Story of an Autistic Teacher: encouraging Aspies beyond their ‘natural limits’
I usually make my posts very personal. I think the human element is extremely important.
This may be one of the more difficult posts to write. Because this one doesn’t just describe my brain. It tells my story.
So, here we go.
Before I left teaching last Christmas, I had played just about every role you can play in education- or, at least, the roles you can play in your twenties. I had been a volunteer. I had been a teaching assistant. I had been a student teacher. After I qualified, I had been a Year 5/6 teacher, a Year 3 teacher, a supply teacher, a chess teacher(!) and an LSA in a special school- where I worked with both mildly affected and severely affected students.
And this was the conclusion I reached:
Whoever invented the phrase “teachers are born, not made,” I want to find them and hit them.
For anyone who doesn’t know the phrase, it suggests that there are ‘natural teachers’, who show so much promise during their very early years that they’re pretty much destined for educating others.
I won’t lie, developing early social skills gives you an advantage. But anyone who honestly believes that confidence and intelligence at age three has any bearing on how you’ll act in the classroom twenty years down the line, seriously underestimates the importance of the twenty years in between.
So, lesson one about teachers:
Teachers are made.
Teachers are made.
Teachers. Are. Made.
And if you think otherwise, try endured a teaching course. I dare you.
I don’t know what a ‘natural teacher’ is supposed to be, but it wasn’t me. So, I’m going to take you on a brief journey to explain how people- including autistic people- can be built up to be something brilliant even if the odds are against them.
How the weird kid learned to lead people
This confused boy here is Chris. He is 13 years old, has rudimentary social skills but no leadership skills, is very bright at school but really doesn’t know much about people. With people he knows, he is far too loud. Around the people he doesn’t know, he is far too quiet. He’s physically big, so you’d expect him to be confident. But… well, no.
He’s also totally transparent. If he’s nervous, you can always see it in his face. (And bullies love that.)
And of course, it’s 1999. This means he’s the weird kid. He doesn’t have Asperger’s yet.
You’ve probably gathered that this was me in Year 8 (7th Grade). I was pretty good at the drums, having learned through the marching band in my local Boys’ Brigade company. Then along came this man.
This is Ted, our Company Captain- currently playing the trombone in the village carnival aged 78. (Impressed? You’ve seen nothing yet, trust me.)
When I first met Ted he had already been leading people for half a century, having been born in 1930 and watched most of his Boys’ Brigade company’s adults shipped off to fight Hitler. The remains of his company had to give responsibilities to some of the boys in order to keep going. And that was how Ted grew up- taking responsibility at a very early age, developing a whole load of skills to help keep his company afloat.
Skip forward to 1999, and this man had guided generations of irresponsible children into dutiful, well-developed adults.
Maybe that was why nobody questioned him when he pointed to the 13-year-old weird kid with a drum and said “let’s make that boy grow up to lead the band.”
…Seriously? The kid who gets picked on by everyone older than him? And lets them get away with it?
Ted was willing to invest in me. And that changed the course of my life.
Tell a teenager you trust them, then sit back and watch them change.
So what happens when you give an autistic teenager responsibility?
The same as when you give it to any other teenager. In my experience, both as a leader and someone who’s been led, if you trust a young person with responsibility, they will almost always deliver.
People have an instinct for not wanting to let people down. The same is true of youngsters. With teenagers (and especially with teenagers) other people’s opinions are extremely important to them… for better or worse.
(Disclaimer: once in a while the person may let you down- sometimes deliberately- and it is painful when they do. But it’s absolutely worth it, for all the positives that come from someone believing in them.)
So, back to the story…
Ted had the habit of launching people right outside of their comfort zone, whilst building them up so fast that their comfort zone would quickly catch them up.
At fourteen, I was the lead drummer of our Boys’ Brigade marching band, parading through the streets of our village, being watched by other teenagers who did not think it was cool to be part of a Christian organisation with a marching band.
But if nothing else, I was loyal. Far more loyal to Ted than to people who would probably have hated me no matter what I did. So despite the embarrassment, I stayed on.
Maybe it was the result of leading other people, or maybe it was the joy of making loud noises in the middle of a street. Or maybe it was life experience. But I began to get confident. By fifteen I was helping the kids on regular BB nights as well as band nights.
People now tell me I’m “a natural” when working with kids, or even just when talking to them. But by now you probably know my opinions on leadership skills being “natural”.
For the first few months, I literally heard the kids saying “oh no, it’s Chris,” when I arrived. Wow, how things changed. But they only changed because I kept trying to learn: in my older teen years I wasn’t old enough to be a staff member, but I was actively trying to build up the next generation- both in playing the drums and with their confidence in general.
Ted looked on, probably feeling quite comfortable that he’d got what he wanted after all.
(In all fairness, he usually did get what he wanted.)
When I came back from university I wasted no time in becoming a BB staff member. Leading these kids was something I had become good at. More than that, it was a responsibility I knew in my heart that I needed to keep up. The kids not only adored me, but relied on me to help and guide them personally. Being good at leading a crowd of youngsters was just a bonus.
(At this point in the story, having just read that paragraph above, I would like to remind you that I am autistic.)
I’m not saying I was really confident as a person. I wasn’t particularly, and I had my issues. But I had been given a place where I could play to my strengths (point 5), and my lack of confidence in other places was made up for by what I was doing for the company.
And then teaching.
I became a primary school teacher- something which nobody saw coming at the age of thirteen (myself included).
As I’ve said earlier, teaching is difficult. I didn’t find it difficult because of my Asperger’s- I found it difficult because it was difficult. According to various union statistics, half of British teachers are considering leaving the profession, (although this next link puts it at 90% considering it over the last two years), 96.5% of teachers claim that the workload has a negative impact on their personal/family life, and 40% of newly qualified teachers are gone within a year.
So it’s surprising I lasted as long as I did, especially in the face of frequent unemployment (as I could only get temporary jobs- since even the easy interviews are difficult for people like me who can’t smooth-talk).
If you’re a young person tempted to go into the teaching profession, try not to be discouraged by this. Things have to change in the time between now and the day you apply for the course. The alternative is collapse, and any political party who allows the education system to collapse will be swiftly voted out. (Coincidentally it’s election day today– and this former teacher will be seeking some well-earned revenge through the ballot box.)
The best and worst times of my life were in the teaching profession. It’s extremely rewarding and extremely difficult. (I was once told that “teaching isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle choice.”) And in almost every case, the staff teams I worked with were lovely. Most teachers are there to build people, after all.
Oh- and the rewarding thing I’ve ever done in teaching was work in a special school, alongside autistic students taking their GCSEs. The school had never had an autistic staff member before, and it was a privilege helping them to see that they were far from alone- and letting them know from personal experience that having autism is not always a barrier, even if the world makes it feel that way.
One day I’m sure I’ll write a very long post about life in the teaching profession, but (despite the title), this isn’t about my time as a teacher. It’s how people with Asperger’s can be built up, so let’s get back to the Boys’ Brigade.
Ted’s 80th birthday and retirement (in that order)
From his 70th birthday onwards (way back in 2000), every disease on Earth was trying to kill Ted. He had cancer twice, and overcame a hernia to get to my 18th birthday party.
Because screw it, he was too busy with his youth group to be distracted by something as trivial as illness.
Seriously, I’ve never met such a machine. He took a group of us camping in Germany in 2008- this is a picture of a 78-year-old cancer patient who capsized a sailing boat in the Baltic, swam to shore with two kids in tow, and laughed into the camera.
By 2010, he finally got the impression that the company would survive without him. Shortly after his 80th birthday, he announced his retirement from the company he had led and loved for twenty years- and from the youth organisation he had belonged to for his whole life.
Nobody wanted to be captain after him. Most people were too busy with work and kids (and let’s face it, who wants to perform on stage right after The Beatles?).
And then someone suggested me. I was unemployed at the time, the kids looked up to me, and it would be good experience of dealing with/communicating with parents, which everyone knew was not a huge strength of mine.
My first instinct in that meeting was to brainstorm every counter-reason that I could. But then (and it may have been Ted’s thoughts in my head), I thought “you know what? This could be the making of me.”
I’ve now been Captain for nearly five years.
The photo on the left was Ted at his retirement party. It naturally fell to me to give a speech about him, and all the great things he had done. Quite an honour.
The photo on the right is the 25-year-old autistic boy who took over from him.
As for Ted being a tough act to follow, it’s not been bad.
Remember the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics? Everyone knew it wasn’t going to be as spectacular as Beijing because the money wasn’t available. But Danny Boyle found a way around it. The secret to following a good act isn’t to mimic it. It’s doing things your own way and being a good act for your own reasons. And that’s what Danny Boyle did.
All in all, I was ok because I wasn’t trying to be Ted. I’d have been terrible at it.
Being captain has allowed me to lead things in my own direction. It’s bizarre and quirky (Ted would not have been happy with Nerf-gun fights after band each Friday, or the kids filming spoof horror movies with cuddly Teletubbies as the villains!) but it’s consistent with my leadership style, and it builds up the kids.
The sad part that you might have seen coming…
Within a year of retirement, Ted was dead.
By the time cancer took him, he was able to stick two middle fingers up at the disease and say “screw you, I did my duty anyway.” Or would have done, if that was his style.
I remember the last time we had a proper conversation- I went round to tell him about a £1000 grant we had been offered by our local councillor. Ted talked with his usual enthusiasm about how the company was going and how to get me a job, and he finished the conversation by reminding me that he thought of me as his adopted godson. After that, I left feeling fairly happy.
Some time later, after church one Sunday, I went to visit him for the last time. He was there in silence, conscious but weak. Seeing the near-indestructible Ted lying down like that had shocked most people, but truthfully I was just happy to see him again. It was an opportunity.
I didn’t know whether he knew he was dying, and I didn’t want to act like it was our last meeting… just in case I accidentally broke the news.
So I simply told him how our BB company was doing. I told him how the kids were learning, and how one day they’d be amazing drummers who might even lead the band themselves.
If I knew he’d worked out he was almost dead, I’d probably have said something like this:
“I want to thank you for shaping my life the way you did. I never told you about my Asperger’s, but I have it- and it could have stopped me from doing a load of things. There’s a big part of me… possibly the biggest part of me… that simply wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for you.”
His wife, who to this day remains the company’s unofficial grandmother [edit: Mary, too, died two months after this article was written. She had a good ending too, as endings go.], said a sentence that has stuck with me ever since.
“Chris has taken up the baton and is running with it, just like you did from Captain Smith.”
At age 13, I would have felt pressure. Not now.
Not after what Ted did.
He died a couple of days later, giving death one final kick in the teeth by surviving until Wednesday when he was ‘supposed’ to die on Tuesday.
Whilst writing this article I came across a diary entry I made at the time. The day after he died, I went to a school voluntarily and taught some chess. I wrote:
I came to realise that day that schools are perhaps the best place to be to recover from somebody’s death: they’re a constant reminder that the world has not stopped, nor is it decaying. There are new generations sprouting up that will make the Teds of tomorrow, and whilst they are still young there are such fantastic opportunities to build them up to be all they can be. We cannot influence the fact that elderly people die, but we can guide the young to live full and amazing lives in the time before it happens.
Ted taught me that nobody ever dies. In order for someone to properly die, you have to remove their influence from the world altogether. As long as I’m alive, so is Ted. As long the kids I’ve been fortunate enough to build up are still alive, so am I, and in turn so is Ted.
So, now you know my story, can you see why it pisses me off when people tell me ‘teachers are born, not made’?
I did not become a teacher because of any skills I was born with. Anyone who says they are is either lying, or simply doesn’t have a story as interesting as mine.
Allow me to demonstrate the right way and wrong way of becoming the best you can be. (This applies to teaching and to everything else.)
The right way:
- Have good role models that present you with good opportunities.
- Have the good character to take those opportunities.
- Work bloody hard.
- Whenever you fail at something, try again.
- Learn from experience.
- Keep developing your skills, no matter how long you’ve been doing it.
- Become brilliant. And even then, keep on developing your skills.
The wrong way:
- Assume you were born with the skills because you’re just naturally awesome.
- Show off.
- Ignore opportunities to learn because you’re smart enough already.
And the right way works for autistic people too. I remember when I left the special school I was an LSA at, and the class teacher delivered a short speech about me in assembly before giving me a leaving present. She said (word for word):
“We’ll miss Chris- his chess club, and his… quirky approach to life. …I think that’s the politest way of putting it.”
Best tribute ever. 😀
And one last funny story:
Everyone at the special school knew about my Asperger’s. I had an ‘autistic moment’ in the staffroom one day- I can’t remember what it was but it made people laugh (which was fine).
Another LSA: “Oh Chris, what are we going to do with you? You’re a star.”
Me: “I’m… my own kind of special.”
Half the bloody room: “Yeah, no-one’s denying that!”
So when I left that school and gave primary teaching one more try, I kept this on my desk until the day I finished teaching.
Give autistic people responsibilities. I promise, we will thrive.
Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
Copyright © Chris Bonnello 2015-2017
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