A Special Educator with Special Needs: 9 Questions about being an educator who used to have an IEP

At this year’s Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) annual convention I got the opportunity to be on a panel called “Voices from the Field: Educators with Disabilities” led by Dr. Jennifer Diliberto and the Educators with Disabilities Caucus.

To cut to the chase, the disabilities that I was labeled with in 1st and then 6th grade respectively are ADHD and ED (Oppositional Defiance Disorder).

In preparation for the panel I started typing up my answers to the questions below and after writing so much I thought it would be good to get these ideas out on the interwebs.

It’s funny that during the panel we discussed reservations about how and when and to whom to disclose your disabilities and I mentioned that over the last few years I have become more comfortable talking about it.  But as I anticipate posting this I have a little trepidation and wonder if it’s a good idea?  I guess….Why not.  Hopefully it can help some people as they think about having disabilities and how they can work in a professional setting.

At any rate, here are the questions we were asked in the panel and my answers as I noted them down:

1) Describe your specific disability (what are your strengths and what kinds of challenges do you face?).

Diagnosed with ADHD in 1st grade (1980 something).… was ahead of the Ritalin wave!  Or in proper hipster terms, I was on Ritalin before it was cool.

I had so many problems in elementary but they couldn’t get me any special help until 6th grade when I was kicked out of school for xxxxxxx xxx xxxxx and I ended up with the label of…ED and ODD  (Emotionally Disturbed & Oppositional Defiant Disorder).

I guess one STRENGTH of my ODD is that when I have a question about something or an issue, 9 times out of 10 I will say something (at an appropriate time).

One STRENGTH of my ADHD is that I can get in a deep flow state of something I’m interested in. But the downfall is that I usually procrastinate so much that I don’t get into it. (i.e. Painting, blogging, creating something)

STRENGTH of ADHD also could be two fold in the sense of it is easier to multi task as much as possible because my brain races so much.  And as an offshoot I really feel that I can keep up in a classroom and all the different needs and decisions you are constantly making because I can switch gears so fast.


2) How does your disability affect your day-to-day living?


a) Mad alarms and reminders to force me not to procrastinate and not forget things. Hypothetically speaking this could mean not filing taxes for three years, letting car insurance lapse, etc.

b) They say that people with ADHD can get super focused on stuff they are into and have serious trouble with things that they aren’t into. Knowing that I have to force myself to do the things I don’t want to do (i.e. taxes). For example, while at the same time I hadn’t filed my taxes in 4 years (and all I have to do is file because I’m an international teacher!) I became a National Board Certified special educator, finished my second Masters, became head of the Student Support team department at my last school, all because education is one of my top passions and I have a block when it comes to stuff I am not so passionate about.

c) Trouble sleeping.

I have heard that many people with ADHD have a different circadian rhythm or something.  Once I heard that I realized that that may be why I can be tired all day and then get crazy second winds in the evening, stay up late, and then be tired the next day.

d) Trouble in conversations and staying focused. I’ve learned I do much better in groups when I can un focus and jump back in and nobody knows.

e) Super forgetful. So I have to have a lot of systems in place to make sure I stay on track.


ODD  (the oppositional part)

I am quick to have thoughts in my day to day life… not at work for the most part… that are essentially “don’t tell me what to do”.

I’m 36 and still get that feeling at times that I don’t want to be told what to do.

Somaliland Visa
Somaliland visa!

This makes me contrarian at times.

It causes me to do things like:

grow out my hair,

wear hipster type clothing,

travel to Somaliland as person number 701 to get a visa,

bike through half of Mexico during the height of the narco violence in 2009,

and wear different colored socks every day,

amongst other things.




3) How do you accommodate for your disability in the classroom?

a) At work, one thing I need to do is not say too much. I can be impulsive (which caused me to get kicked out of middle school) and sometimes I say stupid things that aren’t necessary (or even write things in email). When I say stupid I mean like just unnecessary things that don’t move the meeting forward for example, but at the same time could possibly make someone think I’m critiquing them.  Better to just listen.

So a strategy that I use, my mantra, it is “say less”.  I remind myself in hallway convos, in meetings, while chatting with a student, etc.

b) I always type up my lesson plans and my PowerPoint presentations are very detailed and I often type exactly what I will say because I know my mind will get lost and I will forget to do or say certain things due to my mind jumping around and forgetting to get back on it.

c) I ask people to clarify things and I take lots of notes because I can’t trust that I will always keep it in my working memory because my mind will race to 30 things and I will forget exactly what was determined as next steps, for example.

d) I try to draw in long meetings and PD to keep me from getting anxious and antsy because my leg starts shaking and fingers start tapping and chest can get tight at times and I just want to leave. But when I draw I can listen and keep occupied at the same time.


4) What do you consider your most successful strategies for managing your disability?

This is an area where I feel like I am saying a cliché, but my thing is that I try to make my area of need a strength.

Make your area of need a strength

So in that vein I put work into doing the following things:

a) Being super organized.

This can be with my color-coded digital calendar that syncs to my phone (iCal on the Mac and Google Calendar on the phone and work calendar all sync to one place).  This is me putting reminders in a lot, backwards planning lots of things, chunking tasks, making tables and check off boxes to get things done, and more.


b) Write things down all the time.

If I am in a meeting or talking to someone in the hallway and don’t write something down my ADHD brain will lose it in seconds and there is a big chance I won’t remember it or often don’t remember it fully or accurately.

It used to be a memo pad in my back pocket and my Mead paper day planner, now it’s my iCal, tons of post its on my computer and my memo pad app on the phone.  And I also always have a legal pad where I take notes in meetings, use it as a to-do list and basically keep it sacred.  I try to keep it to just those basic things.  No fancy apps, stopped using Evernote, etc.  Just stick to the key things to keep me on point.


c) Chunking tasks. One thing I do that I haven’t noticed other people really needing to is that one way I get stuff done is by breaking down a task into parts and making a check off column for each thing.

Ex. Updating the accommodations alerts in Powerschool.

I did this recently by breaking this update down into like 5 steps and I check off the boxes as I go for each student.  So instead of just thinking of it as I have to do this update for this student and my ADHD brain getting flummoxed and I push it off for later, I say “Okay, let me just update the Word doc real quick”.  And then once I do that I’m like, “Well, just check off the next box”.  And next thing I have knocked out all 5 boxes for this student and I say, “That wasn’t too hard, do one more student before you stop”.

One of the main reasons that I think I need to do this is because I know I definitely can’t just sit down and do the task that might just take 45 minutes or an hour.  I may not even be able to just do one student all the way through without really wanting to change my focus to another task at hand.  So by having the task broken down like this I can really chunk the whole endeavor and slowly chip away at it…or get in a flow state and knock it out.  But that’s rare; I have to switch tasks a lot to stay focused.


5) How does your disability benefit you when working with individuals with disabilities?


a) [ADHD] I can’t tell you how many times I will connect with the students by relating an experience I have had with either focus or math and all the students are like, “Oh, yeah, me too!”

Like with reading a sentence in a paragraph and then looking up, then two more sentences and looking up again, next thing I know I don’t know what I read the whole paragraph.  Or it takes forever to read something.

When I relate these experiences to students they often can relate and that adds more credence when I am asking them to do a given support, or urging them to ask for a given accommodation.


b) [ODD] I am a really strong advocate for my students on my caseload and have even went head up with people above me in the past if I felt things weren’t going right for the students on my caseload.

I think if I didn’t have this oppositional streak I may just stew on these things and talk to my coworkers or friends about it, but not the people that I need to.


c) [Oppositional Defiance Disorder] I used to have huge problems with authority and now I work with students at times who have the same issues (i.e. with certain teachers) and I can relate to them while at the same time telling them that they have to deal with it.

One example is with my 10th grade English teacher whom I had a lot of trouble with and didn’t like him and he seemingly didn’t like me.  My resource teacher at that time (Shout out to Mrs. Ramirez!) even asked me if I wanted her to change teachers but I said no, I got to learn how to deal with this and I made it through!

I’ve worked with students that hate school or really don’t like certain teachers or subjects and sometimes I just look at them and say “ I didn’t like school either, but you got to deal with it and make it through”.

This has led me to memorize this quote I heard that says, “Learn the system, play the system, change the system”.  Telling students that that’s the best option other than just “dealing with it”.

Sometimes students ask me why I’m a teacher if I don’t like school and I say it’s because I wanted to help kids that need help and the only other option I knew of was a probation officer and I like learning so much so….


d) Lastly, I think that I am more easily able to help students learn to self-advocate and own their disability. This can be in situations where they don’t want to try for a certain accommodation because they don’t think the teacher will let them, or they think that they will be singled out. That’s when I jump in and relate my experiences with that and be like “I was always the last one to finish a test.  If you need extra time or need to do it in another room, just do it”.

Or, with their friends asking about what class they are in when they are in a resource type pull out setting I can tell them that I was in Resource all three years I was in high school (I spent 9th grade in Juvenile Hall and Rehab so…) and people would ask me what the class was, why did I go to the small class, etc. and I would just say I needed a little extra help at times, and I would leave it at that.


6) What advice would you give to other educators with disabilities?

a) Know your areas of need so you can battle it.

 For example, I know my focus can go off track really easily and I know that sometimes I can lose track of time if I get off task.  So for me I know that at work I need to just work.  No lunch time hanging out, no chatting in the teacher lounge, none of that.  I tend to get a reputation for being anti-social, but I am there to serve the students on my caseload and I know that I will be less efficient if I get off task.

And I go to the happy hours sometimes so that balances some of it out!


b) Speaking of knowing your areas of need, I have found it very important to work very systematically on the areas in which I may not be good at and make them STRENGTHS:

With focus and my ADHD I make sure I build strategies for organization of my files, my computer files, etc. and overall just make sure I am just on it 100%.  One thought that was reiterated on the panel was that it’s important to build in time for organization.  An example is how I regularly sit down and cross out my digital calendar, and to a lesser extent my memo pad.  This takes time but it helps keep me abreast of things I have to do, things I forgot to do, etc.

Also , I try to make sure I am a power user with my Mac computer so I can work super quickly to make up time I waste by being unfocused.

Because of my oppositional defiance disorder, and knowing that I still have issues with authority in my personal life, I make sure to be one of the most deferential and respectful people in the building, in my mind, so at least to come across normal.

This is to say that even a funny look on the street could cause my mind to have a reaction, but at work I have taken rudeness, overbearingness, disregard of my ideas and been super humble and assertive.  I just tell myself when I feel any frustration brewing that “we are all here for the students and we all have good intentions”.


7) What kind of support do you need to be a successful educator?

Not much but one thing that helps me is to know about things well in advance. So if working with a Co-teacher or a given department for example, if they tell me an assessment will be in three weeks and they already have a draft of it in the Team Drive on Google Drive, then I can chunk it and procrastinate and slowly chip away at it.  That’s one reason I am really happy to be working with the current grade level team I do because they are super organized and make my job much more easier.


8) What is your biggest struggle in the classroom in relation to your disability? How do you deal with that struggle?

One thing that is contrary to what I said about connecting to students is that I have this weird reaction sometimes to students who are sort of ODD.  Especially working in high needs schools in California I would come across the thugged out tatted student that didn’t care about anything, just like I used to be, and a lot of times I have been inflexible with them and maybe too tough.

Tat Pic for Blog
Can you see the old faded tattoos and scars on my hand?

An analogy that comes to mind is when I was in college and had a bi-racial professor and was excited to have a person of color teaching the class, especially since I was the only person of color in the class. But instead of being a good experience it was actually the only class I have ever had to withdraw from because he was being super hard on me up until the point he made fun of me during a presentation, playing off my name and saying “Thomas a Beckett dies again” before making me sit down and then finishing the presentation for me. So I reached a point where it was either fail that class or withdraw because he was giving me no support inside the class or at office hours.

So I realized about 6 years ago that I have that tendency in a sense with students that are like I used to be, and I have to work to not be that way. To be as empathetic or more than I normally would be.  I think that once I had that realization I am good to go, but I also haven’t taught in the States in the past 6 years so…


9) How do you handle disclosure of your disability?

I tend to be hesitant to mention my ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder due to not wanting to have people sub-consciously or consciously pass judgements on my performance. To attribute things I do to either my ADHD or ODD when in fact maybe it’s just a common thing (i.e. I’m strongly advocating for a student’s needs but somebody is thinking it’s my ODD past rearing it’s head).

But since I tell the students early on in the year about my ADHD in a Welcome Letter I share with them at the beginning of the year, I tend to be a little open to bring up my disabilities with coworkers, but not too readily.



So yeah, that’s it.  Again I am a little hesitant to post, but if these answers to the questions can help an aspiring educator with ADHD who is in college and wondering if they will make it as a teacher, or if a parent reads this an it gives them hope and helps them inspire their children, then it’s all good.

For more information about CEC’s policy on educators with disabilities check the link:





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