From Disability to Discovery

Like all good Jewish children should, I call my mother often. Our usual chats, often car-bound, touch on the usual suspects: work, family, and the state of the world. We talk so often that our conversations seem to blend together. I love talking to my mother, but I couldn’t recall the majority of our conversations if my life depended on it—that is, until I called her to discuss what would later be diagnosed as my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at the age of twenty-eight.

My journey to diagnosis began during a session of our education seminar on learners with disabilities. Our professor brought in a speaker, an expert on learning disabilities, to lead our class in a survey of the most commonly encountered disabilities. This first session focused entirely on ADHD, its varied forms, and how to address student needs accordingly in the classroom. As the speaker delved further into her lecture, there was a gnawing at the back of my mind. All that she was saying—the impulsivity, difficulty multitasking, the constant fidgeting—this was my life. I began to circle ADHD symptoms in my notes as my anxiety threatened to boil over. 

Then, she showed us the video.

While most of the session focused on children with ADHD, our speaker wanted to make sure that we also heard from adults with the disorder. In those few short minutes, I began to see myself in their struggles, and I was scared. Scared that my brain was broken or that I was deficient in some way. Like most of the adults in that video, I had done well enough in school to squeak by, which is probably a large part of why I wasn’t tested until just this year. I finally had the overdue realization that I was in rabbinical school now, and squeaking by wasn’t going to cut it. 

So, like all good Jewish children should, I called my mom.

Ben: Hey Mom… do you still have Dr. So-and-So’s number?

Mom: I think so. What’s going on? Is everything ok?

Ben: Yeah… ummm… I think I might be a person with ADHD.

Mom: Didn’t we already know that?

Ben: No…

Mom: Hm, must have been one of your siblings.

To her credit, she has four children, all with a range of diagnoses and neuroses. It’s totally understandable that this one would slip through the cracks. After all, I passed my classes and scored decently on my standardized tests. My mother wasn’t the only one to react in this way. My fiancée, best friends, and siblings all said the same thing: “Didn’t we already know this?” With my team behind me, I began the process of being evaluated for ADHD and, lo and behold, the results came back plain as day: I had an acute learning disability. In the months that followed my diagnosis, I worked with HUC administrators and my professors to find what works best for me as a learner and teacher.

My diagnosis radically altered me not only as a learner but perhaps even more as a teacher. This process of self-discovery opened my eyes to the needs of diverse learners. I found myself bringing techniques from my doctor’s office into my lesson planning and classroom management style. My lesson plans became bigger and bolder as I realized that I needed to engage myself as a learner before I could expect my students to buy in. I had been working at religious schools for my entire adult life, but it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with ADHD that I really learned how to teach.

Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal and author of The Courage to Teach, explains that “teaching holds a mirror to the soul.” While I cannot quite match his remarkable prose, Palmer’s message is that teaching, in its rawest form, demands a level of self-knowledge not required by most professions. Oftentimes, teaching is seen as a one-way street on which knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to the student. Despite the prevalence of this misconception, it’s crucial to recognize that the goal of education cannot simply be the transference of knowledge. The goal of Jewish education, in particular, must be the development of human connection—teacher to student and student to teacher. It is my firm belief that meaningful learning starts with meaningful relationships. Out of that relationship grows trust, and from trust springs education that speaks to both mind and soul. In order for this to be the reality, teachers must know themselves as well, if not better, than those with whom they hope to connect.

During my time as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellow, I have had the pleasure of working at Temple Sholom. Given the congregation’s current space limitations, I was handed a religious school class made up of children ages nine to twelve. The wide range of ages in my classroom presented a unique challenge, as did the diversity of my learners. Early in the school year, I struggled to balance content delivery with the immense amount of classroom management that I was doing on a weekly basis. Teaching is inherently difficult, made even more so by children refusing to stay in their seats during the lesson.

It wasn’t until my official ADHD diagnosis that I truly began to know myself and understand my own needs as a both a teacher and learner. I began to question previous teaching decisions, slowly realizing that I had not been presenting my authentic self to my students. I distinctly remember asking myself why I insisted on standing at the front of the class, when my ADHD brain wanted me to be pacing around the room? The more I questioned my ingrained teaching practices, the more authentic my classroom became. My lessons took on a different tone as I started to incorporate activities that drew upon my ever-growing ADHD toolbox. It wasn’t only my lessons that changed, but also how I related to my students as individual learners. While not all children have learning disabilities, all children have specific learning needs that are unique to them. As I developed a better understanding of my own learning needs, I began to see myself in my students, all of them different and authentically themselves. Short breaks have become the norm in my classroom, fidgets abound, and when my students ask me why, I proudly tell them that my brain is different: I have ADHD.

Ben Rosen is a completing his second year in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He spent the past academic year serving as the education fellow at Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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