World Teachers’ Day

I just fired up the Google today (5th October) to discover it is Teachers’ Day.

I didn’t know there was such a day but it’s handy because I’ve been pondering my education recently but felt like I needed a particular topic in order to bring some thoughts together.

The main focus of my thoughts was due to me deciding to self-diagnose as Autistic, not that I particularly like having certain designations or to label myself as something or other, but on this occasion it felt quite helpful and cathartic, like many things now made sense, in particular my years of education.

I’m pretty sure everyone (unless home-schooling for their entire childhood and youthhood) has memorable teachers, ones they liked, and ones they didn’t, ones that were helpful, and ones that seemingly weren’t (and not always were they one and the same; liked/helpful, disliked/useless, I know this because I had at least one teacher that couldn’t control an unruly class, but she was actually quite nice and had a fondness for me and my friend, partly since he already knew her).

My first years of school were somewhat weird in that I went to a private school where I had lessons of a non-standard kind. I seemed to have had a teacher that I particularly liked, but she was getting on in years and I think she ended up leaving her post, due to illness, part the way through a year which unsettled me. In addition to this I was dealing with a family death (although even as a young child at the time I presented myself as, and felt like I was, doing ok (a trait that persists to this day), when perhaps I wasn’t) leaving me further unsettled, and for a time a bit troublesome. I remember being taken to one side one day at school and being given a word about my behaviour. That never happened to me again.

This all changed when I changed schools for a “proper one” (i.e. not private, although I don’t think that was a problem in itself). The problem was that, I think, what stage I was at in my learning/in the curriculum didn’t align with where other students were at. On one of my first days, or during a preliminary visit as I can recall, I was given some maths text books to look over to determine for myself (at age 8) what things I already knew, or more accurately, what looked familiar. I was probably overly confident and felt like I knew it all, or at least thinking I recognised what I was being shown, and maybe I got landed with a workbook that was beyond my actual learning.

I actually don’t know if I was ahead in my learning at this stage, or behind. A few years would pass until I reached the final year or two of that school, when suddenly I was syphoned off into a small separate class, I think termed rather depressingly “special needs” although I may be mixing this up with something else and another class for particularly handicapped students, but I and a handful of others were in this other class in order to help us “catch up”.

I think this was all too little and too late by this point and realistically things should have been addressed years earlier. This is where I think being diagnosed as Autistic, or at least “on the spectrum” could have helped me immensely. I think there is far greater awareness these days and therefore methods, tactics and alternative approaches implemented to assist and aid such students. I have since, and quite recently, watched lectures and discussions on Youtube of such things. Maybe this was recognised in me by others way back then but never really explained to me in a fashion I could understand. It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that someone in an online chat who I didn’t feel knew me that well suddenly remarked/questioned if I was Bipolar. That struck me as an odd thing to say, and I didn’t have hardly any awareness or thoughts on the term, let alone think I was that. I always (beyond that brief troubled period of school) presented myself as smart, polite, and intelligent, even “studious” by one relative who commented on my appearance as I sat reading a book one time, or as a “boffin” by some fellow peers who liked to use the more derogatory term in jest and those who knuckled down to their work when they weren’t, and had their tie done up right and shirt tucked in. For a time I also received the nickname of “Mr Bean” which I thought was quite amusing, but it can pointed out that some have considered if the character of Mr Bean himself represented someone who was autistic.

Autism, being a “spectrum disorder”, has a variant called “high-functioning” whereby one can generally function as “normal”, and even without the “condition” seemingly impacting on their lives, but since self-diagnosing I am now able to look back with a different perspective and recognise traits that were there early on, affected me in various ways, and persist to this day. I don’t deem it to be a negative association, indeed one could likely benefit from various techniques used to work around the “disorder” to overcome challenges or develop learning techniques even without being diagnosed as such. In areas of life benefiting certain social skills are where Autism and an understanding of it can play a big part not only in helping me recognise things about myself, but things in others also.

Anyway, I struggled on through high school with two subjects of note: Maths and French.

The curious thing here was that maths has always intrigued me, but I always found it a struggle. It seems I never learned to actively recognise when I didn’t understand something that was explained to me and lacked the confidence to put my hand up to express that. Our maths teacher would explain the subject of the lesson to us, then leave us to get on with it. I would then start to get on with it and hit a stumbling block and finding the teacher busy assisting other students (for what seemed like the rest of the lesson) I would turn to my friend who seemed to grasp maths far better than I, and I would try and get help from him instead, or just copy his work whilst trying to understand the process better. This teacher I actually quite liked, and I considered him attentive and respectful. I really appreciated it when he gave me and others extra time during lunch breaks when we came to preparing for our GCSEs.

Quite often it seemed to me, particularly when I realised what things I was good at and what I was interested in, yet struggled with, was that it wasn’t necessarily a particular subject that I was struggling with but the teaching style or the learning method I had been lead to. In coming to recognise this my approach, when I’ve actively sought a way forward, has been to take the positive elements from the things I am good at, elements that seem to magically enable me to absorb something, and to apply something similar to a subject I struggle with or have resigned to the belief that “I can’t learn that.” Above all though, I feel “an awkwardness in my brain” when faced with something mentally challenging and then I seek escape, so it’s a real challenge to push through such a sensation, especially when one only has their own motivation to propel them forward (I can see why certain students just disrupted the class when subjected to particular lessons, but more on that in a moment).

French was another subject I just couldn’t absorb. It seemed I was landed with the subject too late (age 11), then at high school with a teacher who was more strict than affective since she just had us working from text books whilst expecting us to speak and listen to her instruction in French when we didn’t know enough to follow. My fourth teacher in as many years of slogging through the classes was that nice one my friend knew, but this was one class where a few key students just misbehaved and prevented everyone else (who couldn’t stay focused) from learning anything, and the teacher from teaching. I and some others were again given the opportunity to go to extra study sessions during lunch breaks, but in the end I only just scraped through with a pass.

Years later I would move from England to Wales and attend part-time welsh-language classes once a week, only to make progress for the first year before I realised I wasn’t absorbing any more. I first came to accept that I “just can’t learn languages”, but like maths, I am intrigued by them and have even tried to teach myself (through things like free online tools and services like Memrise); I always admire it when people can learn languages or those who can speak multiple ones, and I’d love to have that capacity. I further accepted that I simply get ‘bored’ of things or lose my focus on things that drag on for more than a certain length of time. I first noticed this when taking up various musical instruments, one after the other through my school years, first the piano, then trumpet, then keyboard, and guitar; I remember having to approach my mum to ask her if I could “do something else now because I’m bored of that one”, a tricky thing to do when these things are paid for and money is tight. My last college course was a part-time one that I agreed to do, on my insistence, for only 6 months, because I was confident I already knew the topic and was just aiming to go through the motions to get the piece of paper at the end. Indeed this approach worked well for me and I completed the course. Sadly it turned out that I had been given the wrong work for qualification I was seeking, so this felt like yet another time the education system hadn’t worked for me.

My formal college and university years were all a minimum of 2 years apiece and I really only stuck at each for the first year, sadly losing momentum after that. These days I would shy away from such long-term projects and prefer short ones that, providing initial procrastination can be avoided, I can knuckle down with. If something grabs my attention more easily then I struggle to either avoid that or limit myself.

During one of those Youtube videos I watched, some young children diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum were tended to by being given a timer that when sounded during a study period, they had to actively consider their level of attention and how they were feeling and to keep a record of this. Some things like this can be hard to implement when under your own motivation with no assistance from others whom we feel encouraged to impress, but I recently discovered I had inadvertently implemented a not too dissimilar random alarm feature by way of a Tamagotchi pet!

Electronic pets known as Tamagotchis were all the rage when I was at high school in the 90s and I recently sought to re-live that fun experience and got myself some second-hand ones off ebay. Some weeks into caring for various pets, which I affectionately named, I came to realise that their beeping for attention at various times gave me a welcome interruption. This wasn’t so much a negative distraction (although had they being going off in a class back in the 90s would have been deemed as such), actually helped to draw me out of a period of mental focus, which when prolonged can be too draining and lead to mental fatigue without realising it. Quite often I will get on with a project (like writing a lengthy blog post) or absorb myself in something entertaining, only to lose the mental capacity to stop myself and give myself a much needed break. The random beeping would give me this much welcome and needed interruption.

Speaking of lengthy blog posts, I shall call this one it for now. My conclusion is that I had a good number of teachers that I am thankful for, ones that dedicated extra time for me and others. It seems that the official curriculum that they have to adhere to often leaves them restricted in their approach, unable to properly recognise what help certain students need, or adjust their teaching style to suit. My belief these days is probably that schools for the masses aren’t the best thing, but that individual teachers, nonetheless, can and do have a positive impact on the individual students. Even as I pass through my 30s I’m still learning, not only subjects that still intrigue me, but about myself and how best for me to learn and study things.

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