Concealed in the Classroom: My Life as an Educator With ADD
“That child is so ADHD, he should be medicated! What are his parents thinking?” I stood in a colleague’s room listening to this common complaint come spilling out once again. I’ll admit it. I’ve been known to say this out of sheer frustration from time to time. As educators, there are many things we can say about ourselves and one of those things, especially in this day and age, is that we are frustrated. So here I was, listening to my colleague, and once again nodding and agreeing, even though I wanted to hide.
I am a teacher with what I can only describe as “closet ADHD.” In my entire building, I have two colleagues who know I struggle with this learning disability. What they don’t know is that while my husband and I are trying for baby number two, I have chosen to not medicate myself, and this makes my job and life infinitely harder to manage.
On the rare occasion I have an opportunity to speak freely about what life with ADHD is like, I describe it with this analogy: imagine you are holding one hundred balloons, each representing a different task, feeling, emotion or thought. Successfully maintaining your grip on these helium filled balloons equates to success. Unfortunately, your arm gets tired and those balloons start to slip away. The more you desperately grasp for them, the more you accidentally release. Eventually you lose your balance and let them all go… again. Time to start over, again.
In my experience, people associate ADHD with hyperactive boys who can’t sit still, daydreaming girls who slip through the cracks and for those who don’t understand the condition: laziness. Honestly, there is so much more to it that I didn’t experience until I decided to quit taking my medication. My medication helped me manage my life and appear “normal.” The day to day tasks and self-regulation were effortless in comparison. I was the hyper organized teacher with excellent classroom management, an empty inbox, and an anchor chart for every concept. Now, off my medication, I am simply in survival mode. There’s no other way to put it.
As educators we are expected to be so many things: parents, social workers, coaches and cheer leaders. Above all though, we are expected to have all of the answers. We are superhuman and no crack or sign of weakness can ever show. It wouldn’t be “professional.” Wouldn’t you worry just a little bit if you found out your child’s teacher couldn’t focus, had trouble following through on tasks and sometimes lost things? Also, let’s not forget about how we operate as humans: we like to talk about others and speculate without getting the facts. We are all guilty of this in some way, myself included. Do you see where I’m going with this?
So what would I say if I could speak freely about my learning disability? I would say:
Colleagues: I’m sorry I can be awkward. Sometimes my brain goes somewhere else while you’re talking and then I have to try to piece together what you just said. I literally miss chunks of conversation because I don’t hear you. I promise I am not trying to be rude.
Students: I’m sorry I can’t always find your paper when you need it, know where the box of tissues went, or have an extra homework packet for you. I’m doing my best.
Parents: I understand what your child is going through more than you know, and I’ll do everything I can to help them succeed. My disability gives me unique insight into how to help your talented, smart, sensitive and creative child.
Administrators: please don’t judge me as a professional because of my disability. I can succeed just as well as anyone else, I just need to use different strategies and paths to get there. I might show my emotions a bit more than others, but this doesn’t make me unprofessional, it makes me a strong human who can teach our students that it’s OK to feel. Please support me and respect my privacy should I choose to share my struggle with you.
To my fellow educators with disabilities: I see you. I’m right there with you. I know how hard this is. The mental fatigue is heavy, the emotions are intense and you’re exhausted. Sometimes those balloons are the only thing keeping you on your feet and sometimes they are the reason things come crashing down. It’s hard to pick yourself up and keep going. We are teachers though and teachers are tough!
I’m still holding onto my balloons for dear life. I hope that someday educators in my position can let go and step out into the hallway, accepted and supported. Our students should know that disabilities are differences, not defects. I hope one day I’ll be bold enough to teach that lesson.