Teacher or Comedian? An ADHD Career Story
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Teacher or comedian? An ADHD career story

“Did Ben Franklin die of syphilis from a lady of the night?” As a kid with ADHD, Chris Ivan hated school, but he found his calling as a history teacher by bringing comedy into the classroom. Hear why Chris thinks teaching is an awesome career for people who learn and think differently.

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Episode transcript

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

Being a teacher is one of the most common paths for people with thinking and learning differences. And we want to understand why. So today we're talking to Chris Ivan, a social studies teacher in Columbus, Ohio. Chris has ADHD. He hated social studies as a kid. In fact, he didn't like school all that much at all. But he became passionate about wanting to help and make a difference in the classroom. And we want to welcome Chris to the show. Welcome, Chris. 

Chris: Hi! 

Eleni: I would love for you to talk a little bit about going to school growing up, and where your inspiration came from to become a social studies teacher. 

Chris: I definitely hated social studies at first. It was like, OK, we got all these people that are dead. They did things. Congratulations. How does that impact little old Chris Ivan, who is in ninth grade, just trying to scoot on by. How does this affect me? Why do I care about what old dead people did? I kind of liked English, but even then I just wasn't that into school. I had a teacher, he just, he made it fun.

He was funny. He was charismatic. He definitely showed an interest in not only the subject, but the students' lives. And I didn't always get that growing up. I didn't get the, you know, the kind of people to be interested in, like what was going on in my life. So having that experience really inspired me to pursue education as a career field, just so I could be, you know, a blending voice to kids for their personal issues.

Eleni: That's awesome. Tell me about your teacher. 

Chris: He would draw parallels sometimes. Like how does this connect to you? And he would just also crack jokes all the time. And that caught my attention. So I feel like even though I hated social studies at first, it was the one that I ended up falling in love with. And even with most people I've talked to, since I became a social studies teacher, they'll be like, oh, you're a teacher. What kind? Social studies. Oh, I hated that class. Most kids do. 

Eleni: And now you're a teacher. 

Chris: I told that story, actually, to my kids. They're like, why did you want to be a social studies teacher? I was like, well, I actually despised social studies for the longest time. And the one kid went, "That's literally how I am with you." I'm like, I almost cried. I don't do that. But I almost cried. Like that meant so much to me that you used to hate social studies and you enjoyed it because of me. That meant a lot. If they think social studies sucks, I try to make it not suck for them. 

Eleni: What are some of the ways that you make it not suck? 

Chris: I just, I mean, joking around, you know, random historical facts that I guess could be taboo. There's theories that Ben Franklin died of syphilis from a French lady of the night. And I bring that up, and they're just like in shock that a teacher would bring that up. I'm like, look, it's history. I can talk about that. And like it's dumb little history facts that they — it helps them remember other parts of the lesson, because now they want to hear more of that. They want to hear more of that obscure stuff. So even if you just have one occasionally they're like, OK, so what else is he going to say?

So I feel like I don't even have to come up with the jokes sometimes. The joke's just in history. It's OK to go off topic occasionally, which having ADHD, I do a lot. They take advantage of that sometimes, because they know they can get me off topic and go on a tangent somewhere else. And then I catch myself. I'm like, "Hey, stop." But I mean, it's that kind of conversations and that rapport with the students that really get them to want to learn when you are learning. 

Eleni: And so you mentioned your ADHD. And one thing that comes up is going on a tangent. Are there any other things that show up in the classroom with your ADHD? And are there any strengths that you're able to play into in the classroom?

Chris: So, hyperfixation is both my love and my hatred of my life. Because if I can focus it on something, it's great. And there's been times where I've been able to zone it all in a direct, like more productive path. But then there's times I'm two hours down a rabbit hole on Facebook, wasting my life away. So, if you can learn how to like, fix that hyperfixation and focus in something else, that has helped me before. You have to dial it back sometimes and notice when you're doing it. There's times though, where you just get up, so caught up in a conversation that you forget that I'm a teacher. I'm like, oh crap, we didn't do anything in this class period. So that can both be a benefit and a downfall. 

Also sometimes with ADHD, there can be some slight mood swings. I can tell when I'm getting like tense and irritated. Working with kids can be very stressful at times. I mean, I love those little guys to death, but sometimes they just severely get under my skin. But I do, I love them. But the hyperness helps a lot because I mean, I listened to a keynote speaker one time. His name is Kevin Honeycutt. And he said that kids that grow up in chaos, learned best in chaos. And that's just something that has stuck with me throughout. Cause I get that. Like I grew up in chaos, and I knew I learned best in not a traditional atmosphere. I learned best when someone was, you know, standing on a desk, doing something wacky, cause it caught my attention. So I mean, I like to play on that a lot. 

Eleni: What is it about growing up in chaos? What is it about chaos that allows you to thrive?

Chris: We had severe financial issues. Mom was disabled. My dad lost his job, tried to open a business and it folded. So I was working at a factory while I was in high school to help them pay for their living expenses.

So doing that on top of school when I have ADHD — at that time, I wasn't diagnosed — then working at a factory while I was trying to balance, you know, a personal life, which — that took the back burner a lot. I didn't really have time to breathe, and it was exhausting. I learned best in chaos because it was just like, I was used to always go, go, go. So if there's not a go, go, go in the learning atmosphere, but in a fun way, it doesn't catch my attention. That would just not be my main thought at that time. I'd be like, OK, after school, you have to go to work, you have to do this and that. Now I'm focused on all this stuff. And my hyperfixation's got a whole deep route of what's your next week gonna look like, and then I'm just overanalyzing all that.

So that quick, funny comments that the teacher makes would help me stay on task, being more than just the lecturer and trying to make it pop. Because you're used to there being so much going on in your life and not being able to even enjoy yourself for a lot of it. That kind of chaos helps. 

Eleni: When we last spoke, you also talked about organization and how juggling school and work at the same time helped you figure that out. And what do you think that you learnt from living in chaos? 

Chris: Yeah, I had terrible organizational skills. If you looked at my desk, I mean, it looked like a trash heap. Like you could probably go to a scrap yard and it would look the exact same thing, picture for picture. But then, you know, I started being like, OK, let's put stuff in folders. And that sounds so trivial. But when I say "put stuff in folders," I mean not just shoving it in there. Because to me that's what it was. And I think I over-thought that. It's having folders for specific topics within history, things like that. So I started figuring out different ways that worked for me, especially with study habits and organization for learning. And I'm also the type of person who will mindlessly read. I will read four pages and then go, "What the heck did I just read?" Because I will not pay any attention while reading. My eyes will be doing it, but my mind will be somewhere else.

Unfortunately that's how it works with ADHD. You can't really zone in on things like that all the time. I learned for me rewriting the notes, while it's incredibly mundane and it's annoying having to do that — I have hand cramps for days — rewriting the notes helped me, cause I would have to read it and physically write it. That would help me prepare for the tests.

Eleni: I want to go back to something else that you mentioned: the idea that you had a funny teacher and using comedy in the classroom. Do you want to talk a little bit about how that shows up in the classroom? 

Chris: Yeah, kids just like humor, you know, like even if you tell a corny dad joke, they love it. They act like they don't. They're going to go "Oh, that's so stupid." But they're laughing at the same time. And it's just simple things here and there. I have like a couple of memes on my wall instead of a traditional "Here's a picture of the Constitution." OK, no one wants to read that. No kid looks at that and feels inspired. Which sounds terrible, because the Constitution should be an inspiring thing. Oh, I'm a terrible teacher. But it's not just catching the kids' eye. They might look at the Constitution and go, "Oh, those are nice words." They're not having fun with it. I have a picture of just two bear arms, and it's for the right to bear arms. And they're always like, why is there bear arms? And I'll be like, "Cause you have the right to bear arms." But like, wow. And I just think it's funny. It's just doing little small stuff like that. 

Eleni: I appreciate the dad jokes. And like, do you talk to your students about your ADHD and how it impacts you? 

Chris: Yeah, I like to be open with them. Because part of the reason that I became a teacher is I want to be someone they can confide in if they don't feel like they can go to Mom and Dad. I know that's how I felt a lot. I want them to have that comfortability around me. Are you depressed? Are you OK? You can tell me this. So I tell them how it was difficult for me. I tell them, I was like, "Look, I got held back in first grade." And they're like, "What? You're a teacher!" Well yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm phenomenal. I just, you know, I messed up occasionally. And then a lot of the other kids that have ADHD really seemed to like, appreciate that. But I feel like they know how much I had to try to get where I was and they appreciate that. 

Eleni: You mentioned it was difficult to like go to your parents about it. What made it difficult to talk to them and feeling alone during that time and not having many people to turn to?

Chris: My parents were just very religious, and there's nothing wrong with that. But, you know, it was kind of like to the point where God will fix it if we pray. And my mom was just the type that didn't want to accept her son could be like that, I guess. You know, she didn't want me to have an IEP. She didn't want stuff like that. So when I'd tell them about my ADHD and how I was also feeling depressed, I just felt like a lot of times, you know, I had no one to come to about it. 

And then I had some teachers, they would see that I was trying, but I was like easily off task all the time. And they could see that a lot of days I was just physically upset and exhausted. And they would check in, just pull me out in the hall. At first, I thought it was like, oh crap, I'm getting into trouble. I don't even know what I did. It was just to check in on me. How are you feeling? You OK? And you know, that just meant a lot, because I didn't get that as much from my parents as I did from teachers.

My track coach, he knew of our financial situation. He knew that sometimes I had to miss practice to go work. They had these, uh, jackets and whatever. You could buy it if you're on the team. I obviously was not in a position to buy that. For me, 30 bucks, like that's food for a little while. You can't spend that on some zip-up jacket with the school mascot. So he bought that stuff for me. Just, it really touched my heart in a way. "Like, wow, why'd you do that? Teachers don't get paid a whole lot. You didn't have to do that for me." They went above and beyond, like, I was almost like their kid. And I felt like that was just, I don't know, that's something I kind of wanted one day. I wanted to kind of be someone that could be like, "I'm taking care of you, even though you aren't my own." 

Eleni: Yeah, that's really beautiful. And I know that you talked about this idea of going on a tangent, and sometimes the kids take advantage of that a little bit. Were there any surprises when you first started teaching, or any challenges that showed up that you didn't expect?

Chris: I didn't think that I would be that distracted that easily. They definitely take advantage of it. They know I love Batman, so I will zoom in on that whenever you talk about it. They'll mention something, and then when I'm like, finally starting to catch back on — OK, we need to do this — they're like, wait, one more question. You don't want to tell them no. And then you go on a tangent again. So, some problem. 

Eleni: And I know we've talked about your journey, becoming a teacher. What do you think about being a teacher for other people who have ADHD? Do you think it's a good job or a good career for people who think and learn differently?

Chris: I think it is, because you understand how people learn. You understand that not everyone's the same. I know what I need to provide to my ADHD students to help them. So I understand things need to be done in increments. If you need to stop for a couple seconds, do a little activity, and then get back to it, I understand that. You need to take breaks. There needs to be mental breathers there. I feel like that's why people with learning differences go into education, because they know they can help those people. I feel like that's why, another reason, cause they had a good interpersonal connection with a teacher.

Eleni: But you talked about thriving in chaos, about this idea of it being like a very stimulating environment. There's a lot of variety. It's very unpredictable. You have to think on your feet a lot. You don't necessarily know what the kids are going to throw at you. 

Chris: It's definitely good for ADHD. Because ADHD, you have quick reactions. I mean, there's hyperfixation, but you're also quick to react to things. I've always been able to play out things in my head a little bit as they move along. And it's very good because it is all over the place, and when you're someone that learns best in chaos, this job is chaos. You don't know if a kid's going to smile and say "How's your day going?" or if they're going to punch a locker. It's all over the place. It's unpredictable. And I think that's really good in a lot of ways. Especially when you have ADHD, if you do repetitive things all the time, your attention is all over the place. You no longer have that zoned in on that. But when things are doing different things, almost every other day, it can keep you more alert and paying more attention. 

I could never do someone's taxes. I could not just look at papers all day and fill in numbers. There's no way. 

I do think that it's very great for somebody that needs the extra stimulation. Because even if you teach the same lesson twice a day, it's not the same lesson those two times.

Eleni: You just mentioned not really enjoying repetitive tasks. And I know you had other jobs before you were a teacher. What are some of the things you learnt about yourself during those jobs? Was there anything that you were able to reapply to teaching or anything that made you figure out that maybe that wasn't the job for you?

Chris: Yeah. I mean, I've done a lot of jobs. I've been — done factory work, several different kinds of factory work. Made it one time with sanitation. One time, it was like a line person, like assembly line. Yeah. I don't know if you've ever seen the movie "The Wedding Singer," but there's a part where he's singing "Somebody kill me please." That's me when I work on an assembly line. I cannot do it. I learned I can not be standing in one place doing this. I can't do it. And I mean, it paid better than like retail. So that's why I did it. But I knew I couldn't do that forever. 

Eleni: And you mentioned that you hated retail. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you hated about it?

Chris: I was at Kmart, and there was a lawnmower in lawn and garden, like a riding lawnmower, and someone wanted it in layaway. You can't run a gas vehicle in a building. So I had to push by myself a manual riding lawnmower across from one end of the store to the other. And like, that was awful. And just like, there was no room for improvement. And stocking shelves is just so boring. And there's a thing called like facing shelves where you just push it forward. Like, does it really hurt people to reach a little farther back on the shelf? I just, it was stuff like that. I didn't see purpose in it. I didn't see anything beneficial out of it. And I just, I thought it was just, I don't know. I thought it was dumb. I just hated it. It just was not for me. Some people like doing that stuff. I have a buddy who's like a manager at a Walmart and he loves it. And I just don't understand that at all. So, not for everyone.

Eleni: Definitely not. I used to work in a supermarket and I also did facings. I know exactly what you're talking about.

Chris: I hate it. I don't — like, why does that matter? I don't know. 

Eleni: So, did you ever want to be anything other than a teacher? 

Chris: I wanted to be a film director. I'm a visual learner. Which is another thing: I feel like with ADHD, a lot of us aren't as much auditory as we are visual. So movies would show me the emotions that I should be feeling. And then like, it really, I did feel them. And I liked that. I feel like that helped me during that teenage angst phase. I'm trying to figure myself out. But it is just such a cutthroat industry that I decided to not pursue it. And I wasn't, I'm not exactly, like I said, did not come from a wealthy background. So even if I was magically able to figure out how to go to somewhere like USC and be able to afford it, I would probably graduate and not have a job for a very long time and be in trouble.

So that just was something that wasn't worth it. And I thought about being a lawyer for a while, but I don't know if I would be good for it. Because like I said, I liked teaching cause I help people. I like helping people. 

Eleni: OK. So you mentioned filmmaking earlier. You also mentioned comedy, and we've talked about storytelling before. How do you bring those things into the classroom? Or do you bring those things into the classroom? 

Chris: I like to just include life stories. And I actually have this technique where if they're getting off topic, I will bring up a random story, but I won't finish it. And it'll be one that sounds like it has an exciting, like ending. And they'll be like, "Dude, Mr. Ivan, no. Tell us." And I'll be like, "OK, we got a lot of work to do. So if, I'll tell you what. If we get through the rest of the week and we get as far as I want, I'll finish the story." And now they're just hyped. And they, if they start to forget, the other kids will be like, "Shhh! He's got that story he's going to tell at the end of the week." And I mean, it's not even like a super, super exciting story. It doesn't even always have to be that exciting of an ending. But sometimes they are exciting and it just gets the kids to really want to know more. So they will pay attention.

Eleni: Positive motivation, I love that. So Chris, if someone with a thinking and learning difference like ADHD is listening and thinking about becoming a teacher, where would you suggest that they start? And what should they know before going down that path? 

Chris: I would definitely look into observing a teacher. I feel like there needs to be more career exploration in your senior year. I mean, I had no idea. You really don't. I think, I mean, one semester maybe I did observing before, like student teaching. And by then you've practically graduated. Your student teaching is your last semester. And at that point you're like, oh, now that's my degree. And I feel like that's partially why there's such a high teacher turnover rate. I mean, there's a teacher shortage in America right now. It's not the only reason — we're underpaid and overworked and they keep just stacking more and more on teachers, especially with COVID.

But you don't get that observation until you're practically out the door. So I would suggest going out on your own and talking to a school and observing on your own, which is very difficult to do if you're working or going to school. I get that. But definitely do some observation. I mean, and that's with any job. Honestly, I feel like colleges don't give you enough field experience to see if you're even going to like that job. 

And definitely you gotta know your heart's in it. You gotta know that a kid will tell you to F off at some point. It is almost guaranteed they will say something like that. Even if they're — you're one of the more popular teachers and most love you, you're going to do something that rubs them the wrong way and they will go ballistic on you. Can you handle that? Is that OK? Not every kid is going to be smiley and happy. That's just the end of the day. They're not all happy all the time. 

So, you definitely gotta know that, like, do you have tough skin, but do you also have a heart? It's both. You gotta be tough while also being soft, which is a very, very weird explanation for that. But it's something that you gotta know about yourself before you go into it. Definitely talk to some teachers. They can tell you the kind of workload. I had no idea how much extra work you put into it. I love the job. It is great. But you have to know what you're getting yourself into. 

We hold teachers to this very high standard. But for real, if it's something that you want to do, just know that you are doing something a lot of people just simply cannot do. It's a job where a lot of people fold. That's why there's a high turnover rate. And you should be very proud of yourself that you're willing to do that.

Eleni: Thanks for being here, Chris. It was so nice to talk to you. 

Chris: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.

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    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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