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My experiences as a Neurodivergent teacher



Catrina Lowri is a neurodivergent teacher, trainer, and coach. As well as having 22 years’ experience of working in education, she also speaks as a dyslexic and bipolar woman, who had her own unique journey through the education system


Earlier this week I was talking at an autism conference. I spoke very openly about neurodivergence. I was asked my I dropped the mask. I didn't. I got to a point where it became to heavy and I had no choice. I hid my neurodivergence in my professional life for many years, and here is why.


Student days

When I first started teaching, back in the late 90’s, I had never met another neurodivergent teacher. I declared my dyslexia on my PGCE course but was surprised to find out that, if I wanted to learn about Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, I would need to do an extra course. Our only training on this matter involved half a day of project work where we were expected to produce a series of worksheets or materials to support a type of ‘need’, and then share those resources with the rest of the students.


I did not think this was anywhere near adequate, so I took matters into my own hands; I offered to give a half hour talk to my fellow Modern Foreign Language PGCE students about my dyslexia.


The course leader made it voluntary to attend.


Only half the course cohort turned up.


At the end of it, one of my fellow students commented that “Dyslexia is a class issue. If you are working class, you are thick’ and then he pointed at me “But if you are middle class your ‘dyslexic’”. He made air quotes and rolled his eyes as he said this. Not exactly the reception I’d been hoping for. After that, I stayed quiet about being a dyslexic teacher.


My first Manic Episode

I had a car crash at the start of my third teaching practice. It was a serious accident. My car was T boned coming off the motorway when another car skipped the lights. Both vehicles were doing about 60 MPH. My car flipped and rolled onto its side and my passenger, and I had to escape threw the sunroof. Luckily, I was driving a second-hand Volvo, with side impact bars and both of us escaped without so much as a scratch.


No harm done. Or so I thought.


As I stood on the pavement, watching ambulances, police and fire engines deal with the debris and seeing to the driver of the Ford, who had hit me, ( but thankfully escaped with only cuts and bruises), I had a strange feeling that I must be special to survive such a terrible accident.


I remember telling the paramedic who wanted to take me to hospital that I was fine and

“Didn’t even skag my tights!’, and then giggling hysterically


Within a few days I started to stay up late into the night writing down my brilliant ideas for the future. Soon, I wasn’t sleeping at all and was hallucinating wildly most of the day. Although I was still going into my placement school all day, my lessons went on tangents, and I swung between excitement and irritation. Soon , I was asked to go home until I’d seen a doctor.

They put me on, what turned out to be, the wrong medication. Just as a quick caveat, I am not anti-medication. The right medication can save lives, but in my case, I was given SSRI’s (selective , serotonin, reuptake inhibitors) without a full assessment. My doctor didn’t know that I was bipolar as I had no diagnosis. This type of medication can trigger manic episodes in some people, and that is exactly what happened to me.


Surviving the car accident ‘proved’ to my manic brain that I was impervious to metal, so I stopped looking when I crossed the road and started a lot of other risk-taking behaviour. This came to a head one day and I nearly got hit by a car. Fortunately for me, my erratic behaviour had been witnessed by a medical receptionist on her way back to work on her lunch break. She persuaded me to go in an speak to one of the doctors, who assessed my need as acute and found me a bed in a secure ward for my safety.


I was in hospital for 2 weeks, then a day patient for a further 6 weeks.


I failed my PGCE and had to re sit my final teaching practice.


Early Professional life


I started masking my ND during my re-sit teaching practice (TP). This was done at a lovely inner city secondary school in the North of England. I did much better than in the TP I had failed, because I was no longer manic. I also moved to a tiny house on the edge of the moors, so was far from the distractions of the city and I lived alone. This had two advantages; I couldn’t afford to go out, and I had no one to go out with, so I basically just worked and slept.


There were many occasions where my ND nearly got exposed; I’d make spelling mistakes, or totally misunderstood what my mentor wanted to do because of my auditory processing difference. But generally, I did ok and managed to mask so they didn’t notice. I kept my bipolar at bay by going to bed early, then getting into school at the same time as the caretaker, so I could have some headspace before the other teachers arrived. Then my university tutor came in to observe me.


“You seem so different to last time I observed you. What happened?”


I had lied to him. I told him the reason I went to hospital was due to physical injury caused by the crash ,and ,that missing so much of my teaching practice had made me ‘a bit anxious’.

I didn’t tell him about the suicidal ideation or being impervious to metal. I felt like if I said this out loud, he would probably say I shouldn’t work with children. And I love my work. So I stayed quiet


I passed the course.



Masking

I got good at, what I now know as masking. The term originates from the autistic community, but my straw poll of ND friends and family tells me that we all do it to a certain extent. This involves studying the neurotypical people around you and acting like them to hide your ND. It can be incredibly damaging. For more information, please read my blog here https://www.neuroteachers.com/post/it-s-like-her-shoes-don-t-fit-a-story-about-the-consequences-of-autistic-masking


Even though I have known about this phenomenon for years, I didn’t consider that it applied to me until, after 19 years of successful masking, it all started to unravel.


For me to carry the mask, I create the perfect conditions; I control my sleep carefully, have completely cut out alcohol and caffeine and draw boundaries around my work life so I can fully concentrate on it. This means I can’t indulge in trivial or meaningless social interactions because I just can’t. If I do, I burn through the energy I need to maintain to my job, and that is what I’m paid to do. Moreover, teaching is a social job. I use what little ‘social’ I must , to build relationships with the children and their families.

That doesn’t mean I don’t make friends at work, I do, I just need them to understand that I can’t/ won’t take part in the following activities.


- Banter, small talk, water cooler chat

- Group jokes/ threads about your pets/kids/Donald Trump memes shared via email or the office chat facility

- Any Christmas do\ Secret Santa\ carolling\ staff pantomime

- Going to a pub/ café for lunch during school hours


I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that I have 20 minutes out of the day, to sit quietly in the staffroom or office and eat my lunch, without having to interact with anyone. I need decompression time to deal with the demands of your neurotypical world.


I’m not being weird or stuck up. I’m not a recluse or a nutter. I’m neurodivergent and I need to be allowed to remove the mask for a short while, so that I can do the job you paid me for.

To download your free poster of top tips for employing neurodivergent staff, follow the link below.


https://www.neuroteachers.com/product-page/top-tips-for-employing-nd-staff


If you have any other questions about what Catrina has written here, or you would like her talk about her experiences at your school or business, please follow the link below.



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