Travellers on a journey we have happily coincided. This Emerald City is where we three live and teach. We were talking about Aspergers in the classroom, but my colleagues were unaware that I am the Tin Man. Thinking my knowledge was purely professional, the questions came flooding out. Questions reveal so much more than answers.
Do you think he knows he is different? Is he aware how others see him? Why can’t he adapt? Why does he look so sad?
Each question was given to me to answer. Such difficult heartbreaking questions to hear because each was so personal and yet I couldn’t say it. Why couldn’t I tell them? I guess because I fear their observation. I choose to remain a colleague.
I know I am different, but I forget until it slaps me in the face. I am unaware of how others see me. In fact most of the time I assume that they don’t see me. When they do, it usually another slap. I do adapt. I live in the world and I pass for almost normal in almost all situations. The sadness you see is when the world treats me badly. Sometimes it comes crowding into my carefully constructed spaces. It judges and points fingers in my face.
Those questions flooded me. The third person was not a barrier thick enough to deflect them. They told me how “other” I might be labelled. Until I’m brave enough to say I am like him, people will see us as not them. Aspergers might make me feel like a tin man, but sometimes I am just a cowardly lion.
In Britain I was expected to be so much more than just a teacher. A social worker, counsellor, parent, friend, mentor, big brother and psychologist. A multitasking miracle worker who would whizz into a room and create a positive learning environment from whatever I found. With Pavlovian conditioning, I could change tack with every tolling bell, ploughing through a long day where breaks and lunch evaporated and needs were met, anticipated and dealt with. The gifted were stretched, the less motivated were encouraged and the hungry were fed. Sometimes even clean clothing was appropriated. I made a difference. London’s schools were challenging and dynamic, and not for the fainthearted.
Cambodia is no place for the fainthearted either. Grinding poverty, years of internal corruption, and searing heat bring their own challenges. However, like many foreigners work in elite, private settings with students who are relatively wealthy. The library has precious few books and the school feels under resourced but the parents all have big four wheel drive cars.
I set a task and my class of students do it. I have never taught students like this before. They are respectful and engaged, no matter what. Are we doing something creative and engaging right now. Not particularly. In fact, we are doing peer and self assessment of paragraph writing with a final draft to be produced by the end of the lesson. Deathly dull if you ask me, and I am theoretically a writer.
In addition to having no real classroom management issues, I am not expected to analyse or deep dive data. I do not produce reports or graphs highlighting student underachievement nor am I expected to contact parents and build home school relationships.
I come to class. I teach. I assess. I grade papers. I give feedback. However, this generation will be pivotal in the the changes that are need to happen in this country so I might be just a teacher but, like all teachers, I can still make a difference.
It never rains but it pours. Sometimes things are just badly timed. No matter how good your intentions are you end up down that well paved road and it can be slippery when wet. The last few weeks I’ve been in need of an umbrella.
It’s not that I am work shy, but, much as I love teaching, I am a firm believer that less is more so I choose to work part time. I cut my cloth accordingly. My life isn’t particularly ritzy but here in Cambodia my qualifications allow me to access a good hourly wage. I like to keep my teaching hours at around fifteen for the perfect life, work, remuneration balance. Recently my hours took a precariously low dip but I had been given the opportunity to teach amazingly interesting classes at the weekend. Thankfully, serendipity popped by with a more bread and butter offer of daily work.
The weekend classes were just one module of a Masters in teaching and my lovely students have all passed; most with flying colours. But the daily classes have already been running for three weeks. Today is my first day off after eighteen consecutive days of teaching. A few of weeks of teaching almost thirty contact hours has meant time has flown. I have had to exercise planning skills to ensure I was delivering well sequenced, well prepared lessons to four very different groups. Work life balance has been on hold and, this month, payday promises to be filthy in its richness.
Today, however, I am not a teacher. I have left my course books at work and Monday’s lessons are planned. It is time to recalibrate. Today I am grabbing a good friend, some swimming shorts and a place by the pool. I will sit under one umbrella whilst stirring a slightly ridiculous, fruity cocktail with another. It never rains but it pours.
When I was young I never really knew what I wanted to be. I was a good all rounder academically so I was not encouraged to make any decisions. People told me I should keep my options open and not specialise to early. I never committed to anything and, as I have made my way through life, I never really have.
So here I am. At fifty I am still drifting through life and wondering what and where is next. I fell into teaching more than twenty years ago. It was more about escaping the drudgery of life at the town hall than finding a vocation. I now appear to happily richochet between the two, though teaching is my preferred choice.
My current incarnation, a teacher of English in Cambodia, is going rather well. I am enjoying the challenges and there are plenty of them. My current path has taken down some very new and different teaching avenues and might almost tempt me to stay a while. I have already been here six months and it’s starting to feel like home but then there are so many other countries and they are so close.
I am a restless soul. I roll and I drift and I don’t gather moss because I can’t keep still. Some researchers say that ADHD and Aspergers are closely linked. I don’t know if it’s true but certainly I can switch my focus from one thing to another fairly easily. It’s what I do best. After all I am a good all rounder. It seems a bit daft to settle down to something at this point. So I will continue along my rather chaotic Asperger Path, passport in hand, and no doubt find some activities that will divert my attention. The only deficit I can see is the judgmental way society labels and classifies its dazzling differences and distinct diversities.
It’s been a tiring day and I am feeling every one of my fifty years. My students are a happy, chaotic bunch. I learn new things about them every day. Today was phase two of our poster making day. The theme was ‘all about us’. Having established that the word post and the word poster are not as intrinsically linked as they had supposed, we ditched early attempts at envelope making. We went gung-ho into a world of frantic colouring, with rather more reluctant sentence construction, but slowly a picture came together of each of the individuals I teach. The posters are up on the walls and I think they were genuinely proud to see their bright colourful efforts on display. .
With twenty nine in one class and twenty one in the other, I admit I don’t know them as well as I ought. With a ten year gap between the youngest and the oldest, I am often trapped, dazzled in the headlights of the differing needs and demands of fifty children. I don’t do hugs so luckily I have an assistant who deals with that for the very youngest. I remember to smile more than frown and I can see they enjoy the time we spend in class.
My mantra of working together and helping each other featured in a few pieces so I guess they have listened to more than I give them credit for. We love our teacher said one poster. My name wasn’t spelt correctly but they did a great job getting my baldness on to the page. I love my students too. However most days I leave school feeling quite overwhelmed because love divided by fifty doesn’t leave much of a remainder.
How do people feel about their lives!
My life is amazing, in theory. Every day I teach great kids who, for the most part, are engaged and happy. I feel that they are growing under my firm care as I teach them the joy of learning through helping each other and sharing things. I am much more than an English teacher. In my role, I build good relationships with children, perhaps more distant than some, but I give them my honesty and authenticity. I guess I make a difference.
Returning to teaching is not the only thing I’ve done in the last year. I lost my job as consequence of discrimination and I made the wise decision to spend the money doing things I had never dreamed of. I travelled across a continent and then moved to another and started a life in Cambodia. I have seen unbelievable things and met some pretty awesome people. As I approached fifty I decided to open my mind and my life to new opportunities and I turned a bitter experience into a sweet solution. It’s horrible knowing that you have lost a livelihood because of a disability and discrimination is very ugly. If teaching is one thing I excel at then rising like a phoenix from ashes of a disaster is another well honed skill I’ve developed
Howver those things I have never dreamed of worry me. I’m living the dream but I don’t know who it belongs to. I wish I had some dreams of my own I could follow. I stand next to my life and feel almost untouched by it. The good and the bad roll by and I watch each with an air of
detachment. I know other people feel about their lives. I just don’t know what they feel. I’m not envious. My life may seem an odd place to live but I wouldn’t want to be anyone else but me.
I can see that I am blessed. I know it. I just wonder what it would be like to feel it.
At fifteen I was recruited into a life of crime. I was still at school and ten cigarettes is what they offered me. I demanded a pack of twenty and could see that this was a market where I could prosper. And so it began, my career in crime. Once a month an assignment was chosen and when I delivered the goods, a meeting would be set up to hand over my loot.
It was all preparation for the big job in June. These errands were tests to make sure that on the big day there would be no disappointments. I stuck to my end of the bargain and the cigarettes came rolling in.
As June came ever nearer the pressure and the stress was more palpable. On the day it was still going to be a bit hit and miss but I was better prepared than if I hadn’t been recruited. The day itself was hot and sticky but I went in, sat down and waited to start.
I was able to answer the Shakespeare questions. The twentieth century short story ‘compare and contrast’ was almost identical to the first essay I had submitted to English teacher. We had always known the poetry would be rockier but I came out of my O Level English Lit exam that afternoon ready for a smoke and feeling confident.
Now I am the English teacher. However, I do not resort to bribery with my students. My teacher’s methods were unorthodox but I have been lucky. I’ve never had a student like me.