In my first years of teaching, I’d see ADHD on a student’s chart and sigh. But I came to like what these kids did for me and my classes. Take Matt Johns, for example. On the way into class, he always pulled something from the fidget basket on my desk—a stress ball or pipe cleaners or putty.
All during class his eyes darted around the room, keeping time with the pen he drummed on his knee and the shoe he tapped on the floor. The back corner seat worked best for Matt. There he could squirm or stand or even pace a little during class without bothering his steadier classmates. So what did Matt bring to my classroom besides a buzz in the corner?
- Surprise—I never knew what Matt would uncover next. His mind traveled fast and ranged far. He’d ask questions like, “What would happen if a tornado interrupted a forest fire?” or “If Thomas Edison lived today, what would he invent?” His new ideas livened dialogue and made it cool to offer comments. With Matt in class, we had no lulls in class discussion.
- Persistence—Matt had plenty to push past. By the time he reached me in sixth period, he had usually accumulated a string of setbacks: forgetting his math homework, misplacing his notebook, spilling the ink from the pen he dissected over his shirt, and getting a detention for talking too much in class. His report card showed C-‘s, not because he couldn’t think well enough for an A, but because he couldn’t remember to bring the homework that could help him get an A. But he kept picking himself up, jutting his chin back up again. Having already discovered that perfection is boring, he embraced his exciting life.
- Passion—When Matt cared about something his emotion was infectious. Nothing I could say would get students to care so much about Rosa Parks and her cause as Matt clenching his fists and imploring the class. “Think about it!” he’d say. “How would you feel if you worked all day and your legs ached and because of the way you looked you couldn’t drink water at certain fountains or sit in the good seats in the theater and now you had to give up your seat in the bus?”
- Teamwork—When Matt had an idea for a group project, he’d pose it with enough enthusiasm to launch the undertaking. Then, having made his contribution, he’d watch his more methodical group mates complete the project. And they were glad to take over. Matt, they knew, wouldn’t do things in the normal order. He might, after all, start in the middle, jump to the top, then to the bottom, and back to the middle. This collaboration worked, and I knew that in Matt’s class at least one group wouldn’t dither around wasting time. They’d just do it.
- Energy—By the time Matt bounced into my sixth period, my energy was usually waning. But high energy is contagious; and Matt’s animated entrances gave me new gumption. Matt brought me a focus for sixth period. If my adrenaline could match his and I could keep him engaged, the rest of the students got sucked right in to the lesson.
People often think people like Matt don’t pay attention. Actually, they pay attention to lots of things, all at once. Life, for Matt, was rich and multilayered, like Christmas morning every day. At the beginning of every sixth period, I’d close my eyes and open them again, trying to see what Matt could see. And, because of Matt, I was a better teacher.