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What Teachers with Chronic Illnesses Wish Our Principals Knew

Posted by on in Education Leadership
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Teachers are at higher risk for various chronic diseases, especially autoimmune diseases, hearing loss, and various cancers.  In all reality, there are at least a few teachers with chronic diseases on any school's staff.  Given the current culture in American education in which teachers are required to do more and more with less and less and are under increasing pressures to perform at full efficacy, it can be difficult for teachers suffering from chronic illnesses to feel as much a part of the staff as everyone else and that they are effective.  Teachers who suffer from chronic illnesses bring a special touch to the teacher-student and teacher-parent relationship, though, and often, they are the ones who see students' suffering first and are the most tenacious in getting their students what is needed for success.  That said, there are some things that we teachers who deal with chronic illnesses wish our administrators knew.

Please, ask how we are doing, but don't be surprised if we lie and say we're fine.

One of the things that I always appreciate in my colleagues and administrators, not to mention my students, is that, when I am obviously having a pain day, they ask how I'm doing and often even offer to help in some way.  What can get a bit frustrating, though, is when I say that I am fine and they start to argue with me and tell me that I don't look fine (I know that) or tell me that I have to tell them how I really am.  When one lives with chronic illness and chronic pain, one gets used to it on some level.  When I say I'm fine, I really am fine most of the time, just a different definition of fine.  

The other fear we teachers often have, deep down, is that our chronic illness will be used against us.  We worry that, if we aren't cheery or show our pain too much, it will get marked down on our annual evaluations.  So, we get good at faking that cheery personality and covering up just how much pain we're in so that it doesn't scare the students and our administrators don't mark us down for being sick.  If you can see that we're suffering but say we're fine, just believe that we're fine enough for now and will let you know if we need help.

If we ask for an accommodation, please do what you can to make it happen.  Little things make big differences.

For those of us with chronic conditions, little things can sap our energy levels quicker than they do for other teachers.  While our asking for permission for a fridge in our classroom might immediately ring alarm bells for the electric bill, it might be because a new medication has to stay refrigerated and we're like to know our medication is secure and not in some communal fridge.  When we finally ask for a classroom near a bathroom, it is so we don't have accidents in front of our students (one of the most embarrassing things ever).  If we ask for a specific parking space, it is because we haven't gotten our handicapped parking sticker but worry about carrying things to and from our cars and how much that can take out of us.

Instead of immediately questioning any accommodation and thinking about how the rest of the staff might react, ask yourself what you would do with a student with that chronic illness, and let that guide you.  Little things can help us be dramatically more effective, and knowing that you support us and want us to be more effective means the world to us.

Believe us when we tell you that something is going on with a student or staff member.

Teachers who live in chronic pain develop a sixth sense in detecting it in others.  Many times in my teaching career, I have started up a conversation with a colleague or a student by asking how his/her pain level is only to surprise them by the fact that I noticed.  I have had other teachers do the same for me.  I am often surprised by how many others have no idea that their colleague or student deals with chronic pain.  If one of us points out that a student has a chronic pain issue or that a colleague is suffering today, don't question us but instead ask us what could help.

Let us decide what we can handle and what we can't.

Nothing infuriates a chronically ill person more than others deciding what that person can and can't do.  We often already feel helpless against our diseases or our pain, so we do what we can to empower ourselves with our health and our lives.  Often, well-meaning colleagues take over jobs we love or do things for us without asking and later argue that they were just trying to help. When that happens, it can be very difficult to feel like a full-fledged and empowered team member. If you aren't sure we can handle a new task or the work load of a committee, just ask us.

Have our backs but hold us accountable when needed.

One thing I have heard from educational coach after coach and principal after principal is that circulating around the room constantly is one of the most effective classroom management strategies.  Small problem with that theory: not every teacher can do that all day, every day.  Instead of looking down on teachers who have to sit on stools or spend time sitting down, look at how we still maintain good discipline and how we use that to our advantage.

That said, if you see all kinds of problems, don't be afraid to say something.  Sometimes medications make our brains a bit foggy or sleepy, and sometimes pain makes us less alert to issues in our classrooms.  If you see things during observations, don't be afraid that you'll offend us by speaking up.  Chances are, we already know about it and need a new way to tackle the problem but were worried about asking for your advice.

Scheduling doctors' appointments is beyond frustrating, and we're doing our best.

Sometimes, we have no choice but to use a sick day or half a sick day for doctors' appointments.  One thing chronic illness is really good at is multiplying our number of medical providers.  We can go from just one doctor for everything to a physical therapist, chiropractor, massage therapist, specialist, second specialist, and more in the blink of an eye.  Trying to fit all those appointments in after school can be a scheduling nightmare, and sometimes, we just can't do it.  When it takes three months to get in with the specialist whom everyone else is waiting on for a treatment plan, no, we cannot reschedule it less than a week out because you aren't sure about getting us a sub.  Some offices even close before we usually leave work, so that limits the number of hours we have to deal with in scheduling an appointment.  If we end up having to use a sick day or a personal day, please don't hold it against us later.  We're doing our best to miss the least amount of work possible.

Don't treat us like outcasts.

Lastly, please treat us as full members of the staff.  I have seen well-meaning principals end up isolating teachers with chronic disease in wanting to protect that person.  Isolating us makes us less effective, and it can even make some chronic conditions worse if they are sensitive to stress.  If we are obviously having a pain day or a bad day with our condition, please don't ignore us in the hallway or start taking us off of committees without talking with us.  The best thing you can do is just get to know us, pain days and all.  Treat us like any other staff member, and you just might be surprised at what we can do and help with.


In the end, with more and more of us developing chronic diseases, especially painful ones, there will be more of us in the classroom as time goes on.  We are an important asset, though, the teachers who can easily empathize with students, the ones who think outside the box every day in order to be effective with our modifications, and the ones who often can be more patient with colleagues and students.  If you have any questions or other rules to add to the list, please put them in the comments.

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Carina Hilbert is a middle school English/Spanish teacher currently on medical leave from Kalamazoo Public Schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Carina has 10 years of teaching experience in urban, suburban, and rural schools; public, private, and charter schools; and grades 6-12. Last year, she also earned her Master's in the Art of Teaching from the University of Southern California through the Rossier Online program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages with her capstone research being on rural English language learners in Michigan. Carina's main teaching interests are blended learning, alternative education, project-based learning, and working with language learners across the curriculum. She lives in Kalamazoo with her two amazing children, her fiance and his son, as well as their two cats and her rather sizeable book and yarn collection.

  • Guest
    Adriana Castillo Friday, 07 August 2015

    Hi Carina,
    I love this blog. I was wondering if you would be interesting in having this blog reposted on my blog page at www.educatortalk.com

  • Guest
    Blair Williams Thursday, 17 November 2016

    Hi Carina,
    I am a beginner teacher and I was wondering if you had any advice on those days that you can literally not go into work? I had to call in today due to my chronic illness and I feel horrible because I won't see my students for several weeks, but I could not drive at all to come into work.

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