Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read

By Owen M. Griffith

The Inspiring Story of John Corcoran – the Teacher Who Couldn’t Read

illiterateRecently, I heard a captivating story about a teacher who could not read. John Corcoran went through life without being able to read. Surprisingly, he graduated high school and college while he was functionally illiterate. He even taught high school social studies for 17 years and was a successful teacher. This headline could be another sensational story about “How awful our education system has become.” But, this is not a negative story; it is an empowering story of triumph of a man confronting and conquering his deepest, darkest secret to help himself and others.

John was doing okay in school until the 4th grade. This was the 1950’s and unfortunately, the diagnostic tools were not what they are today. Thus, his reading disability went undiagnosed and he started failing in school. At first, like so many students, he let his frustration come out by acting out and getting in trouble. Then, in the 5th grade, he saw how upset he made his parents and he decided he did not want to hurt them anymore. He knew he could figure out another way to get by. But, he didn’t see any help with his problem, so he decided to fake it and cheat. He was popular and street smart, so he got through elementary school relatively easily. Then, in high school, he became a star athlete and had his friends help him graduate without much trouble.

An athletic scholarship got Corcoran into college, but he had to be more creative to survive in college. Recounting one story from his fraternity days, he said it would be a funny prank to steal the filing cabinet out of a professor’s office. His fraternity brothers agreed and helped him smuggle the filing cabinet out of the professors office. He copied all the tests before they returned the filing cabinet undetected so he could pass the class. As I heard this story, I kept thinking that he has to get caught, but he doesn’t. He worked harder than the average student to pass classes and also to hide this secret that he was carrying around, that he could not read. The most outrageous feat of cheating was when he actually handed a test out the window to a friend. Somehow, he went undetected and graduated.

  Then, he decided to become a teacher. The question I had at this point in the story is, “Why did he seek a job as a teacher after all the stress and dishonesty to get by in school?” Well, he said this was in the 1960’s and teacher jobs were abundant and easy to get. He knew he would not be able to go into a company and fill out even a basic job application. So, he got a job as a high school social studies teacher. The first thing he did in the classroom was to identify a couple of students to help him. He had them read the morning bulletin from the first day on, even though the blurb at the bottom said, “Please do not let a student read this bulletin.” This became a running joke in his class as the student read this every morning.

Then, Mr. Corcoran set up his classroom as a discussion and debating class, where textbooks and traditional tests were never used. John was a dynamic and charismatic teacher. The students and administration loved him. He always got stellar reviews and had a good reputation as a teacher. I need to stop here for a side note…that he exemplifies how we teachers need to utilize our strengths in the classroom. However, Mr. Corcoran took this to the extreme by using his strengths to cover up his inability to read.

At this point, a sad and ironic situation manifested itself as Corcoran attempted to help the “troubled” high school students who were at risk of dropping out. He connected with the students and felt he could help them, until he saw that what they really need is someone who can teach them how to read and tragically, he couldn’t help. It broke his heart to realize he was not able to help these students with what they need most. But, even here, he kept up the charade and tried to help where he can.

At a faculty meeting, he got a scare when the principal almost asigned Corcoran to come up and take notes on the board for the meeting. Quickly, he planmed to fake a heart attack as he walked up to the board to save him from being caught. But, the person in front of him jumped up to take the notes, so he was once again off the hook.

For 17 years, John Corcoran taught high school social studies. The questions I kept asking as I delved more into this story were: “How did he get caught?” and “How does he come clean?” He did get married and have a daughter. When he “read” her bedtime stories, he would hold the book, turn pages and paraphrase the story, giving his own version. One night, unexpectedly, his daughter insisted he read a story he did not know. As he was making up a story, his wife walked by the room and heard what he was saying. She knew the story and realized he was not reading the story. They had a discussion and he admitted that he could not read.

So, John came clean with his wife. Then, it took all the courage he had to the public library to sign up for an adult literacy class. By this time, a nationwide adult literacy program was advertised and had made this possible. Mr. Corcoran left the classroom and became a real estate agent. He learned how to read, but that is not the end. He took his greatest secret and turned it into his greatest asset. (This was extremely difficult but he reminded himself that this would help others who suffer the way he had suffered, in fear and shame. John knows his story can powerful and can help reach some of the estimated 7-17% of our adult population that is functionally illiterate.) He wrote a book about his experience and his life. Corcoran started a foundation to help bring the issue of illiteracy to the public and to enable people to profoundly change their lives.

You may visit The John Corcoran Foundation at

As a post script, I wanted to interject my experience with teaching in a literacy program. When I was getting ready to be a teacher, I volunteered at the Literacy Council in the town I lived. I taught for a year and absolutely loved it. I would come out after teaching a session and feel like I was walking on air. Seeing these people who had the courage to learn to read and take the extra time and effort to improve their lives was incredible inspiring and encouraging.

So, I make a call out to teachers to everyone to volunteer at their local literacy centers. It doesn’t take much time, just a little training and a commitment of a couple hours a week. Become part of the solution and make yourself feel really good.
Corcoran, JohnQuote from John Corcoran (pictured at left):

“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.” His book is here. Video here.

About the author

Owen Griffith is a 4th Grade Teacher and Guitar Instructor in Northern Georgia, where he lives with his wife and son. He enjoys bicycling, reading, yoga and the outdoors. He leads professional development courses in a variety of areas. Visit his blog at:



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This entry was posted on Friday, August 1st, 2014 and is filed under *ISSUES, August 2014, Owen M. Griffith. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Teachers.Net Gazette Vol.11 No.8 August 2014

Harry & Rosemary Wong
Effective Teaching
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