One of my high school students quietly suffered through most of last year. She missed deadlines, didn’t know where to begin projects, and emailed at midnight before a big presentation apologizing that she just realized she needed help. During class, she loved personally connecting with me. When she wasn’t dilly dallying around the room, she could be found standing up during inappropriate times to make comments, looking at her phone, or working on her next class.
It would have been easy to roll my eyes, ignore her, or lower my standards. Instead, I purposefully channeled her curiosity and distractibility into my lessons. While maintaining an open line of communication, she slowly but surely rose to the high standards I set for her while still remaining spontaneous, random, and unable to conform. Did she turn in all of her assignments? No. Did she shine in class and could I test her learning in new, and creative ways? Absolutely.
Somewhere along the way, students like this girl with ADHD lose their confidence because they have to work twice as hard and are acutely aware of their shortcomings. Why can’t I just be like everyone else? Why am I dumb? Why does everyone else seem to be able to do this? Why am I getting in trouble? I must be a bad student if I can’t even do this one thing on time.
Feedback can make or break a student with ADHD. If most of your time is spent just trying to fit in and perform in academia, grades become intertwined with ego. If you fail, you’re a failure; if you succeed, you have purpose and meaning. It’s extremely frustrating to not be able to “do life” efficiently, and it wears away on even the strongest of hearts with the most support.
It took me three decades to learn that nothing is all good or all bad; there is always a dialectic: I can be distracted and unable to resist my urges in class AND I can be an engaged participant. I am frustrated with my inability to work tonight AND I can get an extension and plot out time to do it this weekend.
I remember the first time I got reprimanded in middle school. The teacher said I was playing with the stapler too much and sent me across the hall to sit in a room alone. In elementary school I only cried once (I prided myself on being tough) — when I lost the $20 my mom gave me for the book fair between home and school. Young kids who are perceived as femme are supposed to be respectful, quiet, and still. I was wild, loved wrestling, and struggled on days when recess was cancelled.
I graduated college with a double major in biology and Spanish, plus a double minor. On paper, I looked great. In real life, I probably forgot to set an alarm, ran to the bus with oatmeal spilling out of a mug, cranked out a 1-page paper 15 minutes before class in the nearest computer lab, actively participated during class, and then took a nap because there was nothing else left of me to give. It got so bad senior year that I quit the job I loved, which meant no income for a semester. Functioning on my own without the structure of high school or my family to motivate me became a daily battle. Even things like showering and eating became a burden that required organization skills I didn’t have. I started isolating myself to protect myself from letting down my friends.
Around that time, my Ethics professor asked me what was eating away at my insides. It is not easy to open up, but when you have ADHD, once you trust someone the openness is a river you can’t stop because
- You are impulsive AF and
- You don’t know when to stop and start and it’s all just one messy blob with no rhyme nor reason.
I used to punish myself for my inability to filter, but now I practice self-compassion by saying things like, “Of course I’m this way because I bottled up my pain as a kid.” Not only did we become life-long friends, but that Ethics professor flipped how I saw myself: I used to be a failure raging against a system that I had been fighting my entire life. Over time, I saw myself as capable and creative with the potential to thrive. My professor’s validation and care helped me believe in myself, but I only went to therapy twice and devoted all of my energy to completing daily tasks that felt monumental, so I didn’t change much. I came out of the closet, which was amazing yet tricky, and I graduated but I still didn’t take my needs as a human soul seriously. I didn’t have the tools or the time to invest in this endeavor.
Instead, I forged ahead, ignored my woes, and gave 110% to my teaching job. I was nominated by students to give graduation speeches, directed bands, coached soccer, and pushed my students to think critically in the classroom. I pride myself on reading a classroom and my students’ slightest changes in emotion. It’s exhausting but simultaneously thrilling to build connections and push my students to increase their self-awareness, their proficiency in a language, and their intercultural communicative competence.
For a long time, I would teach all day, coach in the afternoons, take a one-hour nap, and then go back to school at night to catch up on all the things I couldn’t do earlier. Piles of unorganized papers filled my car and sloshed around every time I turned, mountains of anxiety made me nauseous every morning, and post-work migraines coincided with a self-hatred over my inability to produce anything of meaning after work.
Imagine never being able to concentrate, to plan one day ahead, to complete ONE TASK like folding laundry. Imagine regularly running out of gas because you forgot you were on empty and teaching 90+ students in survival mode every. damn. day. This is still my reality. Most of my energy is spent just getting from point A to point B ignoring detours. My grading is a nightmare and I am only motivated when conferences come around or when a parent emails me and lights the fire. I’m a great teacher, which hides my inability to function outside of the classroom. BUT, still, I think I’m a bad teacher because I’ve programmed myself to see my failures as a reflection of myself instead of a facet that needs attention.
Life isn’t easy with ADHD, but it’s do-able. And my do-able means asking for help a lot, setting my alarm for meetings, and hooking my wallet to my keys to my phone (the bigger the bundle, the harder it is to lose!) I’m in graduate school now and doing well because I know I’ll make mistakes and I refuse to beat myself up when I fall short of my own high expectations. When I expect slip ups, I find that I am gentler with myself and come up with contingency plans for when my mistakes hit the fan. They hit the fan daily and I still struggle to concentrate for more than 10 minutes on anything, but at least I now understand that this is who I am, and nothing is wrong with that. I’ve been beating myself up my whole life and now I have to actively love myself — and it’s so hard.
Can I myself hold a deadline and grade things on time? No. Can I be a teacher who shows up every day and delivers? Yes. Switching from ‘I had a bad day’ to ‘I had some challenges today and that is natural’ is all a matter of perspective. My student with ADHD who has layers of self-doubt could easily be a weed growing out of concrete… or she could be a persistent perennial flower looking to bloom in an unlikely place. The difference is perspective. A shift of mind and a little understanding and support from teachers and colleagues goes a long way.
Equity in the classroom starts with awareness. Students and teachers with ADHD will not easily fly under the radar; they will seek your attention daily with their hyper thoughts, actions, and need for connection. Instead of constantly apologizing for being me, I am working toward feeling pride in who I am and sharing that with others. Cheers to my fellow perennials – may you keep on growing strong and loosening the soil of academia!
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Updated on July 16, 2020
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