The Chronic Classroom: Strategies for Teaching With a Chronic Illness

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Having a chronic illness stinks! Whether you are dealing with something like arthritis, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, etc., it really makes your life tough. Trying to work with a chronic illness makes life even more complicated. Now when you are a teacher, add in the fact that you can't take breaks when you need to and you have to be "on" from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave, and things get even more difficult.

I was diagnosed in 2004 with an autoimmune disorder, Sjogren's Sydrome. It didn't really give me a ton of problems once I got my medication straight but immediately when I started student teaching in 2005, I had problems with my voice. I assumed for many years it was the typical teacher voice problems. After years of infections & voice therapy, I had my tonsils out in 2011. Sadly, this didn't improve things. I continued to get constant throat infections that wouldn't go away. Ultimately I ended up at an immunologist in January of 2015 that found I had two different types of immune deficiencies. Two years later, I am still struggling from time to time but am doing much better thanks to multiple medications & doctors.

Over the last two years, however, I have spent quite a lot of time googling, "How to Teach with a Chronic Illness." There are a few helpful posts. There are all sorts of ideas on how workplaces can accommodate a worker with a chronic illness but most of what I have found about teaching says basically, you end up leaving the field. This just makes me awfully sad. I don't see why we can't find better ways to make things work for teachers. So I have been brainstorming over the years to find ways to help myself.

These are just things I have personally done that I have found helpful. Try them & see if they help you out!

1. Tell students about issues

I debated for a while about whether or not to do this. However, I do teach older students & I felt like it might be beneficial because of the nature of my disorder. I am HIGHLY susceptible to viruses & bacteria so I felt it would be good to let my students know how important it is for them to stay away from me &/or let me know when they are sick. This has actually been quite a blessing. My students have been very protective over me & make sure to let me know if they are sick so I can kind of stay away and also clean their desks.

Whether or not to tell your students is obviously a personal choice and really depends on the age of the students as well as the nature of your illness. However, I do think that explaining the situation in vague and age appropriate ways can teach our students a lot about life. Letting students see your weaknesses and humanity can teach them about hard work, determination, & resilience.

2. Ask for reasonable accommodations

My doctor recommended that I take the entire school year off work. Needless to say, I didn't do it. However, I did find a way to help myself. I took every Wednesday of the Spring Semester of 2015 off. I made a point to schedule the same substitute & explain how important this was for me & my health to my students. They were amazing & this day really enabled me to rest from Monday & Tuesday and prepare for Thursday & Friday. Having that extra day to nap & even catch up on schoolwork was so helpful.

What would help you in your struggle?

Would it help to have a specific planning period so you can take your medication or schedule your doctor's visits? Would moving your classroom closer to the faculty restroom help? Would creating a paperless classroom make your life easier?

Really evaluate what your struggles are and see if there is something REASONABLE that you might be able to ask your administration for or accommodation that you can make for yourself.

3. Tell important colleagues that need to know what is going on

Some people are very private & I understand that but people can't help or understand what you are going through if you are silent. I made a point to let certain key people know about my conditions & ask them for help when I needed it. For example, after having an emergency surgery in August of 2012 (Why would any teacher have surgery in August otherwise?!), I needed to be able to take more frequent restroom breaks. Although my administration didn't seem to think they could help me out, I was able to work out with an awesome colleague on my hall to come relieve me for a few minutes during her planning period every day. She was wonderful about doing this every day! I felt bad asking but I had to remind myself that if she had asked me to do this, I would have done it for her. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be helped. Remember to be grateful and show appreciation for this help in some way. Also, remember to help others during their season of struggle as well!

4. Organization

Now, I have to admit, this is my biggest weakness. I try hard to be organized but I really struggle with it. However, I have tried to find ways to help myself. For example, I now keep pretty much everything on Google Docs because I can access it easily at school & home without having to update it. This just makes life easier for me. I also LOVE using Google Classroom because I can have my students complete their assignments & turn them in online. This means I don't have to carry a ton of papers home every night to grade. I can click on my laptop & grade as I can. This also eliminates all the germs that come home with these papers as well!

5. Let Students Help You

I realized two summers ago that I was not in the shape to handle putting my classroom back together after they waxed the floors. The room is always a disaster & I just knew I wasn't well enough to do this alone. I came up with a great idea! Since I teach seniors, I allow them to add me on social media once they graduate. So I created a Facebook Event entitled, "Help Mrs. Cullom Out!" I set a date & time asking students to come during the summer to help me get my room back together. I let them know I was bringing lots of snacks & ordering pizza. I will have you know that I had at least 10 kids ultimately show up to help me. They stayed all day helping me get my room together. OH MY GOSH!!! This was such a blessing!! I did it again this past year on a smaller scale just asking a few girls that I was very close to if they could come help & I had three girls come join me for a day of working in my room and then we went to lunch. You have NO IDEA how helpful this was!

Additionally, I have learned to let students file, clean, & help grade when I can. At the end of the year, I had several students that spent the day with me (because they exempted their exams but were still required to be at school) helping pack my room up & file. I feel like this really benefits both of us. My students are helping me tremendously but at the same time, we kind of develop a cool bond having spent so much time together working. The students seem to enjoy being able to help me & BOY, do I appreciate it!

6. Take sick days but do so wisely

I am not naturally an advocate of taking sick days. Most teachers try to avoid them because it is often more work to get ready for a sub than it is to just be present. Having had multiple issues over the years, I realize how precious they are & how quickly they can be gone. I try really hard to take my sick days wisely. However, my doctor has really pushed me to take sick days before I start getting sick. I recently realized how right he is. He says that when I feel myself starting to get sick, THIS is when to take the day off. This helps my body fight whatever it is & potentially it keeps me from either getting sick or the sickness being as bad.

One of the best things that has helped me be able to take sick days is using an online program like Google Classroom or Edmodo so I can load a quality assignment from home for my students to complete while I am not there. I can even video tape myself (using either my phone or Screen-cast-o-matic) explaining what to do! How great is that?!!!

7. Let people that love you help you

My mom is the greatest. She used to come by my house regularly & just clean my kitchen for no other reason than because she knew I was having a rough time. I honestly was very defensive about this feeling that she was saying by doing this that I couldn't handle taking care of my own home. I was absolutely STUPID! Now, I realize how valuable the people I love are! When my husband brings home dinner because he can hear the exhaustion in my voice & wants to be kind, I just hug him a little tighter! When my mom offers to do a few errands for me, I thank her like crazy! I have realized that the people I love want to be there for me & I need to let them.

8. Pay for help

I realized that as much as I appreciated my mother stopping by every now & then to straighten my house, it wasn't enough. I ended up hiring someone to clean my home. I never thought of myself as someone that would do this. My mom was a full-time stay at home mom & did it all. I assumed I would be the same way minus the staying at home & mom part. I felt at first that I should be ashamed that I couldn't care for my own home, especially since we don't have children or animals. It is just the two of us. But I have learned that it really helps me. To just have someone come in once a month means that no matter what is happening with my health, my house gets cleaned thoroughly once a month. Yes, I could clean it & I do still clean but this is just one more thing I can take off my plate. If this enables me to teach full-time and do a part-time online business, then why not?!

I know that not everyone can afford to have someone clean their home but what about other ways you can pay for help? What about taking your car through the car wash instead of washing it yourself? How about getting someone to do your lawn care? What about just ordering pizza once a week to give yourself a break from cooking?

9. Balance

Okay, so I said that organization is my biggest weakness but I will have to add this in too. Resting properly, eating well, & exercising is SO important. Also, having a social and spiritual life is essential to a happy life in my opinion. I'm not great at balancing it all. I try. The biggest thing I try to remember is that my school & classroom will always be there & there will always be more work to do. Sometimes a nap or a good workout can help me be more productive than if I spent an hour grading!

10. Comfort

As I have noted in one of my previous posts, I have made a special point to make my classroom comfortable, not just for my students but for me! Check it out here to read more!

If you are a teacher and have a chronic illness, please know that you aren't alone.  You can do this! I would love to talk with you if you are in this situation. We definitely need to help each other all we can.

Please comment below if you have any other ideas that you would like to share. I love feedback and connecting with my readers! 


  1. I love your ideas. I've decided to change my career from the culinary world to teaching. I have been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danalos Syndrome and I'm afraid of how that will effect me when working with young kids and even special education students. I love kids and I don't want my illness to define me. Do you have any advise for an aspiring teacher?

    1. I am so sorry that I am just now responding. I have been very sick this last year myself and have neglected my blog. I'm not all that familiar with Ehlers-Danalos Syndrome but my biggest advice would be to take care of yourself. No matter how much you think you HAVE to do something, your first priority must be your health. Nothing else will matter if you are in the hospital or so sick you cannot function. Self-care is #1 in my book! I have been bad not to do this like I should over the years and I have only ended up regretting it! Good luck! And thanks for reading!

  2. I agree, April. Phoenix418, teaching has become a labor intensive, high maintenance career, with lots of oversight and evaluations and such. Google EDS and immunity and stress. See what comes up. I can understand wanting to switch from culinary, but maybe you could focus on a less stressful area. Even one having to do with healthy food. Or working with children but not hands-on? Just trying to stretch thinking about related fields. Talk to your doctor, too, about your immunity issues. Good luck!