15 September 2023
Before becoming a functional skills English tutor at HMP Pentonville, Ade was a science communicator, a research scientist, and a musician. In this blog, she writes how having ADHD helps her to support her neurodiverse learners.
This the seventh in a series – routes into prison teaching – highlighting the variety of careers in prison education, and the variety of career paths leading towards them.
Had you told my teenage self that I would one day become a teacher, let alone a teacher in one of the UK’s ‘most notorious prisons’, I doubt I’d have believed you. Five years into my time as a functional skills English tutor at HMP Pentonville, however, I can enthusiastically say that I have found my vocation. It’s the most worthwhile work I’ve ever done, or think I could be doing, but how I got here is complicated.
It’s the most worthwhile work I’ve ever done, or think I could be doing
Bar a brief interlude as an analyst on a large EU-funded project, I had spent the previous decade or so working in the third sector. I was a science communicator, translating the detail of projects funded by medical research charities into plain English. I wrote news stories for websites; summaries for fundraising campaigns; edited magazines; created social media video content; held Q&As for patient support groups; and organised conferences to bring service users, researchers and healthcare professionals together.
When my contract as an analyst was up, I found myself unemployed. With no clear idea of what I could or should do next to pay the rent, I absolutely seized upon a random text from Reed, inviting me to attend an open day at Pentonville, aimed at potential cover tutors. On discovering that I wasn’t put off by the environment, I went for interview. With no teaching experience beyond an ancient semester lecturing first year undergraduates, I was given a job based on having a BSc and a Master’s, and on condition that I gain relevant qualifications in a specified timeframe.
For me, that meant doing a Level 3 in Education & Training in my first few months. Then, completely hooked, I signed up for the full qualification. Schoolteachers do a PGCE, or Postgraduate Graduate Certificate in Education. I did the equivalent qualification for the lifelong learning sector: a Level 6 Prof (for professional) GCE, specialising in literacy. Two years, part time. It hurt, but I got there in the end.
I was missing the immediate experience of interacting with people that happens in the classroom
I did feel like I was helping, when I worked for charities; more directly so than in my previous time as a research scientist, during which I eventually abandoned a PhD on the neuroscience of how humans locate sounds. And definitely more than in earlier attempts at various careers: in radio broadcasting; as a musician (including writing mobile phone ringtones based on top 40 chart hits). But I now realise I was missing the immediate experience of interacting with people that happens in the classroom.
That connection, the one that makes me feel I’m where I should be, comes in part, I think, from the fact that I was diagnosed with ADHD 12 years ago, at the age of 40. Many, if not most, of my learners are neurodiverse. They are autistic, or have ADHD, or dyslexia, or dyspraxia (now DCD); or all of those, and often PTSD, to boot. They have likely experienced trauma.
I was diagnosed with ADHD 12 years ago, at the age of 40. Many, if not most, of my learners are neurodiverse.
Earlier education failed them, for a multitude of reasons. They were the class clowns, or recluses; stared into space, or bunked off, rather than endure feeling stupid, and got kicked out of school before they’d learned the skills they needed to give them more options.
It’s largely down to luck that I didn’t end up in the same position, helped by the fact that both of my parents were fortunate enough to have had an excellent education. So have I, now, but I didn’t even begin to get there until my 30s.
Some of my older learners haven’t seen a classroom in decades (if they were ever there at all). I can relate. And although I have degrees coming out of my ears now it helps that I can tell my learners that I left school with no qualifications. That it’s not too late to turn their lives around.
The most important thing for me in my class is to foster an environment in which asking questions is safe, welcome, and a sign of doing well. If you don’t know something, it’s because you haven’t had the right opportunity to learn. And it seems to work. Did for me, anyway, when I first went to university in my late 20s.
Very often, my students tell me they’re surprised to discover that learning is fun. It’s a complete joy to witness people starting to see themselves differently.
None of the experience I gained on my circuitous route here is wasted
My favourite feedback, oft repeated in various forms, always with a big grin, is “Miss – you’re a really weird teacher!” That tells me I’m doing a good job. None of the experience I gained on my circuitous route here is wasted. And that’s a particular benefit of teaching English: we can talk about anything and, at very least, the discussion can develop skills relevant to their qualification, build their cultural capital, or hone their social abilities in general.
I did, briefly, think I might want to move from the classroom into a policy-making position, because that’s the sort of thing grown-ups do with their careers, but can honestly say that I’d rather retire, many years hence, in my current role. Not only will I get to avoid the Peter principle (in which people are promoted to their level of incompetence), but I will continue to have the great privilege of seeing first hand that I’m making a difference.
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