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How Neurodiverse Teachers Transform Classrooms

Teach For America educators tap into their neurodivergent abilities to connect and empower students.

How Neurodiverse Teachers Transform Classrooms - Teach For America Blog

By Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

April 15, 2024

Every day, Meghan Beauchamp (Dallas-Fort Worth ’23) taps into her ever-present determination as she gets ready to teach her seventh-grade English honors classroom. Mid-sentence pauses, scanning the pages slowly, and asking her students to give her a little time are all tactics she uses to teach while coping with dyslexia. Meanwhile, across the country in a Los Angeles school, Devanee Matcham (Los Angeles ’21), a special education specialist, works to orchestrate an engaging lesson with boundless energy, partly driven, she notes, by her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Meghan and Devanee share more than just a passion for teaching—they share a profound understanding of leveraging their neurodivergent abilities to build connections with their students.

In the United States, an estimated 1 in 5 children and adults are neurodivergent. At Teach For America, we prioritize creating safe spaces where children and teachers thrive, including those who aren’t neurotypical. When we spoke with Meghan and Devanee, they described how cultivating a thriving, healthy, and empowering classroom not only benefits their students but also helps to overcome the stigma and challenges associated with their neurodivergent abilities. 

What Exactly is Neurodiversity?

Interested in learning about neurodiversity? Check out this brief video that explains the origins of the term, its meaning, and how the neurodiversity movement advocates for acknowledging and respecting everyone's unique thought processes.

Adopting Empowering Perspectives

Meghan and Devanee work creatively to ensure all students, especially neurodivergent students, feel included and connected in their learning experience. They do this by valuing different ways of thinking.

Because teaching with dyslexia carries its own set of challenges, Meghan chooses to lead with vulnerability. “Sometimes when we’re reading, I say, ‘Hey guys, give me a second and then I'll read through it. My brain doesn't connect right away like the teacher down the hall.’”

Through it all, her transparency sets the tone for a trusting classroom culture. “My dyslexia has become a teaching moment. I mention my learning disability. Because I have several students who have dyslexia and kids who struggle in general, I tell them I don't always understand. It opens up a conversation of acceptance rather than shame. Even if they don't have a learning disability, it's creating empathy. If your teacher has it, it's going to be more acceptable if you know someone next to you.”

Meghan also encourages students to slow down with her. “They can reread–they don’t have to rush the story if their brain can't process the information. They tell me what they know and we break things down so they know they can do the work. If they say, ‘I can't do this’, I’ll respond, ‘You can. I believe in you.’ By that being my normal language, they start to believe it.”

As Devanee discovers new things about her own neurodivergent needs, she’s becoming more aware of the obstacles that hide in plain sight for neurodivergent teachers. This awareness, coupled with being misunderstood, sometimes leads to imposter syndrome. 

“There are so many challenges with being neurodivergent and being a teacher. Many times, I feel that I am inadequate to my peers,” Devanee shared. “The hardest challenge is conforming to work expectations that don’t fit neurodivergent needs. For example, something as small as sitting for long periods during professional development can be daunting. With my students, we accommodate their movement needs with work-break cycles, but it’s a struggle to find those accommodations as an adult and as teachers.”

Despite the challenges, Devanee is determined to show up for her students, and herself, by any means necessary. Capitalizing on her thought processes, she develops nimble ways to accommodate her students' learning styles and her own. “I can resonate with my students, especially my neurodivergent students. My students have been shut down for needing individualized learning paths to fit their unique needs. My own experiences have allowed me to not just advocate for their needs but help to create individualized education plans to help them achieve their greatest potential. I build rapport like no other and I implement quick, adaptable thinking, creative lessons with multi-sensory techniques, handle high-stress situations, and much more.”

Identifying and Overcoming Stigmas

Growing up, Meghan and Devanee’s unique way of learning was a source of exclusion, despite striving for academic excellence and social acceptance. 

The stigma of dyslexia started in elementary school for Meghan. “Dyslexia gave me a hard time–I couldn’t understand and process information as fast as other people. I hated being called on in class. If the teacher was going around the room, I would memorize what I was going to say. I hated situations where I didn't know the answer. I was too afraid to say I didn't know. It felt like a shame to even ask a question.”

Devanee didn’t realize she needed neurodivergent support until she was an adult and started teaching. She recalls how confused and isolated she felt navigating her behaviors alone. “I never knew that I was neurodivergent. My entire life, disabilities were never talked about or acknowledged. I looked at my peers and always wondered why it was so easy for them to do certain tasks, complete certain assignments, understand certain social cues, and many other things. I felt inadequate compared to my peers, but as I got older, I just realized I had a different way of thinking.” 

“As I learned more about Special Education and about my students, I found myself to be neurodivergent as well. I had never felt more seen. My students have helped me be adaptable.”

Devanee Matcham

Los Angeles ‘21 Corps Member 2021

Introspective Impact

That different way of thinking paid off. The care Meghan and Devanee bring into the classroom does not go unnoticed.

Through Meghan’s example, her students have learned to lead with transparency and empathy. “They keep each other accountable. I love seeing when they become mini-leaders. If someone doesn’t understand, they help the person next to them. Sometimes they call each other out to get back on track if someone is having a behavior issue. It's been awesome to see how they are having a different experience versus my experience. Mine was like, ‘Well, you're stupid if you don't know the answer.’ With me, they don’t have that. We're understanding it together—it's a process. We're a team.” 

Not only have they adopted Meghan’s compassion, but they have captured her determination as well. “This is my first year and my observations have been great every time. People say, ‘You're a natural teacher.’ I didn't know I would be good as a teacher when I went to college. I didn't know that this would be something that I would be good at.”

The compliments take Meghan back to a high school counselor who’d told her that "because I was in special education, I wouldn't accomplish anything.”  But she remembers, even more so, her mom’s reactions to those who doubted her potential. “My mom refused to believe them. She sees where I am at now and she's like, ‘Now you're a teacher. You're thriving.’ I think about my students and how they have the top data scores in seventh-grade reading compared to the other reading students. The data is the reflection of all the hard work and dedication they have shown through their learning struggles. It's been cool to see. We’ve overcome a lot.”

As for Devanee, she’s proud of the strides she and her students are making, especially as a special education teacher becoming familiar with her learning differences. “As I learned more about special education and about my students, I found myself to be neurodivergent as well. I had never felt more seen. I understood myself so much more. My students have helped me be adaptable to support my students any time of the day. The assistance I provide helps my students achieve success on a different level. I think outside of the box to create experiences, moments, lessons, and social situations that align with neurodivergent needs. My connections with my students are the ultimate impact I could ever wish and continue to hope for.”

At Teach For America, we’re shaping a world where the student and teachers’ unique minds are valued and primed to reach their full potential. As we continue to champion neurodiversity, and diversity in all its forms, let’s work together to pave the way for a future where our differences are not just accepted but cherished so we can shine and thrive, together. 

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