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.


38 thoughts on “Caring About the Whole Class

  1. Pingback: Living a Portfolio Life | QuinnCreative

  2. Glad I wasn’t in your position. I understand both viewpoints.

    My brother has adhd, and is now sometimes medicated sometimes not. I love him, but I like him easier when he is medicated. Said with love, even if it doesn’t look that way in black and white. 🙂

    When he was younger and first medicated he used to say he liked it, because he could finally think. It let his mind slow down to concentrate.

    Now that he is an adult, he sometimes takes it, and often doesn’t. I don’t think there is any reason for him not taking it, other than he is young and can be self centered like we all can and forgets how his unmedicated self can impact on other people.

    I think he makes himself easier to see when he is medicated. He is definately easier to interact with.

    As I read what I wrote I am also reflecting if I want him to take his medication for his benefit, or because it makes it easier for the rest of us. If that is the case I wonder why I think I can request that from him. To take medicine to make it easier for us to be with you so we don’t want to hit you on the head with a fry pan. Other than the fact that I am the eldest of six so I am naturally inclined to think they should all do what I think!! 🙂

  3. I have been thinking about this blog post, off and on, since I read it yesterday morning. I have been, at different times in my life, both in the seat of the young man and the seat of the smart woman. Neither seat is comfortable. It is surely a situation that cannot be fixed in a day’s class, but neither is it a situation that should be ignored because it’s difficult and not everyone is going to get what they want or expected.

    First, thinking about the young man’s position. Sure, it is easy to say he is responsible and he should behave. That would be in the best interests of all involved – for the class, his instructor, and most of all for him. Perhaps he would choose to be responsible if he knew how. There are so many unknowns. Is he speaking from his own experience with ADHD managing drugs or is he parroting what someone else has told him? At some point in his life, he was told he had ADHD. How well he was diagnosed, or treated, or even listened to – one simply doesn’t know. That doesn’t give him a pass to be obnoxious and make it impossible for others to learn, but I’m not sure it gives anyone the right to write him off as an irresponsible, uncontrollable trouble-maker who should not be allowed in class either.

    Then thinking about the smart woman and countless others in the class, plus the instructor, who were all constantly interrupted by this young man. They all put in the effort to show up for class, on time, prepared, and ready to teach or learn. How frustrating it is to see their efforts scattered by someone who apparently is not following the rules of society as we think he should.

    This kid needs more than an understanding instructor for a day class. He needs a treatment plan, with or without meds, that takes into account his behavior problems, and works with them, one at a time, teaching him how he can “be himself” and still stay mostly in control and work in a group.

    That’s a years-long project, so no wonder, Quinn, you were ready to bop him on the head ( or worse!) It’s an impossible situation. Of course, everyone in the class would LOVE to see the guy get the help he needs (I hope), but none of them want their time and effort frittered away by his antics either.

    So key, for the instructor, what is “her work” in this. Looks like a terribly complicated tight-rope act, balancing the class’s needs with the difficult student’s needs, and the instructor’s needs to impart a certain set of skills or knowledge. And it will never be perfect. I don’t think, in the class you outlined, you could have easily asked the guy to leave, unless he was really disruptive or acting in an unsafe manner.

    In a perfect world, you would have been told of his learning difficulties, and you would have been prepared for him. He would have come early to class instead of late, and there would have been time to firmly discuss ground rules perhaps with consequences. (Sit in front, in a seat by yourself, you may ask a question but if it’s not timely, no answers until a time when the other class members are working independently, I’ll shake my head – it’s your signal that you must wait, etc. etc.)

    But without any notice or preparation, it sounds like you did a wonderful job of balancing everyone’s needs. Sure, the kid got more attention and took up teaching time, and frustrated everyone else in the room. But on the whole, you taught and the other students learned, and hopefully the young man learned something, too. Though that isn’t “your work” to see that he learned everything – that is his work, work that he simply may not be able to handle because of the circumstance he is in, or because he has no one who can help him with his condition, or because of the limited resources he may have. But it’s sure not “your work” in a day workshop.

    Here’s something though. Maybe your example of treating him kindly let the other students know that you respected this man as a human being. Perhaps they learned how to have a bit more patience with him because of your example. That would be a good thing, a good start…

  4. Having a son with ADHD, I can just say this… when he is on his medication, his personality is not altered…. the truth of all he is, shines. The best of everything about his comes out for all the world to see. He feels better about himself as well.

  5. I just read my comment over and realise that it sounds as if I don’t think ADHD is anything but environmental – not true. I’ve worked with childen who are so at odds with themselves and have very limited self control and the effect on their learning is dire. They live with loving, supportive families who provide a secure home with consistent boundaries yet cannot seem to control their impulsivity. One said, after medication, that now, he could make friends – heartbreaking.
    As to what to do in class Quinn – I usually do a functional assesment of the behaviour whether impulse or not. But with an adult? I tend to think I’d be letting them know the effect they have on others is important however that may have little impact. I thnk you handled it really well. If he arrived on time you could have set up an agreement in advance – that you will attend to him when the class instruction is complete and have a non-verbal signal that will show him you have heard and registered his need for attention. This is not so easy once the class has begun!

    • You sounded fine to me–caring and interested in this difficult problem. One of the things I was grateful for is that the whole thing happened in public and made me aware of my own behavior toward both parties. I will admit to being frustrated, but having to show behavior in public made me more careful of my answer.

  6. My job is working wth teachers who have students who have specific needs due to their learning and/or behaviour – it’s a constant challege that requires me to be creative in my thinking and I love it.
    ADHD and ADD are often diagnosed by none but the parent and it is often, not always, an excuse for poor parenting, and then there is the kid who has been to a specialist and been diagnosed according to what a parent says and a short interview with the child and medicated. The jury is out still as to how much the symptoms of ADHD are environmental.
    Might I suggest taking 12 minutes and watching Sir Ken Robinson on RSA Animates (on YouTube) talk about changing education paradigms. Quite apart from a thought provoking talk the accompanying drawn notes are quite brilliant. Although you can use a search engine to find it here’s the Tiny URL:

    • i love Sir Ken, that video is one of my favorites. ADD is a really tough diagnosis, which can be applied because the doctor doesn’t know what else to do, or because there is a real medical condition. As the kid was an adult, and I’m not a public school instructor, but teach adults in a series of classes, I have no way of knowing. But one thing I am sure of: the idea of education needs an overhaul.

  7. I have a hard time knowing how to respond to this.

    Like Adrienne and your student, my husband has ADHD. I’ve done a lot of research in the last 8 months to understand what it is and why it is. Adrienne is right: there is a lot of information about this condition available online, and a lot of what people think they know about it are myths. And those myths can be downright hurtful to people who have it, since those myths often center on people’s character or upbringing, neither of which cause ADHD.

    Who wins out between the individual and the group? That’s a hard question, but I think in this case, the group would win. But I say that because I know, from my own research and experience, that treatment for ADHD typically doesn’t change someone’s personality. And I’m not sure I could or would argue with him, were I in your shoes, that he believes a myth about his own biology and should change how he chooses to deal with it. IMHO, it is his responsibility to understand how his behavior is different from the “norm” and to prepare himself accordingly for a class with others, which may mean bringing a small hand toy to fiddle with, exercising beforehand, or medicating for the class as needed.

    • I believe the group as a whole has more needs than one person, too. I don’t argue about anyone’s medical conditions, as I don’t know these students and see them for two days–and then never again. Perhaps the answer is to hold him to some standards that he has a chance of meeting, but not to let him get away with hijacking the class.

    • Thank you Poppy! One last point from the frontlines! ;o) ADD is not a disease. Not an illness. Just a condition. A condition that can be handled and lived with. Believe it or not, there are some positive qualities to this condition too!

  8. Wow, what a difficult position to be put in! I think you handled it admirably. I also feel for the woman who approached you at the lunch break. I’m gathering that all students had to pay for the class and so all were hopin,g as well as paying to get the same experience from it. But, do the needs of the greater number of students outweigh the needs of this one student? That’s a difficult mediation to take on and you were much calmer about it than most teachers/instructors would have been. Given that this was an adult class, then I would have different expectations of behaviour than I would have of a much younger class. I suspect that the ADD young man was using his problem as a crutch, something which allowed him to interupt when he wanted despite there being a way of helping him to control his medically diagnosed problem, taking his medication. His wanting to be allowed to be himself came at the expense of the rest of the class not having an atmosphere conducive to learning. You were put between a rock and a hard place – an impossible situation and one where you had to make a snap decision. I think that the young man was quite cheeky in his asking you to allow him to be himself. He knew he was disruptive and felt that the rest of the class should just accept his behaviour. But, knowing that he could control his behaviour by taking his medication and choosing not to, was he not in effect saying his needs were greater than those of the other students?
    Whilst I’m sympathetic to the young man’s problem, I really feel that he needs to take ownership of his behaviour in classroom situations. It really wasn’t fair to you or to the other classmates to have to embrace his individuality at the expense of everyone else’s needs.

    • I love your careful consideration of the young man and the smart woman. I still feel conflicted, but after reading your comment, I feel like I have a lot to learn, as this is going to come up again.

  9. I’ve had folks like that in class, too. Take him aside, offer to have a private class and ask him to leave. it is not ADD that is making him “not want to change his personality” it is his center of the Universe mentality, and his sense of entitlement.

    • I’ve had those people in my classes too, Phil. This wasn’t one of them. The class was one I teach for a large organization, for two days. There is no private class possible. So while I alternately feel sorry for him and wanted to dismember him, I hope that compassion wins. Eventually.

  10. What a difficult situation your are in Quinn. You want to provide the best learning experience to all your students but are backed up against a wall. There are no simple solutions for this particular situation other than possibly talking with the young man individually and explaining your dilemma, asking him if he can help you out by writing questions down, waiting for a break in the action, etc.

    I do agree with a couple other responses that it seems like he is getting the attention he is seeking from his behavior so ultimately he is getting rewarded. Why would he change what he is doing?

    • I’m torn over this reasoning. Half of me agrees with you–rewarding him for his bad behavior encourages more of it. But on the other hand, he has a condition that makes it difficult for him to comply with what we consider “well-behaved.” Of course, I can afford to be emotionally generous now that he is not in front of me, making me crazy.

  11. I think I agree with Caroline, he uses this along with his guilt trip to get away with things he knows he shouldn’t be doing. Adrienne made a good point when she said “That is not how responsible adults behave, even with ADD”. It was a difficult situation for the whole class. I have been in classes where one student takes over and disrupts the class for everyone. That is not fun. I feel for you and your students. Sounds like you handled things as best as you could.

    • I’m still exploring the situation, as it is bound to happen again. I think that when you take a group class, you have a right to education, but not necessarily to a tutoring level of education. Part of life is dealing with disruptive people, more and more of public life includes rude, thoughtless, self-centered people along with kind, generous, compassionate people. Keeping the balance is everyone’s responsibility.

  12. Forty years ago, children were caned and punished for this type of behaviour. Thank goodness medical knowledge has progressed! As for the council estate/male role model comment: I sincerely hope the health system in GB is not so dangerously incompetent. Ritalin is not given lightly in GB and if given to anyone without ADD can have horrible side effects. And somehow this conversation has gone way off subject: let’s get back to it shall we?

    • Any system can be brilliant or incompetent, depending on who you work with. I have a habit of saying: “What do you call the guy who graduated at the bottom of his medical school class and cheated on his exam to get through? ‘Doctor.'”

  13. This may be of interest to you. I have ADD. I am very aware of the effect this may have in group situations. An appropriate solution is to take the medication at those times where I might be disruptive. The rest of the time I leave them in the bottle so that I can continue to “be me”.

  14. Individuality is a funny thing. Everyone seems to think they have it, and at least in this society it’s accorded a great deal of importance. While putting it at the top of various metaphorical pyramids, though, almost everyone puts some interesting limits on it, but can seldom really explain those limits.

    Take the common arithmetic limit to individuality — a single individual (in a classroom, for example) shouldn’t “count more” than a group of others. If we assume that “everybody has the same rights” then the greater number adds up to “more rights” (so to speak). But placing the same arithmetic value on everyone is sort of the opposite of individuality, isn’t it?

    Currently there’s a strong trend toward medical explanations — there’s a “syndrome” or a “disorder”, and it has a diagnosis and a treatment, with the objective of, in mathematical terms, normalizing the deviation. People are advised to “be yourself” but sometimes not, and it might be very difficult to tell just where that line might lie.

    It would be difficult to be more uniquely individual than to speak only one’s own private language and create, say, “art” that no one else even recognizes as existing. But THAT kind of individuality is more likely to be called a “real problem”.

    It really seems, from within any given human body, that self-awareness implies uniqueness; individuality. Only *I* have had this particular set of thoughts and experiences, right? Sharing a common language with others who seem to have exactly the same assumption bolsters our confidence in that assumption, and we assure one another of our own individuality. “You like to express your unique self? Yes, I’m exactly the same.”

    • I have had that experience of thinking both that I had a unique idea (chuckle) and that I’m just like everyone else. (snort). But it’s still interesting to figure out how thinking works. (in the past).

  15. 10/10 for handling a difficult situation!
    Its very hard to respect the rights of a disruptive individual when it affects the right of others. The person who comes up with a fair and equitable solution to this deserves a Nobel Peace Prize!
    I would suspect that this child in a man’s body is relying on his disability to get away with things he knows he would not get away with if he did not lay a guilt trip on a responsible adult. Its how he copes with his life. He was relying on you to run interference for him, and calm down those who did object to being distracted.

    • This is a thorny problem, and there is no perfect answer. That’s why I posted it–I have the smartest readers who help me sort through ideas. The kid may be doing the best he can, and I would not want to begin to tell anyone when they should use medicine or not. I thin the smart woman needs to grasp that everyone is entitled so some level of education, but not a personalized level when she’s in a group class. Still, difficult.

  16. Interesting reflections, Quinn. Perhaps a classroom environment is simply not the best learning environment for some people? It suits some fine, others tolerate it, and for others, it causes immense problems. A one to one tutorial can do wonders – but then you get to the economics of it!
    I’m also interested in the diagnosis of ADH and medicalisation of it why is it so rampant? Forty years ago, there was no such medical condition, and no medication i note in England that it is most diagnosed by gp’s with a 5 min per patient consultation time treating the sons of single mothers on large council estates comprising principally single mothers and their children. Ritalin to treat social issues, particularly disciplinary issues arising from lack of good male role models for young men.

    Interesting questions.

    • I think Krystyna is right: classroom is just one possible learning environment and certainly not suited for every one. There are six billion ways of learning, the trouble is that we (the Western culture at least) have rather rigid ideas about learning, teaching and schooling.

      But a practical tip, tested in real life and found working: students with ADH or those who just happen to be a bit more physically active or more easily distracted the most often find it help full to sit on an air filled cushion while in class. There are specially made inflatable rubber cushions that can be adjusted according to the weight and need of the student. The cushion is placed on an ordinary chair or what ever seating used, and the idea is that the cushion makes sitting a bit wobbly so that the person sitting has to use abdominal muscle a tab bit more than without the cushion. This works because some of the physical energy gets directed to the act of sitting and so there is less excess energy to ‘burn’. At best, works like magic. I have used (while I was still working as an elementary school teacher) these cushions with ‘high energy’ pupils (7-8 years old) who just don’t seem to be able to keep their bodies calm for any length of time. And it works. Actually any pupil seemed to be more able to focus with that cushion. They’re also VERY durable, but I don’t mean you need to get one 🙂 I just wanted to let people know that there are non-chemical medicines ;D And they’re good for your back too! Here’s one German manufacturer (just to show what they are, by no means promotional, there are other kinds of) :

    • It IS an interesting question. I often wonder, like you, why it is so much more prevalent. And then I wonder about the pesticides we eat, and the preservatives on our foods that didn’t exist 40 years ago. I am still torn–I know the classroom isn’t right for everyone, and I know I have two days to teach class, but I felt so clearly for both of those learners.

      • There is a lot of information about this condition both online and in books if anyone wants to find out the facts. I think this particular persons behaviour was rather poor whatever his condition. It is his responsibility to manage it and he must know that what he does demands extra attention. That is not how responsible adults behave, even with ADD.

        • He was young, and I’m not sure he was a responsible adult. I’m not sure the smart woman was, either. Some times, I’m not sure I am. Being a responsible adult is difficult. I’m not being facile here, but I am saying that a kid his age (probably around 20) means that he is still in the process of discovering himself and his place in the whole of society.

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