By Michelle Seitzer
Managing a diagnosis of ADHD in the workplace looks different for everyone. For educators with ADHD — who must also manage a classroom of students and all that comes with it — finding what works is a unique process of self-discovery and growth.
Expect some fine-tuning and even major adjusting along the way, though. Like life circumstances, a job in education is always changing. Classroom environments change. The student population changes. Administration, management and personnel changes may also have a direct influence on how an educator manages the classroom.
Nevertheless, ADHD and career success is possible — and these three experienced professionals tell us how:
Don Orkoskey — educator, photographer, consultant, artist and owner of WDO Photography
Orkoskey teaches photography to children and adults who are neurotypical and neurodivergent, as well as children who have cognitive disabilities.
When he was first diagnosed with ADHD just a few years ago, all the coping mechanisms and workarounds he had created over his years in photojournalism work suddenly made sense.
“Since then, I’ve worked with my therapist and essentially had to challenge processes I inherently created,” he says.
In his work with Dr. Alice Wilder, a renowned children’s TV expert and educator who created “Blue’s Clues” and “Super Why!”, Orkoskey learned to translate the skill sets he acquired in previous positions, teaching his students to tap into their ingrained creativity and “re-find” their creative selves.
“No one path will fit everyone,” Orkoskey says. “It can be frustrating, but you have to go through it to find what works best for you.”
Teaching students across the age and ability spectrum, Orkoskey delivers arts education in a variety of settings — from private lessons to private institutes like botanical gardens, museums and community colleges. He also works with his state vocational office to guide special education students who are interested in a career in photography and geography.
Good sleep and nutrition habits are critical — and really affect function, adds Orkoskey.
But sometimes, he still has an “off” day. Or he may feel completely overwhelmed by the workload of managing his students, his clients for his photography business, writing blogs, updating his website — and dealing with the demands of his personal life.
Having an off day can be difficult for Orkoskey because he doesn’t teach daily in a traditional classroom. “Sometimes I have to answer a student or client question with ‘I’ll get back to you,’ or I’ll respin a blog post from the archives,” he says. “But when I have focus, I try to do a lot of lesson plans.”
Building community is one of the things that’s been most meaningful to Orkoskey as he navigates his work with ADHD. “On my website, I don’t hide my diagnosis,” he says. “It’s important for me that people know I’m here in this space. And it helps me build that network.”
In addition to building community, Orkoskey recommends that people give themselves leeway and hearty doses of self-compassion. Feelings of self-doubt and rejection sensitive dysphoria present huge challenges for so many with ADHD. “I have learned it’s OK to be who I am,” he says. “But the struggle is real!”
Andrew Smith, former high school English teacher
Though he is currently working as a human resources consultant after getting a master’s degree in human relations, Smith credits his teaching success to discovering how to manage distractions.
“I had to learn what things in my environment could distract me,” says Smith. “I kept the useful posters for my students at the front of the room, behind where I stood, so they were almost never in my line of sight as I taught.”
Sometimes the distraction was more abstract.
“When time management during class ever became an issue, I could use alarms and timers to keep myself on pace,” he says.
As the work of teaching extends well beyond what happens in the classroom, Smith also found ways to reduce and manage those extracurricular distractions.
“It was worth the time and organization to make sure quiz keys could be used for my students to grade each other’s tests, as it heavily cut down on the effort to force myself to grade later in the evening,” he says.
“As an English teacher, it was also worth making rubrics for the essays that were as specific and objective as possible, which reduced the time I might get distracted trying to make subjective judgment calls.”
Sol Smith, neurodivergence coach
“I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and only recently learned that I have ADHD,” says Smith. “I’ve developed workarounds in that time that I now teach to others as an ADHD coach.”
His first tip? “Wear one hat at a time,” says Smith, who goes by “Professor Sol” in his coaching work.
“Every teaching job I’ve ever had has required serving in multiple roles at the school,” Smith says. “Get a planner (tool) that you enjoy working with and decide what hat you’re wearing at which time of day for the whole week, if possible. Yes, we have to change on the fly, but having something to fall back on will come in handy.”
Smith adds that he uses a paper planner, because he better remembers the action of physically writing things down.
Another strategy Smith recommends: Create your own curriculum — as much as you can.
“ADHD folks don’t get a dose of dopamine when they complete a task that was assigned to them. But we do get that fix if it’s something we’ve decided on with our own interests,” he says.
There’s an added bonus to this hack, and it comes in handy outside the classroom, he says.
“You’re more likely to work diligently and without annoyance if you have the chance to learn something new that interests you, while also teaching it to others,” says Smith. “Plus, if you can grade papers, for example, about a niche topic of your interest, your attention will be better gathered.”
Smith’s final tip? Give yourself a day off.
“Teachers are never not working. But if you can pick one of the two weekend days and just do no work at all — even if it means falling behind that week, you’ll be able to avoid burnout that much more.”
Find out how to manage ADHD in your job and beyond, with insights from life coach Tyler Dorsey, in Managing ADHD: More than Medication and Accommodation.