Where are all the neurodivergent teaching professionals?

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Where are all the neurodivergent teaching professionals?Where are all the neurodivergent teaching professionals?
Date9th May 2022AuthorAnnemarie O'DwyerCategoriesTeaching

As a neurodivergent manager and teacher in the further education (FE) sector, the decision to declare my neurodiversity to my employer has always been a tricky one for me. However, as an educator, I would openly and gladly encourage students to declare to ensure their specific needs were accommodated.  

Moreover, when it came to declaring my own neurodiversity, I was often plagued with feelings of self-doubt, and concerns that my competency as an educator would be called into question. In 2005 I documented my fears in an article for the TES titled ‘Confessions of a dyslexic lecturer’; at the time I was at the start of my teaching career and decided not to be named as the author, for fear of ‘being found out’.  

My own experience is echoed in the growing body of academic literature on neurodivergent teachers and trainee teachers, most notably the early work by Barbara Riddick (2003; 2006), and the findings of the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission (WAC) in 2018. WAC found that 73% of 600 respondents across a range of occupations chose not to declare their neurodivergent status in the workplace for fear of discrimination. The WAC report did not specifically focus on the education sector, but such are the systems in place for teaching staff to declare, it is likely the disclosure rate amongst teaching professionals is considerably lower than one would expect in a sector that vigorously champions inclusive policy and practice for students. 

My doctorate research on how policy and the policy process may contribute to the subjectification of teachers with specific learning difference (SpLDs), found that disclosure did not stop at disclosing to workplace managers and colleagues, but instead extended to other workplace relationships. There was uncertainty around when a neurodivergent teacher should stop declaring: should they disclose to students? To parents? One teacher told me that disclosing in general to other adults felt ‘childish’ – a curious choice of words perhaps, but I knew instantly what they meant. The lack of recognition and accommodation of neurodivergent adults in the workplace implies that neurodivergence only affects those in their formative years; by adulthood surely ‘they’ would have ‘grown out of it’.   

It took me three years to disclose to my first FE employer. It took even longer for me to disclose to students, and even then, I did so on an ad-hoc basis, usually in response to a student expressing how they struggled or couldn’t do something because they were dyslexic.  The students I did disclose to were surprised that a teacher could be dyslexic, but then appeared to be encouraged that a diagnosis of dyslexia did not mean professional occupations were closed to them.  So why did I choose not to disclose to students en masse?  Well, for me my own feelings about my diagnosis were nuanced. I never felt comfortable disclosing to colleagues, so the thought of disclosing to students felt a step too far in terms of feeling vulnerable.

Fortunately, in my research the neurodivergent teachers I spoke to felt better able to express and disclose their neurodivergent status to their students, believing it to be empowering for students. They were able to open a dialogue with students on processing and study techniques and felt better able to relate to neurodivergent students. Notwithstanding, the neurodivergent teachers were mindful that disclosure also made them feel more vulnerable and exposed. They feared that some students might dismiss them once they discovered they were not ‘perfect’.  Furthermore, for a teaching professional disclosure is unlikely to be a one-time event; every new academic year brings changes and challenges, new students, working with new or different colleagues, and new parents. A neurodivergent teacher could find themselves in a cycle of disclosure they may not feel altogether comfortable with.  

It is within the gift of all employer colleges to embed a culture of inclusion and recognition for neurodivergent staff and students. Indeed, it is time for the education sector to recognise that, first and foremost, a neurodivergent teacher is an inspiring role model for a young person who has been diagnosed as neurodivergent.  The very existence of a neurodivergent professional signifies their aspirations can be met, and educational attainment at a higher level is a real possibility. Instead of limiting recognition and celebrations of neurodivergent people to those in the public gaze, such as Sir Richard Branson (dyslexic) and Albert Einstein (believed to be dyslexic), and Greta Thunberg (Asperger’s syndrome), the sector should also celebrate the neurodivergent talent within its midst. It is time for the sector to embrace and promote the talents of neurodivergent teachers and managers.

So, what can you as an employer college do to make the disclosure process easier? 

The best approach is a top-down, bottom-up approach. The responsibility for encouraging disclosure should not only fall to line managers but should be embedded in the structure and culture of a college. At the top, senior leaders, in collaboration with staff and if necessary, with external experts, should produce a robust and considered disclosure and accommodation policy, one which is well promoted throughout the organisation, with built-in opportunities throughout the academic year for staff to disclose. 

Inclusive policy could include the following:

  • During new starter inductions, encourage disclosure by sharing the organisation’s neurodiversity policy (if your workplace doesn’t have one, please do get in touch to find out more on how we can assist in the writing of a neuro-inclusive policy)
  • In staff communal areas, staff rooms, and information boards (both static and online), document the disclosure process – present the information in a way that is open and encouraging in the language used, try to avoid using words like ‘support’ ‘help’ ‘assistance’ as they imply a deficiency.  From my own experience and speaking to teaching professionals who were either diagnosed or suspected they may be dyslexic, the fear of ‘outing’ themselves in the form of disclosure raised concerns about how they would be perceived in terms of professional competency. Neutral and sensitive wording will encourage staff and hopefully address some of their fears
  • As part of the appraisal process ask about disclosure – do not assume a history of non-disclosure equals there is nothing to disclose. During my first teaching post it was three years before I formally declared my neurodivergent status. Reasons why people choose to disclose are nuanced and usually informed by previous experiences, both positive and negative
  • In your discussions, encourage and support teachers who wish to adopt a full disclosure approach, and set in place a strategy for managing any questions that may arise from students, colleagues, and parents following the teacher’s disclosure

Colleges who are forward-thinking in their approach and recognise that true differentiation in teaching and learning should apply to all will benefit from the unique talents of “Dyslexic Thinking”. “Dyslexic Thinking,” a campaign led by the charity Made by Dyslexia, in partnership with Sir Richard Branson, recently collaborated with LinkedIn to recognise “Dyslexic Thinking” as a specific skill for members to add to their profile. This is a positive step in the right direction in terms of recognising the unique talents of neurodivergent people but is also a welcome way for neurodivergent people to declare their neurodivergent status without the subtext of declaring meaning that the individual is deficient and in need of support. 

So, how might your college benefit from neurodivergent teachers and managers?

Well, what is very telling in the literature on neurodivergent teachers (Burn, Polkkeus & Aro, 2013; Burns & Bell, 2011; Burns & Bell, 2010), from my own research, and indeed from my own experience, is how neurodivergent teachers repurpose the resilient strategies they developed as students, as well as teachers, into their teaching methods.  How I approached my own teaching was informed by how I see and process the world, influenced by what I refer to as my “neurodiverse ways of knowing”; this is simply how I use my personal experience and background as an asset both in my working and academic life.  Once I overcame the pressure to perform, I was able to use my processing strengths to present complex theories and ideas to students in a way that benefitted all students regardless of neurological status.

It really is time for the sector to embrace the “thinking” of its neurodivergent teaching professionals, because when it does it will see…

  • They are expert at deconstructing complex ideas and presenting them in smaller digestible segments. This aids cognitive processing and assists in not overstimulating students, providing students the space to develop their understanding of individual concepts and how they fit into the bigger picture of an idea or theory
  • Structuring lessons and essays are a real strength, slotting in where all the detail fits so that students can understand an idea or theory in the round 
  • Using a range of textual, auditory, and visual aids in teaching to aid content recall; this is particularly important for social science and humanities subjects where students are expected to recall specific dates, studies, and theories
  • Neurodivergent teachers often champion the use of technology in and out of the classroom in the use of e.g., interactive whiteboards, interactive apps, and college virtual learning platforms. In the past I have used the ‘Chat’ activity on a virtual learning site to set up virtual revision workshops, such that students were able to pop in ask a question and leave. The chat history remained visible, so if students were unable to recall an answer to a question, they could pop back in and find the answer
  • Neurodivergent teachers can better make synoptic links between complex theories and ideas, and how these theories and ideas change over time. Through their structured approach to teaching, parallels and comparisons are more easily identified and pieced together so students can appreciate the bigger picture

The above is only a snapshot of the valuable teaching tools and techniques that neurodivergent teachers use in their everyday teaching, and why their unique perspective is so important and should be embraced and celebrated.

The intention of this contribution is to stress the importance for employer colleges to recognise that to be a truly inclusive institution, structural as well as cultural changes need to be embraced. Structural changes can come in the form of a policy, one which recognises the necessity to accommodate both neurodivergent staff and students. Inclusive policy should provide regular opportunities for declaring and be flexible enough to empower neurodivergent staff and those who manage neurodivergent staff to mutually agree on working arrangements. 

It is also important to foster an inclusive culture and celebrate “neurodiverse ways of knowing” rather than try to ‘fix it’ with formulaic reasonable adjustments, which are often more about getting everyone to the same point and working in the same way. Embrace the alternate. When the sector does, it might just be surprised at the value in doing so, not just for the neurodivergent staff member, but for students and the sector as a whole. 

Dr Annemarie O'Dwyer is director of neurodiverse insider. If you would like to find out more, please do have a look at their website; you can contact Dr O'Dwyer via the contact form on the website or by email.

References

Burns, E., and Bell, S. (2011) Narrative construction of professional teacher identity of teachers with dyslexia. Teacher and Teacher Education, 27, pp. 952-960.

Burns, E., and Bell, S. (2010) Voices of teachers with dyslexia in Finnish and English further and higher educational settings. Teachers and Teaching, 16(5), pp. 529-543.

Burns, E., Poikkeus, A., and Aro, M. (2013) Resilience strategies employed by teachers with dyslexia working at tertiary education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 34, pp. 77-85.

Made By Dyslexia – Redefining Dyslexia

Riddick, B. (2003) Experiences of teachers and trainee teachers who are dyslexic. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 7, pp. 389–40.

Riddick, B., and English, E. (2006) Meeting the standards? Dyslexic students and the selection process for initial teacher training. European Journal of Teacher Education, 29, pp. 203–222.

Confessions of a dyslexic lecturer | Tes News

Westminster AchieveAbility, Commission for Dyslexia and Neurodivergence (2018) Neuodiverse voices: Opening Doors to Employment Report. Available at: https://www.achieveability.org.uk/files/1518955206/wac-report_2017_interactive-2.pdf

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