Caring About the Whole Class

In one of my lives, I’m an instructional designer. I teach adults–create the class, then teach it in a business environment. Mostly writing, but also classes on customer service, ethics, and critical thinking. Teaching is a dream job for me–helping people learn something; learning so much about them.

Help the individual, or. . . .

A few weeks ago, a young man joined the class 20 minutes late. I was explaining some instructions, and he came in and began to tell me why he was late. He didn’t wait for me to recognize him. While still talking, he took a  seat in the back of the class, and began to pack and unpack his backpack. Warning bells buzzed in my head. He could not hold still. He interrupted me to ask questions that I had explained before he came in. I asked him to let me get to a place where the class was busy, then I’d catch him up, about two more minutes.

Five seconds later, he interrupted me again. Was he supposed to fill out this sheet? Yes, I said, and I’ll help you in another minute.

“What do I write on line 2?” he asked, as if he had not heard me.

. . . satisfy the class as a whole?

I gave the class brief instructions, and went to him. He then explained himself. “I have ADD, but I don’t take medication because it will change my personality.” A truly difficult situation. Of course he wanted to own his own personality. And I wanted to treat the entire class fairly. I said that he needed to participate in the class without disrupting the class, but I would help him when he needed it. Then I asked, “What can I do to help?”

“Nothing,” he grinned, “Just let me be me.”

‘Being me’ included constant motion, asking me to repeat sentences three and four times, asking me to spell each word of a sentence he was writing down. When I called on him, he would not be on the same page, but be reading emails or texting. The person next to him would show him which page. He’d then read the sentence and say, “What does this have to do with my life, really?”

I had no idea what to do–help him or keep the class as a whole running smoothly. To do both is the impossible ideal. His seat mate moved at the break. I moved the young man up to the front of the room, where I could give him short, quick answers, without interrupting the class too much.

At lunch, a serious woman with good skills came up and asked, “Why is it that the disrupters get all the attention and those of us who work hard don’t get rewarded?” I felt her anger and pain, too.

“I can’t explain it from that perspective,” I said. “Everyone deserves to learn, and we have a diverse class where not everyone learns at the same pace or the same way. What can I do to you to help you?”

“Get rid of the troublemaker,” she said.

I explained the difficulty he was experiencing and that he could not help himself, just as she had a gift of quick understanding, the other student was restless. But I understood her dissatisfaction, too.

Since then, I’ve wondered about the young man’s need to have his personality unaltered. And about the class’s need to have him take medication that would allow the class to run without so much disruption. I don’t have a solution. We have the Constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. But I can imagine a lot of people get lost in the shuffle this way.

Quinn McDonald is a teacher and creativity coach.