Sunday, April 21, 2013

Adolescence, and other mental "disease or defect"

My non-teaching friends who knew me "back when" are probably surprised that I love teaching adolescents as much as I do:  as a high school student, I often felt disconnected--even alienated--from my peers, and certainly my best friends were typically a few years older, not kids my age.  And yet here I am, loving being with kids: on field trips, I tend to sit in the back of the bus, with the students.

Part of that is probably my mild but ongoing sense of alienation from my "peers":  I'd often rather spend time with high school kids than with people my own age, partly because I don't necessarily like people my own age.  But the major shift is perspective: I'm able to enjoy the company of adolescents much more now than I did when I was an adolescent precisely because I'm not one of them.  The things that kids do that I found weird or incomprehensible or eneverating are now more curiosities than anything else.  I can understand and appreciate where they're coming from, even if it's not where I was coming from at that age.  (Every so often I'll say to kid X about kid Y, "I totally get that kid Y is driving you crazy, but ... ")  The grade-panics, the living from dramatic cliffhanger to dramatic cliffhanger, the sometimes near-total oblivion about the "big picture"--I now see these things as part of the pathology of adolescence, not personal defects.  They're not bad people, and I've come to realize that the many of the things they do and say--even to me--aren't really about me.  Those behaviors are about where the kid is at this moment.  There are some truly antisocial behaviors, but often I can do something about those.

In the big picture, adolescence doesn't bother me, because it's just adolescence.

I find myself thinking about this appreciation-with-distance as I think about teaching and working with students who have learning disabilities or mental illness.  A kid who can't get it together to get work done and in on time, who can't be relied upon to seek out extra help (even after multiple suggestions), or with whom I find myself having the same conversation for the fifth or sixth time--that kid can get under my skin.  As teachers, it's much easier for us to accommodate obvious physical disabilities.  I can teach a blind kid geometry: I provide raised-print materials and manipulatives, allow him to talk through problems that would be too hard to write out, give him a partner that can help with the manipulative stuff or describing diagrams.  (Actually, my two blind geometry students have been among my strongest, perhaps because they expend so much effort on retaining and adjusting a mental representation of the physical space around them.  But I digress....)  I know what's causing his problem, and I know what I can do to work around it.  But the etiology of these just-not-enough-effort-applied-in-the-right-way behaviors -- I don't know it, I can't see it, and I don't know what to do with it.  And that's frustrating.

I don't think I'm alone.  While the teachers at my school do a great job with students with autism, or with disabilities that come with clear-cut accommodations (written directions, access to technology or reference materials during tests, etc.), I find our hardest conversations revolve around kids who "just aren't doing it"--even when we know that those kids have processing disorders, or are struggling with major depression.

One reason is that these kids are capable of consuming an almost infinite amount of one-on-one resources, which are scarce at the best of times.  That scarcity comes from our basic teaching model:  somewhere between 20 and 35 kids together in a room, working on roughly the same thing at the same time.  (The fundamental inadequacy of this model is why I find resources like Khan Academy worth investigating and thinking about, despite their overemphasis on rote or procedural knowledge.)  So I have a choice about whether to spend fifteen minutes or half an hour with a single kid, often with no obvious results beyond the task at hand, or to spend that time doing something that will help the other 19-34 kids in the room, or the other 119-150 kids in my courses.  And so it's hard to put that time in with that one kid and not feel like I'm taking something away from everyone else.

But a more fundamental problem is that it's hard to see the student's disability--whether a learning/cognitive disability, or part of a mental illness--as a symptom rather than as a character flaw.  That same breakthrough that I've had about my adolescents' adolescence is harder to attain.  Part of that is background knowledge:  unless you've had or spent considerable time with someone undergoing clinical depression, it's hard to see how debilitating that condition can be.  But part is that we work so hard on communicating the news about these proactive student behaviors to our classes that when someone seems like they're "not catching on", we can't really understand why.  "What's the mystery?  Just get it done!" we say, although I'd never say to a kid struggling with quadratics "What's the mystery?  Just use the quadratic formula!"

Kids with these problems can be almost infinitely frustrating--I want to say "annoying", even though I know that's not fair.  And that frustration makes the whole problem harder, because it makes it harder for me to achieve that distance where I say "This is not about me, or the assignment, or even the kid.  It's about this disease."  It makes it harder for me to devote that time to that student without feeling like I'm (or he is) ripping my other students off.  And when I do that spend that time, two things tend to happen.  First, the student's behavior doesn't change much right away, and then it's hard not to take the continuing "apathy" personally:  I spent all this time on you, and you won't even meet me halfway.  Second, it's hard to know when or where to stop:  I find myself having the same conversations over and over again, without any evidence of progress.

I don't have an answer to this problem as a learning problem, but I do know this:  the kid isn't just the symptom, or the collection of symptoms.  Every kid wants to feel like a whole person.  So the one thing I can do is communicate that fact to the kid, that regardless of how they're behaving now, I still think they're a whole, valuable person; that I know they're not just this one set of symptoms; that I still love them.  I'm not sure how much saying that helps in the short term, or even in the medium term.  But over the long term, I think it's the only thing that can.