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

Note: This is the second post in my series on teaching with a chronic illness. Here is the introduction to the series.

When you have a chronic illness and a job, by definition you work when you are sick. Before I went on medical leave, I struggled every day to balance my desire to take care of myself with my desire to keep my job and do it well. Sometimes the balance felt impossible, and eventually it became so, but along the way I found some strategies that genuinely helped. I share some of them below.

 

Telling People about my Illness

Hiding my illness would have been very stressful and perhaps impossible, as I often looked sick and had colleagues who noticed. I did not share details with everyone, but most of the people I regularly interacted with knew something about my situation. Some of them would listen to my tales of drugs, doctors, and hospitals and remind me to slow down when they could see that I was getting worse.

On the first day of class, I told students that I had a chronic illness and was more likely to be absent than some of their other professors. I offered to call commuter students if I had to cancel class (although usually when I stayed home, I asked classes to meet without me).

Sometimes more details about my illness would emerge throughout the semester, sometimes not. We had conversations framed as biology lessons, as Q and A’s about whether stress causes Crohn’s or whether taking vitamins helps, and as discussions of school bathroom policies and their effects on children with bowel diseases (a topic that was interesting because most of the students were planning to be elementary teachers). Many students talked to me privately about their own health issues or those of family members.

 

Clear Priorities

I polled some colleagues who had worked with me for years, asking what they thought I could do to reduce my stress at work. Their responses were consistent: I needed to prioritize better. I tried to do too many things, and too often when I got an idea, I’d start implementing it immediately, even if I had many other things to do. I would have had to grapple with this tendency eventually, but my illness made setting priorities a priority (sorry, couldn’t resist).

I chose teaching my classes and keeping the math program running as my main priorities. I stopped going to meetings that weren’t related to either of these two things. I sometimes felt guilty about missing meetings, but the culture at my college favors many large meetings, and going to them left me too exhausted to accomplish my priorities. I am not sure what I would have done if I’d gotten sick earlier in my career, but I’d had about a dozen years of regular attendance under my belt before I cut back.

I chose my battles in line with my priorities. I used to speak out on every injustice I saw at the college –from major to very minor — and I was proud of that, but again, I chose to conserve my energy to focus on priorities.

I gave up many things that I enjoyed. We had a thriving math club that met once a week in the evening, but it was too tiring for me to go to the club meetings and then teach the next day. I stopped going to senior seminar final presentations and to talks given by faculty and guest speakers. I stopped going to out of town conferences and to most in town ones too. I hope to be able to resume some of these activities when I return (although I’m less excited about more meetings).

 

Simple Boundaries on Work Time

If I’d had a less flexible job, I would have been fired, switched to part time work, or gone on disability. For better or worse, the flexibility of my job enabled me to keep working as long as I did, but it also was hard to manage, as I was inclined to work more than was good for my health.

I imposed some simple boundaries to constrain my workaholic tendencies. I kept a Sabbath: I didn’t do any work from Friday night until sometime on Sunday, and I kept the computer off. I stopped working by 4 p.m. on other days (I often started at 6 a.m., so this actually wasn’t that early) and turned the computer off by 7 p.m. I didn’t get a smart phone.

These simple rules were easy to communicate to others: colleagues knew I wasn’t available for Saturday accepted student lunches or for 4:00 meetings, but I might be free for summer advising on a Sunday. On occasion, I ignored my rules, but that was very different than not having them at all.

 

A Steady Schedule

Like many academics, I used to jam all of my classes into as few weekdays as possible, but I no longer had the stamina to work such grueling days. I changed my schedule so that I started teaching at 11:30 four or five days a week. My guts acted up the most in the morning, but they usually settled down before my commute. Prior to leaving for school, I planned classes, graded, and did administrative work – near my own bathroom. After teaching I usually stayed for a few hours to finish up and meet with students and colleagues, but I aimed to leave by my 4:00 limit and left earlier if I was especially tired or sick that day.

I emailed my advisees a few days before advising period started to set up appointments, and I got the new course schedule as soon as it was available. I scheduled no more than two or three students per day during the two week period, with a few days off.

As much as possible, I staggered tests and hard to grade assignments to avoid getting overwhelmed with grading at any given time. When I had long papers to grade, I read a few a day, rather than the “binge” grading I used to do.

 

Modifying my Schedule as Needed

I learned to gauge my energy levels and modify my plans for the day. I had many routes to and from work, and I could adjust the transportation mix of bus, subway, and walking to fit my energy level; occasionally when I was exhausted, I took a cab.

Once in a while I moved an activity that required me to be especially “on” to a day when I was more capable of it and did a quieter activity on a day when I was feeling worse. A strategically timed day off could prevent even more missed days.

Certain times of the semester, particularly during advising and near the beginning and end, were especially difficult for me, and I was careful to pace myself then. Sometimes I planned in advance to stay home for a day, as I knew that otherwise I would work too much.

 

A Private Time Clock

I had trouble setting limits on my administrative work, which follows a different rhythm than teaching. With teaching, sometimes the papers are graded, the next class is prepared, and the work is done for the moment, but administrative work just keeps rolling in.

For many years, my job as the math coordinator was, “do what needs to be done,” but the program was expanding and too much needed to be done. My dean and I negotiated a more specific job description, with an expectation of no more than ten hours a week of administrative work (generous, given the one course release compensation).

I made a spreadsheet with columns for various administrative tasks and kept track of how much time I spent on each, in fifteen minute increments. Soon I started keeping track of teaching time too. I found that when I got to ten hours of administrative work, I could leave the rest for the next week without feeling guilty. The numbers on the screen helped me notice when I was starting to work too much, while I still had some energy left to conserve. I also used these data to make a case for paying someone else to take over some of the administrative work.

It’s a bit ironic that I chose academia partly for its flexibility and then made my own time clock, but recording my working hours was one of the most helpful things I did.

 

Technology

There were a few times when my advisees were in practica and couldn’t meet until the evening. Sometimes I “met” with them from home via instant messaging (Skype would have been better, but I didn’t have it yet). These students were strapped for time too and often appreciated the remote option. These conferences took much longer than in-person meetings (I was surprised at how slow some of the students typed) and they felt less connecting, but they were adequate.

 

Yoga and Meditation

I started practicing yoga years before I was diagnosed, when I had back problems, but yoga also helped me get better at staying present and calm during difficult moments. I built in little breaks throughout my work day to stretch or to just sit for a minute or two and breathe and check in with myself. These were good times to assess my energy level and decide whether I needed to modify my original plans for the day.

 

Preparation

I kept an extra pair of jeans in my office, and I always carried extra underwear and pants in my knapsack, just in case I had an accident. Accidents often felt imminent, but I didn’t have that many. I never used the extra clothes at school, but was comforted that they were there.

I knew the location of many bathrooms along my various routes to work and at the college. I knew that even though a private bathroom was nicer, it was better to go to a multi-stall bathroom when it was urgent, as an available toilet was more likely. I kept containers of air freshener in my office and my bag to quickly grab and bring with me to the rest room.

I kept food in my office, as my diet often was too restricted for me to easily find a meal or snack. I kept some special, easy to digest high calorie, high protein shakes, as well as an immersion blender to mix them, and I could drink a shake when my energy was lagging.

 

Conclusion

When my sabbatical ends in the fall, I hope to return to work much healthier than I was when I developed these strategies. I am grateful that surgery ended my days of urgently running to the bathroom, and I also look forward to having more energy and being able to do more things. Some strategies will no longer be necessary, but others, such as setting boundaries and priorities, are just better ways of working.

I welcome comments, including sharing some of your own strategies.

2 Responses

  1. Nicole
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for this post. I am a pre-service high school social studies teacher. I have Sjogren’s Syndrome and antibodies for RA. I just finished a brief teaching practicum and have been wondering how I will do it. Your strategies, especially for energy conservation, are so helpful. I feel that if I can just get through my student teaching and my first year without major flares, I will be able to figure out strategies of my own. There does not seem to be much written about teaching with a chronic illness. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  2. dborkovitz
    | Reply

    Nicole, sorry for the late response (was out w/surgery etc.). I’m glad the information here was helpful, and I hope you can both teach and stay healthy.

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