Teacher Wellness

Teaching With a Chronic Illness

A few simple strategies can help teachers who have a chronic illness like multiple sclerosis stay effective while protecting their health.

May 8, 2019
©Ikon/Roy Scott

Even after 10 years of teaching with multiple sclerosis, I still fear people finding out about my diagnosis. I worry about it not out of shame, but out of a fear that administrators and colleagues will deem me unfit for work because of my illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in 10 U.S. adults suffer from a chronic illness such as diabetes, cancer, or an autoimmune disease. Four in 10 adults endure two or more chronic illnesses.

Although there are likely millions of teachers with chronic illnesses, the experience can still feel isolating. Over time, I have discovered strategies that have brought me comfort and helped me to be a more responsive and effective teacher.

Plan With Your Body in Mind

When lesson planning, I’ve learned that the combination of ways in which I use my body and voice throughout the day directly affects my level of pain. Before finalizing my weekly plans, I ask, “Am I being mindful of what I’m asking my body to do this week?”

In the past, I would overschedule myself and get frustrated with my inability to stick to a rigid, teacher-centered lesson plan. Switching to a student-centered, project-based classroom has alleviated these frustrations. By limiting direct instruction to 10–15 minutes per period, I am able to facilitate student-led activities. This approach not only helps me manage my pain but also provides students with a classroom environment that fosters their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

When constructing lesson plans, think not only about content and instruction but also about how your voice and body will be affected. Alternating speaking activities with independent work or group work will allow for increased energy and engagement—for both you and your students.

Be Your Own Advocate

When I first started teaching, I worried that teachers and administrators would view my condition as a weakness. This led me to hide my illness from as many people as possible. But I eventually learned that when I spoke up and defined my own boundaries, many administrators and colleagues were willing to work with me.

For example, I suffered through years of outside lunch duty knowing the heat would exacerbate my symptoms. After I told an administrator about my condition, without hesitation he moved me to an air-conditioned indoor lunch duty instead. I realized that I could have made life a lot easier for myself had I gone to my administrator from the beginning.

Self-advocacy is an often-forgotten catalyst for change. Indoor lunch duty didn’t just help me feel better—it also helped me be a better teacher to my students because my body was not tired.

I also find ways to work with my colleagues to create situations that are beneficial for my condition and their needs. For example, if a teacher and I are co-planning and I know I’m unable to do a certain physical task, I’ll ask if I can take on one of his or her administrative tasks in exchange for the physical one. The other teacher might make the photocopies while I update our curriculum map. I approach the relationship with my colleagues with fairness and equity in mind. Swapping duties allows me to be transparent about my condition.

I tell my high school students about my condition only if I can turn it into a teachable moment. For example, I talk about my struggles with multiple sclerosis when I model the narrative writing process. My story becomes the mentor text. Students are more willing to take emotional and intellectual risks in their writing when they see me take them as well.

Many students do not know much about multiple sclerosis. They’re surprised when I share my struggle, and it often inspires them to do the same in their own writing. My condition, in this case, becomes relevant to their learning and growth.

Stay Ahead of the Calendar

Like many teachers, I’ve struggled to keep up with events and deadlines on the academic calendar. But staying ahead of the calendar allows me to stay in control of how the calendar impacts my chronic illness.

I visually map out my school’s events and deadlines on a calendar and work backward. If final exams are due for review in one month, I parcel out my workload accordingly. If I’m required to attend a school carnival in a few weeks, I email the organizers ahead of time to volunteer for my preferred post. If tests are to be administered soon, I prepare photocopies days in advance. While this may seem like a lot of maneuvering, taking measures in advance frees up time and helps me to protect my health from last-minute overloads.

The unpredictable nature of chronic illness can make one feel out of control. Planning with an organized calendar establishes a sense of control that keeps us centered and consistent. Teaching with a chronic illness means not having the luxury of seeing how a lesson is going and then making spontaneous decisions. Thoughtful preparation can help one stay on track even if an illness interferes.

Quiet Your Inner Critic

Most teachers are familiar with that incessant inner critic that creeps up to tell them that they’ve failed at teaching. But for the chronically ill teacher, this inner critic can take another damaging tone.

“Maybe I’m not good enough” is a phrase that not only drains me physically but also interferes with my cognitive ability to make effective classroom decisions. In order to quiet this voice, I make a habit of sitting down and compiling a mental list of all the things that I accomplished throughout the day.

This list can range from the number of essays and assignments graded to a positive exchange with a difficult student. The list will often be longer and more meaningful than anticipated. Ultimately, this activity gives me compassion and confidence to stay motivated and grounded in my work.

Teaching with a chronic illness is challenging, but employing organization, self-advocacy, and reflection can empower the chronically ill teacher so that illness doesn’t hinder our ability to provide quality instruction for our students.

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