Being a teacher with a chronic illness.

Illness is other people.  Really sick people, not me.

I have been a teacher for 16 years and an AS sufferer for 28 years.  I have other roles in life; husband, father, brother and I hope, friend but my sick-role is finally catching up with my work-role or vice versa? As with all big life events it has made me stop and question things and ultimately question myself.  I share these things not for sympathy but in the hope that the questions I am asking are the right ones for us all, it has just taken me to a while to get here.

I have been a teacher for so long and teaching is such a deep part of my psyche that it is often difficult to disentangle one from the other.  I have ‘lived’ the pace of the school year as a child, adolescent, student and as a professional with the familiar timings of anxious beginnings, periods of manic marking followed by the fallow recovery of the holidays.  I have always thought that the ebb and flow can be overwhelming at times; a feeling that has not diminished with experience.  But this is the deal, the unwritten contract, the life of a teacher … isn’t it.

I cannot live this pace anymore,  I cannot sit up and mark until midnight every night, I cannot live only at weekends and half-terms.  The demands of the job did not always feel right as a young professional but perhaps even less so as I approach mid-career with my own children and illness to consider.  There is a ‘wounded healer’ approach to the profession that is willing to sacrifice itself at the education altar.  I am guilty of this and there are some difficult questions to ask about whose needs are really being served by a mentality that always puts others before oneself.  As painful as this journey has been, I have had to face up to some of these demons and finally start to put myself in the picture, or at least build a different frame.  I guess when the plane is going down you have to put your own oxygen mask on first, right?

My illness, ankylosingspondilitis does not let you choose, it takes away your choices.  I live in a body that does not feel like my own.  My own immune system has betrayed me and continues to attack my spine, joints, eyes and digestive system.  Each new symptom is another body blow to my morale but it so quickly becomes my new normal that I soon forget the emotional pain of its onset.   My hands, I cannot remember when my fingers ached so much.  Some days it is a struggle to hold the pen.  When I watch myself writing on the board, it feels like an out of body experience.  I do not recognise the hand or the writing.  In the last 6 months, I have taken to using a walking stick at school.  This has taken a huge amount of bravery, more than I thought it would.  Finally, a physical sign of my progressive illness, a symbol of some sort of acceptance on my part that I am not the same as before.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggests that any change has clear stages of denial, grief, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance.  Whilst I recognise the stages and emotions, I do not experience it as a linear evolution.  I am liable to revisiting and reliving all and none in the same moment.  In the unbearableness of a bad day, I can fool myself that it will all be alright tomorrow.  Sometimes it is, but often it is not.

My choices are limited but I can no longer choose to ignore the onset of this disease.  There was a period of my life when I was self-managing my illness well enough, that I could pretend that this illness was other people.  Really sick people, not me.  But not anymore, I have to recognise the impact it is having on me and those I love.

I have to say yes to powerful high-risk medications with the hope they will give me a better quality of life.  I have to say yes to rest, even though my mind is racing through the list of things on my to-do list.  I have to think about the pace of the day, week, month and term.  On a daily basis, I need to store up enough energy to get home and put my kids to bed.  The AS community have a nice metaphor that uses spoons.  Each day when you wake up you are not sure how many spoons you will have to survive the day.  Sometimes getting up costs you two spoons but other times it will demand four.  You have to judge whether you can make the distance on an unknown and forever changing tank of fuel.  Perhaps this is not so dissimilar to my early teaching career where I would mark and plan until morpheus demanded that I lay down my head.  Today, I am often so exhausted by the day-job that it has become difficult to push myself so much for the evening shift.

I have had to come to terms with having this disease but I have not accepted the impact on my life: the constant pain, fatigue, irritability, the anxiety about letting people down.

As a teacher with an illness it has taught me much more about compassion and empathy.  We are mostly a caring profession but in the maelstrom of the classroom it can be all too easy to forget the bigger picture and broader context.  Many young people struggle as much as I do, if not more so but without the resources both emotional and physical that I have to keep myself safe.  I am indeed a lucky one with a supportive partner and understanding colleagues.

Moreover, my illness has helped me question our professions own martyr complex.  The idealisation of the hero teacher saving the day was never a useful starting point.  I have always felt there is something terribly adolescent about the mind of the education sector that often splits staff into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  This splitting feeds into our own neurosis and encourages the distorted psyche of the martyr complex.  It is 10pm already, if only we do another hour or two everything will be fine.  We wonder what will be the consequences of failing to meet another internal deadline that does not reflect the reality of your own workload.  Once you have the good or bad epithet in a school it becomes a master status, all your future interactions are interpreted through that label.  We have all seen this happen to colleagues and it cannot be nice to be on either end of that polarisation.

So just like Max Weber’s Calvinists we plod on, doing more and more with less and less in the hope that we will be put on the special list and that salvation is another data sheet away.  This teacher work ethic and mentality cannot be healthy.  Comparative education studies tells us that this is not the norm across the world.  In England we spend preparation time marking, in Germany they practise the exposition and in Japan they think up good questions.

In the polarising of teachers, I have often wondered whether there is something of the playground that gets held onto in our profession.  I guess the task of adolescent development and containment is bound to arouse some deep held anxieties that get projected and carried around the adult staff.  In a hierarchy that replicates some of our previous relationships, it is not surprising that the earliest rivalries are awoken.

I have had to get much better at prioritising and accepting that not everything will get done, not all requests are reasonable and that ultimately, I am responsible for doing what is possible.  I have also had to get better at asking for help, this has been a massive personal journey.  John Tompsett has posted about the 1990s management metaphor – lessons from geese and whilst it does get a bit cheesy in places there were a few parts of the story that struck me.  Geese fly in formation so when a goose gets sick or wounded, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again.  I too have been lucky to work with people who have been able to hold me together through the bumpy bits.  Geese don’t engage in splitting or projection, when a goose falls out of formation it can feel the friction of flying alone – it quickly adjusts itself and moves back into formation to benefit from the uplift from those in front.  And finally, geese honk to recognise each other and encourage those upfront to keep up the good work.  We should regularly honk at each other.

Being ill has not weakened my commitment to the profession, if anything I am humbled and re-energised by my experiences.  However, I will need to think about how to do things differently.  I need to alter my pace and temper my trajectory.  I need to feel comfortable with asking for help and sharing the burden of change.  I need to put my own health and welfare before the job.  As I have said, I am lucky to be surrounded by supportive colleagues and a very understanding partner.

Our professional commitment to staff welfare has to go beyond cakes in the staffroom and free lunch on inset day.  We need to question the impact of each policy and procedure and ask ourselves who is this really for?  We all want to improve learning and I do not question the commitment of my colleagues but I just wonder sometimes what the pedagogical benefit of filling in another grid, template or spreadsheet will be?  As I have fewer spoons than before, I have become more protective of my time and what I do needs to count and make a difference.