How I manage my ADHD as a teacher

SET member Jannine Harris, 44, is a special needs teacher at Billing Brook School in Northamptonshire and a MSc Psychology student at the University of Liverpool. She describes the challenges she faced before being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and how she uses it to her advantage as a teacher.

I was only diagnosed with ADHD three years ago, when I was 41. Before this I didn’t realise why I wasn’t coping with my life and why I never got to the point where I could stick with something. I was flighty and inconsistent and I wasn’t able to apply myself for any length of time, so it was only after I was diagnosed I started to understand why this was happening.

I had my eldest daughter when I was very young, but at the age of 21 I managed to get myself onto a degree course in Dance, Drama and English. All things considered I’m proud I managed to complete my degree, and even though I got a 2.2 and felt I was capable of more, I still think I did well because at the time I was a single parent and had undiagnosed ADHD.

My early jobs were everything from waitressing, to working in shops, pubs and offices. I would be working in a role that was supposed to be a permanent, yet I would be out within six weeks. Temping worked really well for me while I was doing my degree because it meant I could be somewhere for a period of time, learn something new, do what I had to do and come away again and go into the next job. 

My first exposure to ADHD 

I never really knew why or understood what it was I was meant to be doing that upset other people, but I really struggle to do things I find boring or pointless. Now, I understand that’s my Achilles heel and that I have to sell everything to myself – that is not an excuse but that’s the way it is. I would say that’s the biggest downfall of people with ADHD – we just can’t do what we don’t see as being important, urgent or interesting. If it’s none of those three things we are really going to struggle to do it.

My first real exposure to ADHD was when my eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of eight. It was much later on when adult services picked up on her having ADHD, but at the time I didn’t believe it because I didn’t think girls got it, nor did I believe it was part of her issues. However, I was proved wrong because the day she started taking medication her life changed. I find that extremely difficult to think about now because I feel like I let her down as I didn’t acknowledge it sooner; however, I’m happy to say that she’s now 25 and is doing really well.

Getting assessed for ASD and ADHD

When it came to my own diagnosis, I was working as a higher level teaching assistant (HTLA) in a special school in Northamptonshire. I arranged a meeting with my head teacher to talk about some concerns I had and she kept saying I needed do my teacher training. I struggled with the idea because I didn’t believe I was could do it, even though deep down I knew I was capable. In the end she said I should go and get assessed for ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and ADHD because she believed that was my main barrier to taking that next step, and so that’s what I did.

When I sat down with my GP I felt extremely emotional because I didn’t think he was going to take me seriously, but that wasn’t the case. Because I was about to start my PGCE my referral was pushed forward and I was diagnosed within four months – usually it takes a lot longer. There was a lot of rigorous testing and I had four different appointments, each about two hours long. Because I’d had some childhood trauma they also wanted to be sure that the issues I was having weren’t a result of that.

When the diagnosis came through I had just started as a PGCE student. Thankfully my mentor was amazing – she sat me down and asked me what it was I wanted and went away and found out more information for herself. I also got myself even more clued up about the condition so I could make sure they would understood how to help me. I was allowed to have extensions without having to ask and I was allowed to leave the room if I needed to – but I never did. For the first time in my life I didn’t use an extension, when I always had done throughout my academic career.

A new acceptance and understanding of myself 

When I did my PGCE it was the first time I can say I really thrived because I’d started to take my medication and I had this acceptance and growing understanding of myself. It also helped that the college were incredibly supportive – if I hadn’t have had those accommodations, I would have really struggled. As a result, the pressure that came from meeting that deadline came from me, rather than from them. This made me feel like I was more in control and meant I was able to meet those deadlines in a way I hadn’t before when they had been enforced by other people.

In my current role my ADHD is used to everyone’s advantage. In my class I have a high proportion of ADHD students, yet I have very good behavioural standards. I believe it’s because just by being myself, a lot of their needs get met and that’s really important in regards to be being a role model.

With regards to literacy, one of the insights that I’ve been able to give is that even though I’m now on my third master’s degree I still don’t put the stages of writing together. This means I don’t think about my handwriting, grammar, punctuation and content all at the same time. Instead I have to do an exercise first where I get all my ideas out of my head, draft and correct that, and apply the tools after that point.

A lot of students in my class can’t do that, and although we do try to encourage students to draft and then write it all up, in practice – and because of the way our society is – we want everything here and now. That can often lead to us not allowing students with, and without, ADHD the skills of being able to do their best and apply one part of what’s required after the other, rather than expecting them all to come together. I cannot do all of those things together even now, yet we are expecting students to. We have to shift those expectations and slow things down if we want to get the best out of our students.

Adults dealing with undiagnosed ADHD

In my experience you don’t often come across teachers who say they have autism or ADHD – and there are also many other teachers who remain undiagnosed. We have support staff who talk about having dyslexia, but people tend to be quiet about it because it’s quite exposing and makes you feel vulnerable. In my case, my ADHD is like the elephant in the room. When I declared it at my interview my head teacher thanked me for doing so, but said that when they had observed my lessons “it was quite apparent”. We laughed about it because she was right, it is undeniable. My level of energy and enthusiasm is extremely high – I am all or nothing and I have to give everything, which can be quite exhausting. My employer has learnt to help me manage that and pace myself so I don’t get exhausted, but I love what I do and I wouldn’t be able to do the job if I didn’t.

If I could look back and give my eighteen year old self some advice I would tell myself that I’m not lazy and not to let anyone tell me that I am. I do care, and I shouldn’t let anyone tell me that I don’t. That my way of being is okay just as it is – it’s just different. I would also urge myself to go and get a diagnosis and some medication, because it makes such a huge difference – not for everyone, but it did for me. I’ve also had counselling in order to break some negative behavioural cycles and that’s really helped.

ADHD is a lifelong condition, so if you have it as a child you will still have it as an adult. It’s all about developing coping strategies – if we can understand ourselves it’s possible to compensate and find ways around it. My ambition for the future is to train as an educational psychologist and specialise in ADHD. I’m on that road and I know it will happen. I already go out and deliver training and I’ve invested quite heavily in being able to make sure that I understand it both subjectively and objectively. Ultimately, I want to be a leading authority on ADHD in the UK.

Jannine Harris runs the ADHD Wise UK Facebook community group, which offers information, support and resources on ADHD in the UK. She has been nominated as a role model for the National Diversity Awards 2018 for speaking out publically and positively about ADHD, as well as giving support to those that need it. Vote for her by visiting the National Diversity Awards website.

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