Lisa Kutsch serves as the K-12 Math Coordinator for Manor Independent School District in Texas. She lives in Austin with her husband and two sons, who are 8 and 11. Lisa earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Mathematics from the University of Texas and UTEACH Teacher Certification. Upon graduation, Lisa taught secondary mathematics for several years in three different Title 1 school districts before moving into district administration. Her experience includes teaching all levels of mathematics from 7th grade to AP Statistics. Lisa earned two Master of Education degrees in Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Concordia University. She is a Melanoma Cancer fighter and survivor. She recently began attending the University of Texas Lang Stuttering Institute in March 2020 and is an active member in the Austin Chapter of the National Stuttering Association.
My name is Lisa Kutsch and I’m a person who st-st-st-stutters. Those words took 35 years to be able to say out loud and begin to accept. I began stuttering at the age of 4 and was placed in speech therapy. My father had stuttered as a child and my younger sister as well. Both were able to “overcome” their stuttering through therapy as children.
During therapy I repeated words and read books again and again but still severely stuttered. My stuttering was a shameful thing for many people. After all if my father and sister were able to overcome it, why couldn’t I? Why wasn’t I working hard enough? This was a very difficult time filled with many family changes including divorce and death of a close family member. There was great emotional upheaval and I found myself blocking and not being able to get sounds out more and more.
I began speech therapy with a private therapist and once in the public school system was slapped with the title of “Special Ed”. With this label came instantaneous pity from many teachers and almost an unwillingness to push me further. In my small Texas town special education students were treated with a certain stigma in the 1980s and 1990s. The stigma of special education was that we were “those students” who were considered to not be capable of doing the school work and were not intelligent, and subpar to everyone else. Failure was expected. There’s tough feelings you face when your teachers, counselors and even principals say to get a job where you don’t have to talk to anyone. “Where you can hide, be mute all day, and don’t need an interpreter.”
The difficult part is that I believed it. I believed that I wasn’t good enough to do what I wanted to. I believed I should be ashamed of who I was as a person who stuttered. I believed that I would always be a failure as a person and not good enough. The result was stumbling through elementary and middle school with mostly Cs in my classes and did not try. I was told I did not have the intellectual capacity to be in honors classes and I should be satisfied with my current classes. Again, I believed them. I believed so much of what was implicitly and explicitly told by so many therapists, teachers, counselors, administrators, and even family members.
As a freshman high school student, I attended a local College Night. Most of the people there were juniors and seniors. As a freshman I navigated around the tables and saw so many possibilities before me. What did I want to do in my life? I fell in love with the brochures with so many prestigious colleges. Was I good enough? Maybe not now but how can I get better? How could I prove people wrong about me and set my own path? I was determined. That was a tipping point for me and a fire was lit.
They were nice colorful brochures, but in order to get anywhere I knew I needed to be better academically and change my beliefs and mindset. What happened was that I started to fight. I insisted on attending all my ARD meetings. I took almost every Pre-AP and AP course offered even when the counselors said I couldn’t handle it and wouldn’t make it. That stigma made me so mad and upset that I wanted to prove them wrong. When I was told over and over that girls, especially a Special Ed girl couldn’t do math or science. That I was not capable of the hard work. I refused to accept these notions and fought against them. When the report card came out and said “AP US History-Modified” along with that same label on all my other classes I immediately demanded that they be taken off. I was not going to receive special treatment. The only accommodation was extra time speaking in all 5 years of French class. This was a class I insisted on taking despite being told I could opt out of a foreign language and modify my graduation plan. Again, I knew I was capable. I wanted to advocate for myself and make sure I was given the same course as everyone else.
Through hard work in high school and advocating for myself I was accepted into the engineering program at one of the top schools in the state. After a few years I changed to mathematics and decided to pursue teaching. When I thought about how much I had to advocate and fight every day during my own schooling to receive an equitable and quality education, I knew that I wanted to go into public education. I wanted to go into education because the public education system had failed me. I wanted to advocate for students and be a role model showing students that anyone can do what they want to do. It took 50 resumes; 12 interviews and one job offer to become a first-year teacher. But I did it. It was painful at times to be told “No” again and again. What it started to teach me was resiliency and the important lesson to keep going. It meant not accepting setbacks and defeat. Nothing was going to stand in my way.
I taught for seven years every subject from 7th Math-AP Statistics at three different Title 1 (High Poverty) schools. During that time, I taught over 1,000 students. The first day of school I always self-disclosed and told my classes that I stuttered but if there’s something they would like repeated I was more than happy to do so. I also wrote a lot of example problems and vocabulary words down on the (overhead/whiteboard). Almost all students were very accepting. The self-disclosure was usually very fast and I was anxious to get it over with each year. I did not bring it up afterwards. As a secondary math teacher, I got into a rhythm of saying the same phrases and material each class period. Each class was better than the one before and I focused on anticipating the words I would stutter on and making sure I wrote those words on the white board. That was a safety net. I had several students come back years later and tell me how much of an impact I had on them, which is so touching for every teacher and makes everything worth it. After 7 years I moved to district administration and worked to help teachers all across the district.
Still I felt the shame and stigma. Every laugh, joke, hung up phone call, and look down was humiliating. I kept battling this shame for several years, some better than others. The need I felt to constantly prove myself as being good enough was difficult. Throughout my journey I’ve tried multiple types of therapy and was open to anything to help “cure” or “overcome my obstacle” of stuttering. I attended a speech institute when I was 18. I felt a great sense of relief and hope that I would “overcome” stuttering and life would be so much better. I dreamed that I’d finally be free and could live my life without stuttering. I found the techniques helpful during the therapy session but it was difficult to apply them in the real world. Over time it lost its effectiveness and my dysfluencies increased. It was a great disappointment to say the least. I realized I couldn’t escape my stuttering. Somehow, I had to embrace it. This was one of the hardest steps that I’ve ever had to do. For 35 years I was told that stuttering was a disability that no one wanted. It was an obstacle to keep you from doing what you wanted to do. It was shameful, made you less of a person, and not worthy. All of these thoughts were constantly in my head and I fought it every day to be free of the burden.
I started at the Lang Stuttering Institute at the University of Texas in March 2020. The very first day there was an activity of giving a speech with a microphone in front of college students walking by. I had the option of watching for my first day but with nervous anticipation I jumped right in. I stood on the steps of the University of Texas tower and spoke about my determination not to let the fear of stuttering hold me back. I spoke about how so many people told me that I couldn’t do something and I did it anyways and how proud I was to become a teacher and then administrator. After the speech I was so empowered and felt relief.
The next week all schools closed with the COVID 19 pandemic. Therapy sessions switched to online sessions. I worked each week with the Lang Institute and focused not on being fluent. Fluency wasn’t the goal. That seemed odd for a long time. I still had the expectation and thought that after speech therapy I should be fluent. But fluency wasn’t the goal. The goal was to be able to communicate effectively. Communicating effectively with maintaining eye contact, using gestures, being authentic, all the things that people who don’t stutter also work on. Each week was a different challenge that pushed me to conquer a fear-doing a presentation, mock interview, speaking to a small group of people then a large group of 200 people. One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do was to learn how to accept that I’m a person who stutters. Once I owned it, I could explore the feelings behind it with mindfulness and find peace and confidence. It’s not easy, but I feel like I’m finally on the right path forward in being okay with who I am as a person who stutters. Sometimes you have to look at your path and purpose. The journey is not easy but it paves the road and inspires others.
In the book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage, Ryan Holiday says “that the object that blocks your path is your way”. Sheer determination pushed me, but acceptance helped me find my path. I’m proud to have some good and some bad days with my speech, and I’m still here. It’s not an easy path, you will fall and have disappointment but then you’ll get back up time and time again. When you’re passionate and determined there is nothing that can stand in your way. Resilience is what keeps you going despite setback after setback. It’s the drive that pushes you to keep continuing your journey.
Why do I share this? Because if it inspires one person then it’s worth it. It’s vulnerable and opens up some deep wounds, yes. But it’s authentic. Last year I was sitting in my son’s own ARD advocating that he be treated and recognized for all of his abilities, not disabilities. My other son who was in 4th grade wrote an essay about how I was his hero, not Spider-Man or Batman, but me. It was truly humbling and touching. He has seen so much of the struggles I face and that’s made him so compassionate. By being here and my authentic self maybe it’ll inspire others to be courageous and take their step forward. Maybe I’ll be a role model, voice, and advocate for the millions of students labeled as Special Ed in our educational system. By teaching more than 1,000 students and interacting with hundreds of teachers I’ve exposed people to what stuttering is and taught them by being me. It’s a ripple. The next time they run into someone who stutters maybe they’ll be more patient, more compassionate, and more understanding because they knew me. That’s my impact and purpose.
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