For the last several years I worked as a public elementary school teacher. To say that the job was a challenge for me is an extreme understatement. While I loved my students and the profoundly satisfying feeling of making a difference through the personal relationships I developed with them, I have a hard time imagining a job I am worse suited for. The only reason I made it as long as I did as an elementary teacher is I made the decision to come out as ADHD at work. I had the good fortune of having fantastic colleagues who supported me in overcoming some of my weaknesses for the benefit of our students.
The challenges began on Day 1, before my students even entered the classroom. Somehow I had to figure out how to decorate a small, windowless, bare room and arrange all the furniture within it in order to create a warm and welcoming learning environment for 32 10-year-olds. My visual-spacial deficits made this a monumental obstacle for me.
Then there was paperwork management, an organizational nightmare for the ADHD teacher. I was constantly misplacing stacks of my students’ work or the worksheets or lesson plans that I printed just moments before. I couldn’t find the remote control for the smart board. I couldn’t find a dry erase marker. I couldn’t find Noel, whom I had forgotten I had just given permission to go to the bathroom. Often times, I felt as though I couldn’t find my own damn mind.
Furthermore, one of the most important roles of an elementary school teacher is establishing and maintaining consistent routines for their students. Scheduling, grouping, and transitioning students all require an incredible attention to detail from the teacher, who is responsible for guiding each and every action taken within his or her classroom. I had to make split second decisions, hundreds of times a day, with 32 pairs of eyes upon me, some of which belonged to students far too ready to take advantage of any decision that was poorly thought out.
On a scale from 1-10, my average state of overwhelm as an elementary school teacher lingered somewhere around 97.
Coming Out to My Co-Teachers
I taught at a school that utilized the co-teaching model. This meant that most of the time I was one of two teachers in the classroom. At first, this was intimidating to me. I didn’t want to be exposed to my colleagues for the disorganized, inept teacher I often felt I was. However, within the first few weeks of my first year of teaching, I realized there was no hiding. If I was to survive the year, I’d have to be willing to ask for and receive help from my co-teachers.
The thing about coming out as ADHD in the workplace is that your colleagues already know your deficits. They know if you’re disorganized. They know if you procrastinate. And they know if you have a hard time managing your impulsivity in staff meetings. What they don’t necessarily know, though, is 1.) that those are symptoms of your ADHD rather than your poor character, and 2.) that YOU too are well aware of your deficits and are willing to receive support to address them.
When I shared my diagnosis with my colleagues, it had the effect of opening up the lines of communication between us and improving the level of trust we shared. I no longer felt I had to (unsuccessfully) hide my challenges. Instead, I could tell my co-teacher “this is one of those things that’s really hard for me because of my ADHD” and we could divide the workload in the way that made sense given my strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, while my colleagues were already very forgiving in nature, I suspect that the added insight into my neurobiology resulted in them treating me with extra patience and generosity, resulting in less guilt and shame on my end.
This is not to say that coming out to my colleagues solved all my challenges in the workplace. At the end of the day, I simply could not make the ADHD Career Equation work in the classroom. However, I remain a strong believer in sharing my diagnosis with those I work with. They, too, are affected by my ADHD’s symptoms, and they deserve to be given the opportunity to understand where the symptoms come from and work with me accordingly. Just as I importantly, I (and you) deserve to have the chance to be understood in the workplace.
What do you think? I have you come out as ADHD to your colleagues at work? Why or why not? If so, how have they responded? What advice do you have for other women considering sharing their diagnosis in the workplace? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.