Teaching with a Chronic Illness

Last semester, I taught my first two classes wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat tilted to cover half my face, with the lights turned off. The students thought I looked cool.

The eye condition – then diagnosed as pink eye, later found to be marginal keratitis — was one in a series of recent and terrifying complications of the Crohn’s disease I’d had for seven years officially, several more unofficially. The light hurt my eyes so much that I’d taken to calling myself “batgirl” and lying on the couch with a blanket over my head during the day; yet the energy of first-day-of-class-need-to-be-completely-on distracted me enough, and these were some of my best first classes ever. I knew most of the students from previous classes, and they jumped into making conjectures, looking for patterns, challenging their classmates. I was in a groove – I paused for just the right lengths of time, asked questions that engaged but did not overwhelm, knew when to talk and when to shut up.

For the second days of each class I triumphantly held up a tiny pink and white bottle of steroid eye drops, proclaimed, “Best. Drug. Ever.,” and taught without the hat and glasses. These classes were also terrific; I couldn’t remember ever starting a semester with four great classes in a row. Even though I was sick, I still had it: Batgirl could teach.

Then I had a day off, and beyond a few necessities, I couldn’t get myself out of bed until two p.m., when I had to leave for an appointment with my gastroenterologist. Dragging myself from the subway to his office, resting every half block or so, it dawned on me that I was really sick.

Long story short: my temperature was 104, my doctor put me in the hospital for what turned out to be ten days, and when I got out I found out that the substitute instructor I’d recommended had been hired to teach my classes until spring break. I’d never missed half a semester because of my illness, and that reality was the last straw that pushed me to agree to major surgery: I decided I’d rather lose my colon than my job. I went on medical leave. I was able to come back as a guest for final presentations, but I did not teach those two courses again.

In the midst of preparation, grading, frantic emails, broken projectors, long meetings, dashes to the copy center, addressing texting in class, and all the tasks that fill the teacher’s day, it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to teach. Until the body stops cooperating and the privilege is revoked.

Surgery restored my health in a way I no longer had imagined possible: after being sick for years, it was easy to equate feeling better with feeling good. “Better” might have meant, “Only ten bathroom trips today, when I had fifteen yesterday; fell asleep at 8:00, not 6:00,” and one has to be pretty far gone to call that “feeling good.”

I am now on sabbatical, as well as two months into a life of mostly bed rest, due to unfortunately placed stitches from a second surgery to fix a complication from the first. I am not sick, and I have been reflecting on some of the ways – not all of them bad – that having a chronic illness has affected my teaching. I haven’t read much on this topic which surely affects many, many teachers and thus many more students.

No disease is truly glamorous, but mine is especially not – my main symptoms were diarrhea, urgency, and fatigue – nothing anyone wants to put on a poster or talk about over lunch. When I was first sick, I worried about having to run to the bathroom during class, and I worried even more about the one-person bathroom across the hall being in use and not being able to make it to another bathroom in time (several friends suggested I put an “Out of Order” sign on the bathroom door, but my colleagues can rest assured that I never did). Over time I developed coping strategies that mostly worked, until they didn’t.

In many ways, it was a blessing that I finally crashed, although I’ll always be sad that I didn’t get to teach those two classes.

This post is the first in a series. Ideas for future posts include entries about the day-to-day realities of teaching when I was sick all the time, but still able to work; thoughts about how attendance policies and other classroom structures can teach students to ignore their health; a teacher’s take on improving the educational component of doctor’s visits; reflections on my recent, mostly self-directed, mostly online crash course in learning to live with my new plumbing; and finally, how missing class a lot led me to stumble into some effective ways to promote student ownership of their classes and their learning.

If you are so inclined, please leave a comment. At the left, at the end of the sidebar text, there is a link to subscribe to a feed for just these posts and not the more math focused ones (of course, feel free to subscribe to everything if you’re interested in math!).

Next>> A Few Practical Strategies that Helped me Teach with a Chronic Illness

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7 Responses to “Teaching with a Chronic Illness”

  1. Nancy says:

    Not only a terrific teacher but a wonderful writer. I am glad you are learning to live with your new plumbing and I am always in awe of your positive nature about everything. I will look forward to all your writings …

  2. Nusrat says:

    Debbie, this was truly inspirational for me to read. I have been struggling with health and career these past few years and it really hit home! You are a great writer. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Carol says:

    As a student and university staffer with a chronic illness I liked your line about teaching students to ignore their health. Sadly, true. I look forward to hearing more from you.

  4. Emily says:

    I’ve been following Debbie’s struggles and triumphs for quite some time. She is indeed a fine write, a terrific teacher, and basically a pretty brave, date I say heroic person. She’s also a colleague of mine though in a different department. Now, after almost a year of pain, fancy imaging techniques, etc. I’ve been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, The pain is pretty relentless as is the fatigue and a certain fogginess of my head. I’ve been teaching these semester but, dare I say, not very well. Would love to hear suggestions from others in the same or similar boat.

  5. Jane Newman says:

    Debbie B. Sorry about all of your pain and suffering. Glad that you are on the mend. I had a student who had chrone’s. He wrote and I -search paper on it, and I intended to write an article on I-Search and include other students’ work, but never have. I know that it is a very painful, temperamental disease. Wish you the best as you recoup! Jane/Nana

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