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A teacher’s journey to an ADHD diagnosis

By an anonymous teacher


I have ADHD. I am a teacher. I am a man. A husband. A father. A runner. I am many things, but I don’t let any one of my identities control me entirely; I allow them to exist and to inform different parts of who I am.


During my bachelor of education program, I failed my first teaching practicum. I was told two weeks before the end of my 16-week practicum that I might fail, which of course was against the policy. I was told, “We don’t know exactly what it is. We think you’ll be a good teacher, but we just think you need more time.”


I had a teaching job lined up but was not able to start because of my failed practicum. Instead, I spent that year cutting lawns and using the food bank while my wife was growing our second child. It was difficult.


That failure was really hard to understand because the assessment wasn’t clear, and I was able to get students to respond to what I was doing during my practicum. I had also recently and successfully completed a master’s degree on a full scholarship.


I succeeded on my second attempt at my practicum. With my degree in hand, I began teaching in a small town in BC, and it was great. Parents and students alike enjoyed the work I was doing and the activities we did.


When I moved to a different school in the district, I had a parent complain to district leadership about my teaching practice. I was flabbergasted. In a fairly short period of time I had gone from being well liked in town to being accused of not doing my job.


My teaching was evaluated, and I failed—twice. I see now that those evaluations were accurate, and they were specific about feedback. I didn’t understand the feedback though because I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with ADHD.


I conflated being a well-liked teacher with doing my job proficiently. Part of the challenge was working with administrators who liked what I did in one location, and then later working with administrators who were concerned about a part of my work. I am grateful for the learning that came from the administrators I worked with, but the changing expectations were hard to understand, especially with undiagnosed ADHD.

I am so thankful for the difficult process that led to my diagnosis and now successful teaching practice.

ADHD is strange because it creates selective blind spots. When I was young, I didn’t realize that people started businesses. What a strange thought. I didn’t ever think about how a business would begin. I didn’t realize that people would go to law school, or that there was a process for getting into law school. The same thing lived in my mind for becoming a plumber. A big empty space that I had never even thought about, or knew that I could think about.


The same blind spot extends to planning. ADHD is a dopamine deficiency, which causes problems for perceiving time. I was not just bad at planning, I didn’t understand why anyone would need to plan things. Finances, vacations, curriculum and assessment, training for a marathon: these are things that can be planned or mapped out in advance. I didn’t recognize the role planning had in supporting kids because I was achieving good results without focusing on it at my first school. So, not only could I not tell you what I would be teaching in February when it was September, I would be incredulous that you would even ask me the question, because I wouldn’t know how fast the students would learn.


Since I started taking medicine for ADHD, I am able to understand a. the existence of planning, and b. the importance of planning for both myself and the students. It may sound weird, but I am so grateful to understand this now. I keep thinking, “Wait, this is how ‘normal’ people think?”


I also struggled with assessment before my ADHD diagnosis because I was focused on the idea that data-driven assessment is impossible. In my mind, I estimated there would be one million data points in any one class, which is unreasonable for any person to collect, so why bother? For example, in a music class with 40 kids, playing two notes per second, for 40 minutes, assessed five different ways (length, pitch, tuning, articulation, intonation) there would be 960,000 data points to collect (40x2x60x40x5 = 960,000). I now understand that we can grade based on a small slice of ability that is foundational for all other skills. But I didn’t know that existed or was necessary, nor was I motivated to collect data in the way my admin thought was necessary because I was focused on the knowledge that it was impossible.


So, I struggled and failed. The union and the district supported me through a diagnosis, which changed my entire perspective and method of teaching. My friends laughed and said that they had known for years I had ADHD. I was baffled because I suspected that ADHD wasn’t that real.


I was given some time to get used to the medicine, and I passed my third evaluation with my superintendent with flying colours. She was very sweet and asked, “Why am I even here?” For those who don’t know: a third evaluation has to be done by the superintendent because if it’s a failure, there’s a lot at stake, including a possible loss of your teaching licence, so they want to make sure it’s done right. She came in without prior knowledge of my story. By that time, I was connecting the beginning of lessons to the middle, reviewing well, planning well, and assessing carefully.

Now, I can help colleagues go through difficulty, and hopefully I can empathize with students and teachers as they navigate working together from different viewpoints. 

I am so thankful for the difficult process that led to my diagnosis and now successful teaching practice. It was awful and stressful; I was shocked every time I failed. The worst part was not being able to share parts of the process with students, especially because they were enjoying learning in my classes during the failures. Parents seemed happy with what was happening in my class. I was even gifted mugs and coffee shop gift cards at Christmas, which is not as common in older grades. So, my failure was happening while parents and students gave me positive feedback. That made it harder to understand. But I am thankful.


Now, I can help colleagues go through difficulty, and hopefully I can empathize with students and teachers as they navigate working together from different viewpoints.


The stigma about neurodivergence and mental health isn’t something I notice, because I am so socially motivated and outgoing, so I am happy to share my struggles. That said, since starting medicine for ADHD, I have become a lot more careful about listening or taking the temperature of the room to see if my stories are wanted.


ADHD does not define my identity in my life outside or inside the classroom. However, getting a diagnosis, being supported in learning about the ways it affects my perception of the world, and taking medication for it, have helped me thrive in my role as a teacher. Now, my experience is a strength when I work with neurodivergent students who I can see need the supports I needed. I am one example of how important diagnosis and support can be for neurodivergent people to adapt to a world designed for neurotypical brains.


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