The best teacher is one who instructs from experience, and this is the reason Jon Thomas does what he does.
Thomas, a licensed counselor who practices in Fairfax, works with young people who have attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other learning disabilities. Thomas can relate to his patients: he has ADD, and knows its challenges as well as its joys. Most of all, he has had to overcome the challenges of ADD in a school setting.
"Most of the kids I’ve worked with have come through the school system with bits and pieces of information, but not with the whole picture," said Thomas. "They’ve had teachers telling them, ‘Oh, you’d do great if you just applied yourself.’"
After having worked with patients who had failed their initial attempts at college, Thomas started the "College Success Guidance Program" this year. The program is geared toward students with learning disabilities such as ADD.
"A lot of kids come back and say, ‘I was doing great, then, bam, I flunked two or three courses,’" said Thomas. By helping the students become aware of themselves and their learning patterns, he said, he can then teach them what warning signs to look for and how to deal with challenges in class.
"(Thomas) has a lot of knowledge, because he has gone through the same things these kids have gone through," said Mary Ellen Webb, whose son Stephen, 16, works with Thomas.
Thomas started college at the University of Texas at Austin in 1970, but failed his freshman year. After taking a few years off from school, Thomas graduated from Baylor University and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from George Washington University.
"I started off when Austin was party central," said Thomas. "There is so much happening at (college) age, developmentally speaking ... I had no idea about a neurological disorder called ADD. I was set up to fail."
A COUNSELOR at a community college in Thomas’ hometown helped him get through school, said Thomas. After a career that included a stint in the Air Force, cattle ranching, and research in the Department of Education, Thomas realized that mentoring helped the most for learning-disabled students transitioning from high school to college.
As part of the training, students identify what motivates them. Thomas groups motivating factors into the categories of fear and desire, and has students write out a statement defining what they are going to do in college, and how they plan to get themselves there.
"Teachers will label you stupid, or say that you don’t pay attention," said Laura Long, 20, who attended Thomas’ pre-college program. Long is a business major at George Mason University. "It’s about realizing what you really want, and not listening to other people."
"It can be difficult," said George Mason senior Gibbs Moore, 23, about having ADD. "If you had it since you were a kid, then you have had to deal with the pressure or stigma of being labeled slow or not committed, or simply having had your head up your (behind) or in the clouds."
Moore, who attended the program with Long, said it has been easier dealing with the disorder as he has gotten older. An English major who concentrates in film studies, Moore likes watching and critiquing movies. His favorite films are those by foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.
"It was harder back in the day, but now, not quite so," said Moore.
There are benefits to having ADD along with the challenges, said Thomas. People with ADD are creative, he said, often have high energy levels, and are good at multitasking.
"You get disorganized really quickly, but the upside is, you have a lot of energy," said Russell Oley, 17, who also attended the program. Russell, who goes to Woodbridge Secondary School, will begin looking at college soon. "(Having ADD) helps with the stuff that doesn’t deal with sitting down and writing, like outdoor activities."
"There’s never a dull moment," said Webb. "My son is very creative and wonderful. It’s a different way of processing things."
"(People with ADD) need constant variability," said Thomas. "There are gifts to that. When people find a niche, in a career or calling, they flourish."