Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reflection: Chronic Pain and Teaching

There are a lot of difficult and necessary conversations going on in our communities today. I've seen all sorts of discussions and arguments and debates unfold in recent weeks/months about male privilege, white privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege, and so on. Today, I'd like to take a post and talk about another one: able privilege. It has also been part of these conversations I've seen, although, it often takes a back seat to other topics. This is not a criticism because each of these conversations needs to be had: these privileges need to be challenged! This is also not the reason for my post. Rather, I had my post already written in part when the conversations started. These conversations reiterated to me why I am writing this one.

At the bottom of this post, you'll find links to a recent post by a dear colleague and a blog I help co-write. They are about Comprehensible Input and challenging white privilege and other privileges (respectfully). There is also a link to a post by Rachel on mental health. I would LOVE to add to this list. If you have a blog post or know of a source where these privileges are being challenged and discussed, please leave it in the comments so that we can continue the conversation.

Now... on to my story.

There is a phenomenon that I read about recently in an online medical journal. It doesn't necessarily have a name, but the way it is described is that those with disabilities (ranging from the seen, unseen, physical and mental) often do not discuss their pains and issues (even with doctors) because "someone has it worse than me". I mention this for a few reasons:

  1. Disabilities often go unseen or unnoticed. 
  2. There seems to be an expectation that someone with a disability will tell you about it. 
  3. Disabilities affect everyone. Many of us just don't realise it. 

Some Background

Many of you who know me may be asking, "Who is she to talk about able-ism?" And, even until January of this year, I'd have agreed with you. It has been a long journey for me to be able to (a) talk about this to myself in these terms and (b) talk about it publicly. In fact, I still don't talk about it often, except to provide quick explanations for why I cannot attend something, why I am avoiding something, etc.

Without revealing too much, I deal with chronic allergies daily (environmental and food), moderate to severe adult onset asthma, and a genetic issue that affects my ankles and feet causing daily pain and frequent injury. Right now, my doctor says I should not be walking and should be sitting as often as possible. To add to all this, I was recently diagnosed with chronic daily headaches and chronic migraines.

It took me a while to be able to talk about this. Even now I've erased and re-written this three times. I am still coming to terms with what all this means. Partly because I don't necessarily view some of the things I deal with as disabilities (others have it much worse!) and, more recently, I've had to come to terms with how some of this is changing my daily life and future plans. What I want to focus on today, is how this plays out in our professional lives and steps we may take. I am by no means an expert on this. I welcome further discussion and suggestions in the comments below!

The Way Chronic Illness Effects Teachers

I have good days and bad days. Last week... there was a bad day. I am back in my medical boot because of a mistake that was made in my ankle bracing. The boot is large, and heavy and, while it gets rid of the immediate sharp pains, it does not do much else. By the end of the day, even if I'm sitting while teaching, I am exhausted. That morning, a student in my first period class asked if I was okay and said I looked "defeated". And he's right. It's how I feel. I LOVE my job. I love teaching and I love my kids. I love my subject area. I also love so many things outside of school, but, with the issues I am facing, everything I do is a challenge. Some days are easier. Some are nearly impossible.

Recently, I was attending some professional development. I entered a room on time for a scheduled talk and looked around. There were empty seats, but they were on the inner section of rows, nearest the wall, often 5-6 people in. I walked the aisle trying to find some way I could easily get in without disturbing those people. Getting in and out of the rows was very difficult, even without people. I contemplated asking someone if they would squeeze in and as I walked, I realised something: (1) people saw me and my boot. They stared at it. (2) They were staring at it (or avoiding me all together) so that they wouldn't have to look at me or engage with me. (3) No one was moving inward. I searched for a seat in the back, but there were none. I ended up leaving the talk as standing for an hour is not a possibility for me. I was incredibly frustrated.

What I've realised is that things I otherwise took for granted are now things I must consider every day. This is the same (to varying extents) for every teacher with chronic issues.

  • Do I have a meeting across campus? If so, in my case, what can I cut out during the day so that I have the energy to walk and am not in too much pain to do so?
  • Am I delivering a dictation today? How much time can I walk around in each class so that all my students get what they need from me and I don't push myself too far? 
  • Do I need to make copies today? If so, will the elevator be unlocked? Can I even get into the building where the elevator is? If not, is it worth the injury and pain to walk down the two flights of stairs to get to the office?
  • Do I need my crutches today? If so, how can I carry my things AND support myself on them? Do I need my laptop for a meeting? How will I get there and back holding a laptop and using crutches?
  • Did someone just use perfume? If so, how strong is it? How much time do I have before an asthma attack hits? Where is my inhaler?
These are just some things that come to mind right now. Other things that affect teachers with chronic issues: fire drills (especially if stairs are involved), daily duties (required standing/walking, cold weather, etc.), classroom management, working through a migraine because there is no choice.

The Way Chronic Illness Effects Our Kids

We've all seen it: the kid who always appears sleepy, the kid who always seems to be down or in pain, the kid who asks to go to the bathroom a lot. We've gotten health plans and IEPs that tell us to allow the student to do x, y, or z and we've all, at some point, wondered about it. The fact of the matter is, it isn't our place to know everything or understand it all. Rather, our job is to provide a safe learning environment and that means making accommodations for any number of reasons. 

Chronic illness and pain (of the physical or mental kind) affects our kids daily. There are some students who are always keeping an eye out because, even though we've announced it, some one may have snuck in a snack with peanuts in it. There is a kid who is counting down the minutes until they aren't surrounded by people and noise. There is a kid whose eyes are closed all period because the light is making them feel nauseated. There is a kid who couldn't make it to class today because of the pain and illness. When we don't have these struggles (and yes, I was guilty), we might look at that and assume the kid is sleeping, that the kid is AWOL, that the kid is trying to get out of class. But, if we realise that these kids are dealing with these issues and also dealing with the regular day to day of life, we'll change our perspective and change how we treat those issues and them.

In addition to all that they deal with as teenagers, they have these added issues. It affects their participation and attendance in class, their ability to do homework, their ability to bring in projects, mood, concentration.... everything.

What We Can Do

The fact is that anyone dealing with chronic issues has to make choices every day, every hour, every minute. They have to consider what they can do in that moment and how it will affect what they are able to do in the next.

A student may choose to do one piece of homework over the other because while they have an "A" in one class, they have a "C" in another AND they know that they have a doctor's appointment, treatment, or are dealing with the onset of any number of symptoms that will affect their ability to do the work asked of them.

A teacher may choose to skip lunch with colleagues because the pain is so bad they cannot get up from their desk or they are conserving energy to teach the next period.

In addition to all this, we/you may never even know what they are dealing with because "someone else has it worse" or "I don't want to be a burden".

To be honest though, and to repeat a point above, it isn't anyone's job or business to know the details of someone's struggles unless they want to share. Rather, it is ALL our jobs to make spaces that everyone can be comfortable in, no matter what they are going through any given day.

To that end, I'd like to suggest a few things we can do for our students and colleagues:
  1. Don't presume that any child is faking to get out of something. Yes, some people play the system, but the vast majority do not. Trust a kid who says they have a migraine and can barely focus. Trust the kid who needs to go to the bathroom or the clinic every day. Trust them to tell you when they need the space and time and honour it. 
  2. Make your room a safe space. Avoid jokes about those in pain or those with chronic issues. Be clear. Don't allow it. Don't allow someone to make someone else feel badly about the issues they are facing. Be clear on day 1. Be clear when someone slips up. If we're learning anything from the current issues facing those accused and guilty of sexual harassment and assault it's this: we all need to do a better job of stopping privileged culture and talk in its tracks. This means, in my room, we do not make jokes about any group of people. It isn't allowed and there are no excuses. 
  3. Just because you can't "see it" doesn't mean it isn't there. No one knows another's allergies unless they say something or something awful happens. Don't presume that because on Monday a student has a great day, that on Tuesday they will as well. Many look at me, see nothing outwardly wrong, and presume I am fine when, in reality, I am in pain with each step. Some students will show little to no outward signs of any issues, while they struggle inside. Some struggle to keep it hidden because they are embarrassed and might not feel safe expressing what they are going through, but, again, they don't have to share it. 
  4. Reconsider your rules. If you are a teacher who doesn't let students go to the bathroom, or only allows them a certain amount of passes each day/semester, I would strongly suggest you reconsider. Students with chronic issues may use a "bathroom" pass to decompress, take medicine, or deal with any number of issues. They shouldn't have to come to you and explain why they need to go "again". If you require students to stand when they deliver answers or to give regular presentations, reconsider how you do this. 
  5. Move in. This is pretty specific, but I am using it for a broader idea. These are small, daily things we don't think about. Things we do almost subconsciously. They will require a change, a reboot of the brain, if you will. When you go through a door, glance behind you. Can you hold the door for two seconds and allow someone through? When you go to a talk/conference, sit inside the rows, leaving aisles available. If you must leave in the middle, take a seat in the very back, rather than taking the aisles. If you are giving a talk/presentation, use a mic, even if you must then stand behind a podium.
  6. When in doubt, be kind. There are all kinds of disabilities. Some are temporary, some are chronic, some are fatal. Some are visible, some are invisible. Some change day to day, moment to moment. Whenever you see someone you know struggles with this, or someone in general who is having any kind of struggle.... Be kind. Avoid making that joke, just keep it inside. Make the move yourself; don't wait for them to ask and bring attention to it. 
Just.... be kind. :) If we make these small adjustments daily, the world becomes a slightly kinder, easier place for everyone. We cannot solve the struggles of those with chronic issues, but we can help share the burden and for many of those who are able.... they won't even notice the "extra" they do. 

As I said above, I want to invite discussion into this further. Below you'll find a list of blog posts and blogs that discuss and deal with issues of privilege. If you have another, please comment with it below so we can add to the list! 

  1. The Inclusive Latin Classroom - a blog run by a number of teachers that discusses how using CI creates an inclusive classroom for all types of learners. 
  2. "Why Students of Color Don't Take Latin" -- an article by John Bracey on Latin classrooms, and students of colour. 
  3. "A Personal Blog in Honor of Mental Health Awareness" -- a blog post by Rachel Ash mental health and the classroom.