When the Teacher Is Sick (Really Sick)

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Educators sometimes stay home because of the flu, a sore throat, or a fever. But sometimes we still show up for work, even if we are sick. Why is that? Creating substitute plans is hard work and time consuming. Sometimes we feel the need to teach a timely, critical lesson, regardless of how we feel. Other times we are concerned about substitutes having to deal with challenging students. Whatever the reason, whatever the ailment, we continue to teach because we are teachers who care about our students.

Being away from the classroom, even one day, can be stressful on students and disrupt their learning. Being gone for a week seems like an eternity—that’s not even a possibility! Honestly, there aren’t a lot of planning tools for a maternity leave or an extended serious illness.

But I had never really thought about that before a routine exam changed things; when my mammogram came back as abnormal. Six weeks into this school year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I needed surgery and treatment immediately, and my return date was not weeks, but months, away. When I return in the late spring, I will definitely have added new tools to my Substitute Survival Box.

How should a teacher get ready for a long-term absence?

Prepare: You Feel Responsible for Your Students

I had a few days to get my classroom and students ready for my absence. I have always set up daily routines and expectations so students can easily learn when a substitute is present. This helps with classroom management, even when I’m gone for only one day.

Share with the staff and students. They care about your well being and will worry. Although you may be a private person, students see you as a role model, even when you have to model a struggle with an illness. Stay as transparent as possible, considering your comfort level and the age of your students. I told my middle school students I had breast cancer; I shared the treatment procedures and possible side effects. I provided opportunities for students and teachers to ask questions. They supported me as I helped calm their fears after hearing the C word.

Get back to the learning. I did not dwell on my diagnosis during the few school days before surgery. Students were reminded their job was to learn, regardless of the teacher in the room. I shared the long term benchmarks they were expected to reach while I was gone, and some of the ways they would make that happen.

Create a 'day in my classroom' document for the substitute to review. The sub will want to minimize the potential for classroom chaos. Share names of your responsible helpers and students with special challenges.

Accept Your Absence: The Classroom Is No Longer Yours

Being gone long term is not something we ever think about. We want to be able to control the direction of our students’ learning, and we want to go beyond pacing guides to include relevant, engaging learning. Organize what you can, and then let go.

Introduce the students to their substitute if possible. Their acceptance of the temporary teacher will be easier if you hand the “chalk” over to the person stepping into your position. If you are part of a team, or a regular professional learning community, these teachers can support and collaborate with the substitute, who may or may not have a lot of expertise.

Create an easy to understand curriculum map, including standards, benchmarks, and possible activities. Have past lesson plans and materials easily available, with the understanding that the substitute can and will change the lessons as needed.

Share username/password information and online subscriptions. If you use similar passwords for everything, make sure you are clear about what the substitute will need and what programs you wish to keep private.

Stay Involved: Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

After teaching middle school for 22 years, I wasn’t about to step out of the classroom completely, without some special measures in place. After all, they are my students. With the help of an amazing co-educator and my PLC team, I had a few ways to stay connected.

Provide updates for those who care, while remembering to take care of yourself. My friend created a Caringbridge that I shared with my students and staff before leaving. This site lets me share my journey, and I can also add new vocabulary, assignments, and challenges for my students. My friend often does the updates for me.

Use technology to stay connected, without time restraints or the threat of infection. I set up a Biblionasium and a classroom Facebook account. I am able to send emails, messages, and posts to staff and students. I am also able to use videoconferencing tools to connect with the classroom when I feel up to it.

My administrators and PLC Team continue to include me in the district staff community, including the get-togethers and the holiday family photo. I am welcome to join teachers during lunch and after school.

I am excited to hear my students’ voices and their support for me during this absence. Students gathered together and shared their support in an assembly during my last day of teaching. They created the #DuffTuff hashtag and bracelet fundraiser, which gave them an action project. Other teachers have encouraged students to send cards on a regular basis.

One of the greatest gifts we give our students is a model for how to live. As a teacher, you matter to kids, even if what you have to offer is a struggle with illness and dignity. Take care of yourself, and let teacher colleagues organize youthful energy for you through student involvement in your journey.

My journey to recovery is moving forward. My colleagues help make this easier through their thoughtfulness and proactive outreach, and my students show compassion, maintain humor, create artwork, craft notes, and ask colleagues about my progress. Although my original teacher role has been altered, my students are still learning about supporting others in times of need. And really, isn’t experiencing empathy one of our greatest lessons?

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