Inspired by Hannah Wilson of Diverse Educators, we at the Basingstoke Alliance SCITT are on a real journey to have authenticity around the diversity of our trainees. Are we making progress? For sure, having open discussions, celebrating our differences, making sure all our trainees feel valued for who they are and not being defined by their protected characteristics.
Are we there yet? Absolutely not. Whilst in our safe bubble the trainees are openly talking and writing about their lived experiences, yet there still remains a lot of fear. Our openly gay and bisexual trainees do not feel enabled to discuss this within their school communities. And another one of my trainees, recently diagnosed with autism on top of her ADHD, has written a heartfelt article (below) about her struggle of living and fitting into our neurotypical world.
She feels unable to add her name for fear of prospective employers discriminating against her and this saddens me hugely. Please read it, maybe share it with your neurodiverse trainees, or maybe all your trainees, so they can maybe have an insight into the mind of someone who sees the world through a ‘rainbow of vibrant tones and hues’.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” seems to be the phrase most used by myself since starting teacher training. If it isn’t a meeting I’ve missed, a document I’ve forgotten to photocopy or a person I’ve accidentally offended, you could say training to be a teacher would be a lot easier.
That’s the thing with neurodiversity, as it is now called (for years I think I was simply referred to as odd); you have to take the bad with the good really. You will inevitably, and unfortunately, forget, offend and not quite understand elements of everyday life that other people find easier to navigate. Some say it’s a “superpower”. Agreeing outright with this is difficult for me.
My opinion is slightly more nuanced; do I think I’m different? Amazing? Eccentric? Fun? Exciting? Yes. Do I view the world through, not rose-tinted glasses, but through a rainbow of vibrant tones and hues? Yes, most definitely. I see through a filter that is completely unique to me, and so does everyone else, but the neurodiverse in me adds that little sprinkle of “je ne sais quoi” that makes me stand out that little bit more than I sometimes would like.
That said, for all the little particles that make me “me”, there are a plethora of heartbreakingly awful things that accompany that diagnosis. As a child, I was so incredibly that “ADHD kid” in the class that I didn’t learn to read or write for years. Everything was a struggle. I don’t envy my parents, who were incredibly patient. Those extra-curricular English classes for special needs? I went to those. Did I go to the art club? Who has time for that when you can barely sit still in any seat for that matter? Can you imagine that I didn’t sleep through the night until I was five!? I didn’t get an official diagnosis until I was 21, and when I started my training, I decided that I needed that extra bit of help (for my needs), as the struggles I had kept as hidden as I could for years started to crack.
At the end of the consultation with the psychiatrist, I felt as though I had been dealt a sentence; “Yes, your ADHD is quite clear… I would also recommend you look into a diagnosis for ASD too…” I know I shouldn’t have cried after I ended that call, but I did. I liked being the girl with the letters after her name; BA, BA Hons, PGdip, PGCE, MA…but now I felt I could add another reel of letters right after them. I could feel the hot tears roll down my cheeks, and I felt so alone in that moment. Why was I crying? I had known about the ADHD; I had even made my peace with that bubbly and quirky kid, but now I felt that this new possibility was another part of me I hadn’t met. A part of me I hadn’t quite reconciled with. What would be these new hardships? Would people treat me differently? What would the future hold?
That fear of the unknown plagued me for weeks, until I realised that it didn’t change anything. If I was autistic as well, I had always been so. To look to the past isn’t useful if one cannot learn from it.
As a trainee teacher, I walk into that art classroom, and I try to perfect the burgeoning skills that I have been taught every day. That doesn’t make each day a new and surprising one. You wouldn’t know until you have experienced it, that every lesson is in fact, the unknown. You are constantly treading water; but you are living. Sure, you can “know” your students. You could probably pick out the slightly “spicier” ones (as I like to call them), but you will never know what will happen during that one hour. Plan away. Do what I do. Create a scripted and timed lesson. Imagine the questions you will ask and the students you will direct them to… you would be surprised what can make a classroom become a war zone. It could rain? They could have accidentally eaten a chocolate raisin (and who likes chocolate raisins, am I right?) and that could set them off and create the carnage we all fear. Anything can tip a lesson over the edge, but maybe it is the uncertainty that we all like? Maybe it’s making a difference, or maybe it’s doing something different every day? Whatever it is, we have each taken that leap.
As someone who is neuro-divergent, and I come back to my initial point (see how we get distracted?); those difficulties and anxieties that others have, we feel them that much worse. I am not trying to negate that neurotypical people don’t feel the same as we do, but the intensity and the frequency of those fears are on a whole other level. Being different isn’t always a superpower when you are upset or struggling, but when you finally get through the strife and hardships, and you’ve finally made it through that learning curve it will be worth it (and you will, I assure you; it will take longer than other people, and you may offend, be late and all the other stuff you will inevitably do, but you will make it).
That part of you that doesn’t quite match up with everyone else’s idea of normality, is in fact what makes you the role model to that child who, without knowing it, was looking for someone like you to show them the way. You will be that person that they will look to when they need advice. You be that bright rainbow guiding light in their lives. You will add that extra fizzy colour to an otherwise maybe drab day or week. You will be, trust me, far more patient with that SEND student when other teachers may not quite understand or care. You will have that insider knowledge that leads to making breakthroughs that others may not make. You see them, because you have been there.
It takes a long time to perfect your superpower. You must go through an obstacle course of pain, tears and misunderstandings before you feel as though being different is a superpower, but it is worth it. A lot of people say heroes don’t always wear capes. They don’t. Some wear glasses, or have a pocket full of post-it notes with lists of things to do (I do!) My phone is constantly ringing because I have reminders to do absolutely everything; from doing the washing, to creating a PowerPoint. I’ve slowly learnt to adapt, like Darwin’s theory of evolution (and the finches on the Galapagos islands…but that’s probably a story for another time!) and navigating my world. You will to. It just takes time.
It is capital to address these struggles; ours are sometimes far worse and more unbearable, and people who don’t suffer from them can’t always understand it. But being uniquely different makes us part of this wonderfully weird and diverse army. I like being part of this club now. I appreciate what I have gone through, and I try to not make as many excuses for myself anymore. I’ve learnt to apologise, but I have also learnt from those hurdles as well. I am now, in fact, unapologetically me.
As an art teacher, I always think of myself like the Japanese art form of Kintsugi; the term means “golden joinery”, and is the art of repairing broken pottery by mending it with lacquer mixed with gold or silver powder. You can see the cracks, but once they are repaired, they are celebrated. Each chip is a lesson learnt. There is a beauty in imperfection… and who is perfect anyway?
I want to be a reflective teacher, as well as a reflective, diverse and eccentric individual. I’ve made my peace with being different, and so should you. I haven’t quite mastered the perpetual anxiety yet, but it’s a journey. We always ask our pupils to try their best and I am doing the same. Being neurodivergent is a journey, just like life. Be kind to yourself. Breathe, and don’t forget to communicate your needs. You never know who might be listening.