradicating literacy: advocacy and action. The business piece of the Foundation is like any small business and as President/CEO, I am active in management. The demands of this position keep me very busy!

I have also made an effort to surround myself with colleagues, tutors, and co-workers who are the very best in their field and whose passion for literacy and commitment to teaching all children and adults to read is unparalleled. Currently, my goal is to see the next generation rise up and take ownership of our cause, especially by furthering it with our ever-increasing technological advances.

What drew you to teaching despite the obvious challenges you would face in that profession?

Life is full of mysteries. Why I became a teacher after graduating from college and reading at a second grade level will have to remain one of those life mysteries. There was a series of circumstances leading up to this decision, some of which included my need for a job after graduation and being offered three different teaching jobs because there was a shortage of teachers. I had no plans after college and in my wildest dreams I never thought that I'd be a teacher (or a nationally-known advocate for literacy).

In retrospect, I can speculate that I was attracted to teaching and educational reform. Throughout school, I was always friends with the marginalized which carried into my teaching because I was working with kids who many others did not want to.

TheAfter “coming out,” have you spoken with any previous students? If so, what were their reactions?

Some of my students called or wrote to me. Many of them said that my unorthodox methods in the classroom were now partially explained by the fact that I was illiterate. Every one of my students was positive and supportive of what I was doing. Occasionally, I run into one of my students around town and we embrace. Never have I had a student who was upset or negative. It was wrong of me to have been in the classroom without the necessary skills. Many of my students said I was their favorite teacher or a ‘good teacher,’ but I don't want just good teachers in the classroom. I want excellent, superior teachers in the classroom.

It was much more of a moral dilemma being the teacher who couldn't read than the boy, teenager or even college student who couldn't read. I have apologized publicly for my crimes, sins, and trespasses for the adult decision I made. Sharing my story also invites literates to consider the horrendous impact of not teaching little boys and little girls how to read.

Your ability to adapt and develop skills to survive despite not being able to read was incredible. How did those skills help or hurt you as an educator?

My experience as a non-reader made me very observant; helped me look for solutions to problems outside of the box, as well as developed my crisis management skills. I had a certain confidence that I could look normal on the outside to those around me, but I never did feel normal on the inside.

I love the truth and I love to seek the truth so I always felt like my deceit was tripping me up as an educator. It was a constant obstacle to deal with. I also learned a lot from moving around so much growing up and being the new kid on the playground. I'm very happy to have the skills I acquired to survive and function in society but I don't wish my experience on anyone else.

How has your life changed since you’ve learned how to read?

Adults who cannot read are suspended in the 3rd grade to some degree, emotionally, academically, spiritually, and psychologically. Learning how to read allowed me to address some unfinished business and gave me the opportunity to grow up. To put it another way, learning how to read filled a big hole in my soul and invited me home.

When I could read, the whole world of learning opened up to me. No matter how smart or clever a person is, there's no way to maximize his or her fullest potential without knowing how to read. We learn to read so that we can read to learn.

Was anyone in on your secret? How did it feel to have to tell them you couldn’t read after all those years of working around it?

I did not trust anybody with my secret except my wife. She was the only person who I told before we were married. However, I was a teacher at the time and she thought I meant ‘I didn't like to read’ or that ‘I didn't read much.’ They say love is blind but I learned that it is also deaf.  I never really told her about the emotional trauma or my anger, frustration and sometimes rage of not knowing how to read until after I had learned. She did all the reading and writing throughout our marriage.

Before telling others and sharing my story, I gave it a lot of consideration. The joy of overcoming my lifelong handicap motivated me to speak publicly. Sharing the truth gave me the opportunity to invite others to never give up on themselves and to invite teachers to never give up on us. I want to serve as a reminder that we CAN learn to read, the key to teaching us how to read, write, and spell is proper instruction. Proper instruction comes from properly-trained teachers who were effectively equipped at colleges and universities. 

What advice do you have for teachers who suspect some of their students are hiding illiteracy?

Teachers know when a child or student can’t read. All they have to do is put a book in front of a student and ask him to read it. If the child doesn’t read it, you can assume it is because he or she cannot. The first step would be to administer a diagnostic test, communicate the results in a clear manner to students and parents, and deliver the necessary and proper instruction.

All teachers, K-12, need to be trained as reading teachers. Not teaching a child to read is a form of child neglect and abuse. One of the most important educational, civil, and human rights a child has is the right to receive effective instruction in literacy at school. Teaching a child to read is the most important skill necessary for equal opportunity in the classroom and the workplace.

Now that you can read, what is your favorite book?

Some of the first books that I read were informational, educational books. However, my favorites were the first novels that I read after learning. The first book I actually read was Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger because I knew it was a homework assignment that I had in high school. Not only did I have the satisfaction of completing my homework by reading that book, but it was also the first book that I didn’t want to put down or leave when it was over. Before learning to read, I didn’t understand how you could be drawn into a book and enjoy it so much that you don’t want it to end because you've become a part of it. Another of my favorites was a book I read shortly after, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. I loved the author and the story and I could identify with it. I never understood the statement "the book was better than the movie,” until I was able to read and immerse myself in a book.



John is also being featured in the NPR series Strangers this week.

Learn more about the John Corcoran Foundationand and how to participate in their efforts to promote literacy.

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