The Path Forward – Lisa Kutsch

About the Author:

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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Comments

The Path Forward – Lisa Kutsch — 28 Comments

  1. Hello, welcome to the ISAD Conference! I hope you enjoy my contribution to the conference. I’ll be checking back frequently. Please feel free to ask a question or leave a comment.

  2. Hi Lisa,
    What a wonderful contribution. I love that you start off introducing yourself as a person who “st-st-st-stutters.” I can so relate to that, because I used extreme measures to hide my stuttering for 35+ years. When I finally couldn’t take it anymore (and my tricks stopped working all on their own) I had to admit to myself and my world that I stutter, and that I’m not going to outgrow it or overcome it. Living in denial was relatively easy. Coming clean and allowing myself to be my whole self was tougher than I thought.

    I was so far in the covert closet that not even my partner of 20 years knew that I stutter. When I finally “told him,” he was like, “what are you talking about? No you don’t.” That stunned me, as I really wanted validation.

    It also stunned me when I told a few people at work and they said, “Oh, that, yeah, we know. Of course we did.” I thought I had successfully concealed my stuttering self but turns out the joke was on me.

    Oh, what I’ve learned over these last 10 or 12 years since I stopped trying to hide myself. Mostly, I couldn’t believe that I had wasted so many opportunities during those hidden years.

    I wouldn’t go back for a million bucks. What about you? If someone offered you “the pill” to cure your stutter, would you take it?

    P.S. I worked in education for most of my career. Kids were so accepting of me as me, as it helped them to see an adult model imperfection, as we all have that “thing” we wish we didn’t.

    Pam

    • Thank you very much. I think we all sometimes struggle with finding our true authentic self-person who stutters or not. Finding out who you are and then accepting it and even being proud of it are pretty big steps that aren’t easy. I think we all want validation from somewhere and someone to tell us that what we’re doing is right. I’ll admit that I’m still working on this myself. I’ve been thinking about your question on if there was a “pill” to cure stuttering would I take it. I honestly have to admit that I’d be tempted. 35 years of having the goal of fluency is hard to change. I do think it would make me rethink things. For example, I have stage 4 Melanoma Cancer. If I was offered the chance for a cure to the cancer or to have a cure for stuttering, I would take the cure for cancer in a heartbeat. I think it boils down to how much value do you place on fluency. It’s definitely interesting to think about.

  3. Lisa WOW! This part hit home for me: “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.”

    That is so critical to really own it and decide what is your purpose and path going to look like. It was very touching to see the impact you have had on your son especially.

    The question I have for you is did your family put pressure on you to overcome your stutter like they did or was this self-made pressure?

    It is funny how not being able to “overcome” probably has made you an overall better person and allowed you to have a much bigger impact in this world so hopefully you feel that you were actually lucky to not overcome it.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for your comment. I think I’m at the beginning of the journey in starting to explore my purpose and path with paving the road for others. It’s not easy, but each baby step forward is still movement forward. I really sat with your question about family pressure and self-made pressure. I think it may have started with family pressure that evolved into self-made pressure and the need to be accepted and please. I think the expectations that we have for ourselves can drive so many of our thoughts. I’ll admit that I put a tremendous amount of self-made pressure on myself daily and have to remind myself that I can continue to work on other communication competencies besides fluency.

  4. Hi Lisa, I recognize you from the support groups on FB:) Thank you so much for sharing! Your determination and fearlessness is an inspiration to me. Blessings to you!

  5. Hi Lisa, thank you so much for sharing this story. I am taking a Disorders of Communications class. I was wondering what was your greatest motivation in school to overcome the ‘special ED’ stereotype? I read about you seeing the college brochures, do you consider that your ‘I can do this’ moment? How did you feel that stuttering effected you in college?

    Thank you again for this story!

    • I think that teenagers are inherently driven to go against what is told to them and rebel a little. I had some positive encouragement to do so from some family members and friends who were in advanced classes as well. I think I wanted to prove that I was just as good as some of my friends in those courses. In college it was harder to speak up during the 200-500 lectures so I often met professors and TAs outside of class. When I did my student teaching I was asked if I was aware of the challenges I’d face finding a job.

  6. Hi Lisa,
    This paper was beautifully written and your frustration really shown through and frustrated me as people can be so unkind. I love how you stayed persistent and kept pushing through with all the negativity you have faced. “Being your authentic self” can help inspire those around you going through what you went through as a kid and is being silenced because they have a stutter. I don’t doubt you inspire everyone you meet.

    • I think there’s a tendency to turn away from something that is different from what you know and have been exposed to in your experiences. More education and a variety of approaches are the things that will help the stuttering community in the future. I think you have to be authentic to who you are and begin the path of acceptance before you can move forward.

  7. Lisa,
    Wow was your story impactful! I am a current speech language-pathology graduate student and am learning more and more about fluency each day. I enjoyed reading your story, as treatment for fluency is truly a lifelong process in comparison to treating other speech and language disorders. I have heard from others living with a stutter that their thoughts are hard to “turn off.” I gasped when you mentioned writing words on the whiteboard to practice before the next class began. Although you worked so hard and accomplished attaining a teaching position, it’s like your brain was still secretly “working” towards not stuttering. I have not yet worked with a fluency client, so my question is, “What is the biggest thing a clinician can do to establish trust with their client? I have not and never will experience exactly what he or she does daily. I feel many clinicians use the tactic of “relating” with the client to make him or her feel comfortable, but this is not the case especially regarding fluency.

    • Introducing mindfulness and noticing the thoughts you’re having is a great way to open up and begin to be vulnerable. It’s helpful in acknowledging where you are currently at and your goals. I know that even though I was trying to accept being a stuttering I still did “work around aides” to assist in my communication. Would I still have listed those vocabulary words on the wall if I was not a person who stutters, maybe. But I believe that it’s one more thing that helps to communicate the message I want. I think giving a client the space to be themselves and vulnerable. It’s important to put it out there that they don’t have to impress you or have the expectation of fluency by a certain date. Creating a space where there is no failure is important. Journaling and CBT/ACT Therapy is also helpful. There’s an emotional side of stuttering that’s not talked about often and I believe it should be incorporated into any type of speech therapy.

  8. Hi Lisa,

    I am currently an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Speech Language Pathology. It was so inspiring to read about how you advocated for your education in high school and achieved great things as a result. I was wondering, What methods did you use to learn to accept your stutter and find confidence in your speech?

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    • This new environment with Zoom and meetings all day virtually create a unique opportunity where you can see yourself stuttering. After many meetings and presentations you almost become desensitized to how you sound and how you look while stuttering. It’s one of the silver linings. I read a lot of self-help books including Brene Brown, Growth Mindset with Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, there’s many different books that I read as an adult to begin to accept my stuttering. Confidence comes through practice and pushing yourself into new and unfamiliar situations. I also do a lot of journaling with gratitude and mindfulness.

  9. Lisa,
    The fact that you were brave enough to introduce yourself as “a person who st-st-st-stutters” shows your resiliency and courage as an individual. I hope that by you doing this, others on this platform and in the world can acknowledge that they are not alone in stuttering. There are so many ways that we can make others feel welcome, and you have certainly done so. I loved how you mentioned your involvement in advocating for stuttering in your high school career. This is crucial and shows your dedication. Finding a sense of acceptance in lieu of a stutter I am sure is quite, quite difficult.
    Thank you for navigating through your story and sharing it with us!

    • Thank you. I’ve been practicing self-disclosure with my clinicians for the last 6 months and to begin my story with that sentence seemed like such a natural fit. It’s not only accepting it, but owning it and somehow being proud of it. It has not always been this way so it’s a big shift into the unknown. I posted this to my personal social media page with hundreds of friends and colleagues. I don’t talk about my speech often on social media so that in itself was a major step to be raw and authentic.

  10. Wow, Lisa. What an amazing story, and wonderful lessons.

    I am so pleased that you chose to not believe your teachers, counselors and even principals.

    Thank you for teaching us The Way. Your paper is incredibly valuable.

    Hanan

    • Thank you, I believe you learn different lessons on your life journey and I have more lesson to continue to learn.

  11. as someone who is going to school to become a speech language patholgist and aduiologist i complete understand were tou are coming from when you are saying that people made you believe things that arent true i completely understand this because i helped in the special needs room and they did this to the one kid in there and he is doing amazing things now. anyways did you eventually overcome the stuttering if so good for you i am very proud of you !

    • Thank you for your comment. I believe that children draw on both the spoken and unspoken messages they receive and internalize them. Those sometimes become self-beliefs that are constantly reinforced and can be difficult to break. Success does not always equate to being fluent and “overcoming” stuttering. I am a person who stutters and may stutter my entire life. I’ve grown and worked on other skills outside of fluency and that is success. Not everyone will be fluent and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone will speak the same way. I think it’s imperative that we work to shift the narrative from the expectation that you need to “overcome stuttering to be successful” to that of you can be who you are, where you are and still keep growing.

  12. Hi Lisa,
    In today’s society, empowerment of individuals is on the rise. In the media today there is so much negativity. I’m glad to see there are some people taking control of their life and using their experiences to encourage others even. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thank you for sharing! I agree that there’s a movement in society to empower individuals. It seems to take a lot of effort to break out and to change your mindset. It’s a journey that never stops.

  13. Hey Lisa,

    We loved reading about your personal experience living with stuttering and how you grew to accept your stutter as a part of who you are. Your story was so captivating and inspiring to read. Eliza Jane and myself are both currently graduate students at the University of South Carolina earning our master’s in speech language pathology. We were assigned your article to read and as future speech pathologists have a few questions for you.

    How has your personal experience with speech language pathologists and speech therapy been throughout your life?
    Do you believe speech language pathologists put too much pressure/focus on people who stutter to ‘fix’ their stutter?
    Should speech language pathologists focus less on viewing stuttering as a stigma and rather improving overall communication?
    What are some suggestions you have for us as future speech language pathologists who plan to work with both children and adults who stutter?

    Let us know your thoughts. Look forward to hearing from you!

    Best,
    Mackinlee and Eliza Jane

    • Thank you for reading. You asked some great questions.
      I had the traditional therapy starting at age 5 with a SLP where I repeated words and read from children’s books along with sounds. In K-12 I was pulled out for speech therapy in school that also included easy onset, breathing techniques, repeating words on a flashcard, and reading below grade level books out loud. In high school I went to a two week therapy program that focused on breathing techniques and repeated words. I found it frustrating that I could not translate the techniques and practices in the therapy room to everyday life. It didn’t seem authentic.

      Looking back I would encourage therapists to explore more real world situations in the therapy of a person who stutters. For example, actually practice the presentation that you’re going to give in English class, and have the therapist attend the presentation and be a coach. Make small goals on the communication style and not just fluency. I think this is a missed opportunity for there to be more goals and progress made instead of just are you fluent-yes or no.

      I do think that not only do SLPs put a lot of pressure on people who stutter to fix it, but also society as a whole and even other people who stutter. I have people coming up to me often saying they used to stutter as a child and how they were able to “overcome it” by using these techniques. They mean well but it shouldn’t mean that I’m not successful if I’m not fluent. There should be more emphasis on the overall communication than just fluency. The progress made in communication goals will greatly benefit the person who stutters and motivate them to continue working. No one wants to work on something if they never reach a goal. There needs to be attainable goals and steps towards those. Progress also needs to be celebrated.

      I think there’s room for acknowledging the emotional side including often shame and mindfulness techniques with those thoughts and feelings. Becoming desensitized to your stuttering is also a major step. In this virtual learning world seeing yourself on Zoom helps with that desensitization and acceptance. Once you have the emotional piece, desensitizing, acceptance, you begin to even embrace stuttering and advocate for others. I believe that these techniques lead to a better quality of life for people who stutter.

  14. Not holding back on your dreams because of a set back is truly admirable. Providing an inside look to what failure and success looks like with a communication disorder is not commonly talked about. Thank you for sharing this insight. Failure is difficult, but you used those failures to further your passion and reach your dreams. You didn’t let those negative moments stop you in your tracks. Determination and hard work, anything is possible. Being authentically you is the best version of yourself!
    Thank you for sharing.

    • I think we all get knocked down in life. Knowing that you’re not the only one and getting back up if part of the journey. One of the things I’m working on is redefining failure when it comes to my communication and setting goals that are attainable. 100% fluency is not realistic and I’ve put that goal on myself for many years. Letting that go and no focusing on fluency takes time but can be freeing. I guess the biggest thing is that you’re never finished growing.

  15. So happy you didn’t let people decide for you what you can and cannot do, and that you showed everyone, including yourself, that you can do it. I know it’s hard work, and that’s why I admire you even more. I hope your paper will be found by many others, and that it gives them the courage to take that first step to success, like you did. Kudos!

    Stay safe and keep talking

    Anita