I do have some things to say about the AP Institute I attended last week and the last few chapters of Awakening the Sleeping Giant, but those posts are still incubating and this is really on my mind right now.

Let me start by telling you a story:

Once upon a time, last weekend, there was a couple who bought a bed. They’d been sleeping on mattresses on the floor since forever and finally decided to put them on a bedframe. Since they bought the bed at Ikea it took most of a day of frustration to assemble, only to turn out not to fit the mattresses. The mattresses claimed to be queen sized and so did the bed, yet the bed was too big for the mattresses. After some frustration  the couple gave up on having a bed and started to disassemble that one to return to Ikea. It was late and they were tired and frustrated and at one point the wife dropped a large chunk of the bed on her right foot, breaking her big toe. It hurt a lot. A few days later she went to get groceries while wearing the ugly shoe the doctor gave her for her right foot and was relieved at how easy it was to ask for a riding cart when she had such an obvious reason for it.

Enough third person. I’ve used the riding cart before, and probably should have more often, but normally I feel incredibly awkward asking for it. See, I’m dealing with the acute and temporary mobility issue of a broken toe right now but I also have a chronic issue: rheumatoid arthritis. If you’re not familiar with the term invisible disability, I think it can be easily summed up by the image of apparently-healthy-looking me feeling awkward asking for a riding cart at the grocery store because I don’t obviously need it.

I’ve long hesitated to refer to myself as being disabled or having a disability. I had long periods where I seemed and felt normal. My arthritis wasn’t that bad, I hadn’t earned the right to consider it a disability with enough suffering. However, being an adult struggling with managing this chronic disease has forced to me to realize what a huge impact it has had on my life, even on the good days. I guess that’s a part of growing up- I can’t just pretend to myself anymore that it’s all great except for the occasional pain. This disease complicates my life in all sorts of ways.

I don’t normally think about ableism and education from this angle – normally I’m looking at issues relating to how the system deals with disabled students, but I was reading some of the #edchat on twitter and comments about good teachers don’t sit behind their desks and lecture just really bothered me. For one thing, how many teachers have you ever had that actually sat behind a desk and lectured? I’ve only ever had one. I seriously think that people are arguing against a straw Bad Teacher archetype when they make the point in this fashion.

I do understand where the rhetoric comes from- I am a teacher who circulates whenever possible. You definitely need to be present in the room with your students. However, being present in the room is a much more complex issue than just not lecturing from behind your desk. I mean, you can stand up and lecture, is that any better? What if you sit behind your desk while students work in collaborative groups? The point is that what people are really talking about is making sure that you are in that room with those students, paying attention to what is really happening, not the imaginary perfect lesson in your head, which is a good point, but what they are saying is “don’t sit down or you are the WORST TEACHER EVER” which is not only wrong but ableist.

There are times when I have to sit down. I have learned to be better about this – to listen more to the cues of my joints (especially my knees, where I developed tendinitis as a complication from arthritis at one point). There are days where walking around the room a lot is simply not an option for me. I have a stool in my room now so that I can sit and be high up and see everybody when I’m having one of those days. I have learned to tell students that it’s a bad day for my knees and I’ll be sitting at my desk while they work but they can come ask questions. I have had to learn to use other forms of presence besides standing right behind a kid. I’m still working on it, but I think it has in some ways made me a better teacher.

Ugh. Sorry, that sounded too much like an overly-heartwarming news story about some disabled person and how they’re a better person because of their disability. In case you were wondering, real disabled people hate that trope with a burning passion.

It took me a while to learn to speak about my issues with RA, not only to students, but to my colleagues and administration. Just as it can be hard to admit to students that you made a mistake, it can be hard to talk about having a chronic disease, especially if it’s something that is not obvious. We all get told a certain amount of the “don’t show weakness” form of management, and even if you don’t buy into it sometimes it affects how you think. So although I don’t really think having arthritis has somehow made me a better teacher, I do think that learning to be open to my students about this issue has helped me learn the value of ‘showing weakness’ and a little more personal openness with my students.

Actually, I think it’s harder to talk to colleagues and administration about it. Asking for accommodations can be incredibly scary – a few years ago when I was first dealing with the tendinitis and I wasn’t supposed to go up and down stairs much it was very hard to say anything to anyone. Any time I asked for an accommodation I felt like I was whining, or didn’t deserve it, or would be perceived as trying to get out of work. I wasn’t even asking for much – a stool, to not have a duty downstairs so I could only do the stairs at the beginning and end of my day, all my copies to be on the upstairs machine for the same reason – but it felt like a huge deal to ask.

Of course, these issues are all symptoms of wider cultural issues with disability. After all, people with much more serious mobility issues than I have deal with some pretty serious discrimination and ignorance about their needs everywhere. People are often made to feel bad for asking for accommodations that they legitimately need. So I’m not surprised by any of this, exactly, just pointing out another facet of the issue. I know a lot of people have pointed out that too often we assume in our discourse about “good” and “bad” teaching that teachers are superheroes and therefore we leave out the reality of being a good teacher while being a real human being. Well, we also often ignore the reality of teachers with disabilities. So take a moment to think before you post some trite advice about sitting and teaching and think about what you really mean first.