Teacher in the Gray — Part 1

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Let Me Teach You How to Drown

The reek of a fresh marker emanates from the front of the classroom. Fine chalk dust fills the air and scalds the lungs. A cold shiver follows the loud twang of a diving board. It’s time for class, and you’re about to learn everything and nothing at all.

I’ve taught professionally for nine years and loved almost every minute of it. It started with teaching swim lessons at sixteen, followed by lifeguarding courses, and more recently as a teaching assistant during my undergraduate degree and year at graduate school. Additionally, I’ve tutored lab mates in basic programming and bioinformatics, worked at a summer lab course for high school students, and presented research at outreach events, symposiums, and conferences. Currently, I educate at an aquarium—which I absolutely love. OCD and ADHD transude into my teaching efficacy and style for both good and ill.

My lectures involve exhaustive explanations due to OCD. While my students perform well on standardized tests or exams I wrote (and I create tough tests), OCD doesn’t acknowledge accomplishments and frequently undermines my capacity as an educator. The fear of incompetence drives me to ensure everyone knows everything and that I’m never misunderstood:

If I miss even one detail, my students might lack valuable knowledge and fail their test.
What if I misinform them, and then they ruin their lab’s samples?
They’ll hate me as I’ve disserviced them.
Why am I making their lives worse?
Am I completely missing the mark?
How do they want me to teach?
I shouldn’t be teaching them.

Such obsessions consume my mind before and after lectures and cause me to lose sleep at night. Excessive rumination on my students’ education consumes hours of most days and every night. In response, I over-teach. Every slide takes three, five, seven minutes to explain, and procedures require an in-depth discussion about both the logistics and theory of every step. Oh, and who can forget about the ten-minute answers to 30-second questions? When class is only 40 minutes (or three hours for my lab sections, but they involve in-depth, hands-on experiments), no one has time for lengthy answers and 50-minute lectures. This long-winded teaching style often bores students and causes them to ignore large segments of my lecture. Quite the irony, that over teaching to avoid hurting their education actually mitigated their potential scholarship.

Ruminating on Rumination

Pondering helps people to flex their mental muscle, and explore topics independent of external materials. One can gain substantial intuition ruminating about a phenomenon. However, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder causes sufferers to ruminate to an unhealthy extent. What starts as a reflection about, well, anything quickly devolves into an OCD spiral in a search for an absolute (and only Sith deal in those).

ADHD pulls my lectures into a million less-than-smooth segues, both drawing out lessons and distracting students from important principles. Getting a coherent line of thought from me works as well as feeding beets to bears. Every concept has some distracting detail that I turn into an entirely new discussion:

The typical structure of my lectures

The same issues of length creep in again; a simple yes or no question transforms tangible theories toward tangential tangles that evince entertainingly extraneous edification (I really like the “The V Speech“). Now combine OCD and ADHD: every tangent needs a thorough explanation and then a new distraction requires a lecture and so on. Students become confused by the disorganization: what information actually pertains to the course, experiment, and test?

OCD and ADHD also enhance my prowess as an educator. The combination of constant distraction and compulsion to know all things completely results in a lot of self-study. When writing a lecture or reviewing a procedure before class, I explore every curiosity to its fullest. This lets me anticipate students’ questions and give meaningful feedback. Some students enjoy the meandering lesson structure as they get a thorough background on the portion of the lesson we do complete, and tangents expose them to new ideas and topics they can engage. Though grading became a huge generator of obsessions and compulsions, as detailed shortly, my perfectionism and fear of bias results in thoroughly and consistently evaluated assignments with substantial feedback on anything longer than a quiz. One class’s final report had a rubric with 95 items, a comment field for each item, and a general comments section. Above all else, though, teaching excites me, and I believe it shows. Deeply exploring numerous topics leads to a continuous stream of new ideas, hypotheses, and possibilities. The world opens up, so let’s explore it together.

But my disorders catastrophically stripped me of the teaching I so love. During my year at graduate school, I taught four lab sections consisting of roughly 20 students each. I was the sole grader (other than an amazing undergraduate teaching assistant who helped with grading some quizzes). As such, I became terrified that I’d show favoritism, discriminate, become biased, miss a key point, or otherwise hurt their grades. They’ll inappropriately fail my class, get disappointed with themselves, and then spiral into hating science, quitting their degree, or failing school. The fates of my students wholly rested on my shoulders.

A relevant inside look into grading: as a teacher continues to grade open-answer questions, their mental model of good and poor answers evolve. Personally, my grading gets stricter as I progress. This is a direct result of the learning process: we form models that integrate new information over time. For me, and probably many other graders, the expectations rise over time: resulting in lower grades for the latter students. Reading through many students’ answers before grading can significantly mitigate this phenomenon.

…I obsessively obsess on things I think about …

Ruminating, fill balloons up full of doubt

“Leave Me Alone” by NF

My obsessions about student success resulted in extreme compulsions. Two of my lab sections required the students to turn in two large lab reports mimicking published scientific articles. The 33 students wrote reports averaging about 3,000 words each. Teachers typically skim essay-length assignments for important points and critical information—but what if I missed something while skimming that provided important context or would increase their grade? All 100,000 words must be read at least once. Now, let’s do some math. The average person reads technical documents at 50–75 words per minute: divide 100,000 words by 75 words per minute and then divide that by 60 minutes per hour, and we get 22.22 hours of reading. But, but but but, that’s 22 hours not including ADHD (I’m lucky if I only get distracted one every five minutes), re-reading segments, referencing the rubric, and marking the papers. Grading all the lab reports took me around 40 hours. Grad students were only supposed to work 20 hours a week on their lab sections including weekly meetings, class time, office hours, and preparation time!

Grading interfered with my own coursework and research and triggered unhealthy, dangerous compulsions. I was primarily a student who also taught for an assistantship. In addition to my own coursework, I was supposed to be performing research in my graduate lab and writing academic articles. The principle investigator received null reports week after week. He must have been disappointed and frustrated that nothing assigned to me got done—entire semesters just burned away. In an attempt to grade everything and return to other responsibilities, I stayed up to unspeakable hours working. Except, I wasn’t working. The amount of unfinished work became an insurmountable colossus. Then I’d spiral:

You have to get it done. You told them they’d get their assignments back.
It’s too much. It’s not worth it.
What is wrong with you? Get. It. Done.
Why? I won’t finish them all.
Why only give some students it back?
I’ll just waive the assignment.
You’re not allowed to do that.
I’m too tired. I’ll do a bad job.
I’m too tired. I’ll do a bad job.
I’m too tired. I’ll do a bad job.
I’m too tired. I’ll do a bad job.
I’ll fail them.
I’ve already failed them.
Just stay up.
You have to finish.
It’s not possible.

The clock reads 0100, 0200…0700. It’s time to leave for my lab section, and I’ll have to tell them that they won’t be getting their assignments yet again. A bitter bike ride to a dark room and the upset faces of angry students. Sadly, all-nighters were quite common, and sleep-deprivation became a perpetual state of mind. The worst spiral resulted in only four hours of sleep across 72 hours! I became jumpy, beyond irritable, paranoid, ineffective, and shaky. I was breaking.

I broke. Intrusive thoughts slammed into me like a SCUBA diver in a turbulent ocean. My regulator ripped from my mouth as wave after wave churned and threw its might against the beach. Thrashing and fighting for the surface, my limbs were limp against the ocean’s power. Oxygen poured from the cylinder, but I couldn’t catch a sip. Bubbles spilled before my eyes, mocking me. The weight-belt kept me just below the surface; it was fused into my hips, and all hope of floating fled. Ice gripped my heart. Foul, salty water flooded my lungs.

The deserts of southern Utah fade into the night as I return from a trip to LA—where I last taught. Half of my belongings were left in a storage unit when I fled almost seven months ago. While recovering my belongings, I visited the lab I labored in before everything went dark. An old lab mate and a loving friend showed me how much had changed in the last half-year. The lab had moved buildings leaving a bittersweet mix of familiarity and alien novelty. Leaving that beautiful, labyrinthian brick building for the last time has left me pensive. The reflection of the full moon mirrors my reminiscence of the last thirteen months.

Have a great day and always practice self-compassion!

A Fantastic Friend of Mine