An Acceptable Normal

“Thank you for making me feel normal.”

I never thought those words would be so meaningful to me as a teacher.  ‘Normal’ is not typically the word educators aim for when we consider the desired outcomes of a class.  However, when you teach psychology and discuss many of the topics covered, ‘normal’ is synonymous with acceptance.  In high school, acceptance is a really big deal.

As part of an assignment at the end of every semester, I ask students to write a letter critiquing the class and giving me advice for improvement.  Most student letters end up sounding the same…assignments they liked/didn’t like, topics they wish we’d covered more or less, etc. Occasionally, though, I run across one that is a little different.  When I read “thank you for making me feel normal”, it hit me like a ton of bricks.  A lot of times, the measuring stick for a student and teacher’s success in a class is test scores (which, by the way, I don’t think is altogether wrong).  This was a different kind of success, though.

Being an AP Psychology teacher is quite special.  I would argue it is the best class…no bias there. 🙂  The curriculum covers topics not found in any other high school class.  One of those topics is psychological disorders. While covering the common symptoms and causes, I believe it is also extremely important to discuss the stigmatizing feelings surrounding these disorders and how pop culture typically mischaracterizes a lot of what the general public believes about how someone behaves with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.  

I like to have a discussion with my students and compare these disorders to someone with any common illness, like the flu.  If you’ve got the flu, you go to the doctor to receive medicine to curtail the symptoms and feel better. If you have a psychological disorder, you go to the doctor to receive medicine to reduce the symptoms.  Of course, there is also discussion to clarify how the flu isn’t exactly like a psychological disorder. It is commonplace in our society to be sympathetic towards someone with the flu. Unfortunately, though, when we hear of someone having a psychological disorder, we tend to consider them to be ‘crazy’ or dangerous.  During the course of this discussion with my students, we look at statistics for the prevalence of different disorders in teens. The general consensus is that, in a high school with 2000 students, there is a strong probability students walk the hallways with these disorders. This can be quite an eye-opening chat with my students because they typically cannot identify any of their peers as having a psychological disorder.  I then go back to explain that most students with a disorder take their prescribed medicine and their symptoms are under control…just like someone with the flu. They are just like any other ‘normal’ high school student. This usually leads to an extended discussion on the somewhat farcical idea of what it means to be ‘normal’ in high school.

My main goals for the above discussion are to dispel student’s incorrect beliefs surrounding what it means to live with a psychological disorder and to hopefully invoke some sympathy/empathy.  What I’ve found over the years, however, is that it creates a situation where my students who happen to have a disorder feel much more comfortable discussing their disorder with me. Every semester a handful of students approach me after class to let me know they have a diagnosed psychological disorder.  Most of the time, I can tell this is a big deal for them…to let someone else know. It is a really big honor for me. A lot of teens are at a point in their life where they are becoming less dependent on their parents/adults and more dependent on their friends. For a student to feel this comfortable in my classroom is something special to me.
So, to read those words, ”thank you for making me feel normal” is quite memorable.  To know that a student feels accepted for who they are, when pop culture tells them otherwise, is very special.  To help a student know they are ‘normal’ is paradigm shifting…for everyone involved…an acceptable normal.

2 thoughts on “An Acceptable Normal

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  1. I, too, am a high school Psych teacher and it sounds like you and I could be in the same classroom! I do everything you mentioned in my class as well and it never ceases to amaze me how many kids thank me for “being real,” “being honest” & helping them better understand that is ok to not always be ok!

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