Several ice ages ago, a student asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions for her. Then life happened. The questions just never seemed to be at the top of my long list of things to do, especially since this fall has been filled with medical emergencies. I finally sat down to answer the questions the other day, then realized I was writing a blog in response—and a lengthy one at that. I sent off my replies in the hope that I was not too late, then it occurred to me: Why not work these replies into a blog, then challenge my readers to answer the questions as well? So there you are. Read my replies. You might learn something new. You might see yourself, too. Then post your own answers on Facebook, Tumblr, Medium, or your own blog, and leave a link in the comments below (make sure your Facebook post is public). You could also answer the questions in the comments. For some reason I assumed that the student who needed my help wanted me to focus on ADHD. Considering how long my answers are, I hope I assumed correctly. I’m afraid I’m all in for ADHD at this point. However, you don’t need to limit your own answers to just ADHD. I look forward to reading your responses:
1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I am a person who is continually on the path to self-discovery. It’s not that I don’t know myself, but that I’m constantly finding new things to explore. I suspect that when I finally come to the end of my journey on this earth, I will shout “No, wait! I’m not done yet!” This is the great blessing of ADHD: the world is filled with lovely distractions, and I feel compelled to experience so many of them. That being said, I am determined to leave my mark on the world, so I’m also committed to applying myself to accomplish that goal. That means a little bit less exploration and more time planted in one place—enjoying the moment I am in—and nurturing myself to bring my dreams to fruition. I am, obviously, very bad at that.
2. Can you describe your experience as a student in either elementary or secondary school?
3. What were your most memorable experiences?
Teachers, like most people, either found me entertaining or burdensome. If they appreciated creativity and non-conformity, I was nurtured and encouraged. If they required studious, serious students, I’m afraid we weren’t such a great fit. My worst experience was in second grade. This was a school with student desks so old, they still had inkwells. I was a hyperactive lad, prone to fidgeting in my seat, and my teacher was fond of punishing me by sending me to the library. My mother wondered why I was spending so much time in the library and discovered to her horror that the library was a walk-in closet. It was so small, I remember teachers stepping over me to get to books. The library was where my teacher sent me to get me out of her hair. How fortunate for me that I adored reading!
I also remember a math teacher in high school who was exasperated with my wandering attention, so he would call on me in class to embarrass me. I asked other kids if they thought he was singling me out. I remember the looks on their faces. By the time I was a senior, however, and in my second year with this teacher, I expressed my dismay after class one day at being called out in front of the class so often. I remember being quite indignant, but also terrified. His solution was to stop speaking to me for the rest of the school year. Even as a sixteen year old boy, I wasn’t sure that I had won. That poor relationship will always remain a mystery to me.
4. Were your teachers supportive? If so, how? If not, what could they have done to be more supportive?
My English teacher in my senior year was memorable. I dropped down to a standard class because my schedule couldn’t fit in Honors English. The coursework was very remedial for me, so I became bored quickly. To keep myself entertained, I would make up words for the grammar assignments, and he let me because I squirbled them correctly. When he later taught us how to write an essay using an outline, the experience changed my life. Essays were kryptonite to my (what we called at the time) hyperkinesis. He gave me the tools that helped me organize my thoughts onto paper. I will always be grateful for that.
In contrast, many teachers in high school and college saw me as a troublemaker who needed to be put in his place. They shamed me in front of class, they yelled at me, and they marked my grades down because I didn’t conform, especially if I was tardy. I had more than a few teachers angry with me because I tested well without needing their instruction. Too few teachers saw my quirky mind as an asset, so they played hardball, thinking they were helping me. Eventually, after I became disabled, I dropped out of college to be a stay-at-home dad, discouraged and beaten.
5. What do you believe is the most important thing teachers can do when teaching students with disabilities?
6. What advice do you have for future teachers?
The best advice I offer teachers dealing with kids with learning disabilities, invisible or otherwise, is to stop getting frustrated with square students for not fitting into the circular holes society has prepared for them. Adapt. Be open-minded. Discipline cannot be the only solution you bring to bear on these kids. Structure is important, and ADHD kids certainly need it, but they won’t appreciate you applying structure with a crowbar and hammer. If you take the time to address their unique needs, you will find them blossoming under your care. I know it is more work, but I like to believe that the role of nurturer is a worthwhile pursuit beyond paychecks and test scores.
In all honesty, I was no angel.
My ADHD made school difficult for me and the teachers. I would pace myself poorly, I would lose focus in class, I would miss key assignments, and, infuriatingly, I would test well. I drove teachers crazy. We can take a teacher with good intentions and break them because of our inability to conform. One day, my ninth grade English teacher caught me communicating with my friend across the classroom. We had developed a unique language of eye blinks and tongue movements that we called “The Language of the Lizard People”. It wasn’t an exhaustive lexicon, but communicating simple words with it would bring undue attention. Imagine that. When she caught us at it, she laughed out loud and shook her head, then continued teaching the class. We were embarrassed, but not shamed. I loved her for that, and actually paid more attention in class afterwards. Here she rewarded non-conformity as she often claimed. Then one day she decided to read an essay out loud to the class that she felt was so bad it needed to be made an example of so that its horror would never be repeated by anyone. She stood next to me as she finished reading the essay, drenched in exaggerated, mocking tones, making it obvious who the author was. Here conformity was more important to her than nurturing. She had given up on me. I never respected her again. Everything she presented in class after that was a joke to me, worthy of disdain. I saw her as a hypocrite and an adversary.
Teaching ADHD students has many challenges. It will certainly try your patience. However, students with ADHD are generally bright students who “simply” have a difficult time applying themselves. You could be the key to unlock that potential, not only enriching their education, but also making your time with them easier, and maybe even enjoyable. If you cynically expect them to conform or die, then you’ll flunk them out and be done with them, but you won’t benefit much from the experience. I will always be thankful for the teachers who nurtured my creative sparks and helped me want to learn. My terrible ninth grade essay was later replaced by wonderful twelfth grade essays, all thanks to a teacher who nurtured me. Because of him, I discovered a love for writing in college. You could be the influential one for someone in your life as well.