17 May Eight Tips to Teaching with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) affects 1.5 million Americans and some of those are teachers, like myself, who are teaching with rheumatoid arthritis. Let me give you a little background; my name is Tiffany and I’ve been teaching high school for seven years and I was diagnosed with moderate Rheumatoid Arthritis 18 months ago. Although I have had a short journey with my RA, my dream is to help other teachers that are going through any stage of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Here are a few tips that have helped me in the last 18 months while teaching with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
The grade level of your students will often determine how this conversation goes. As a high school teacher I was able to be upfront and honest with my students and they were very understanding and receptive. For younger kids, you may need to help them understand that you’re working towards getting better, but sometimes you will need help. At the end of the day, I’ve found that students want their teacher to be happy and healthy so they tend to understand and have compassion. I have also found that my students are always willing to help and genuinely care about my progress.
This depends entirely on your comfort level and specific school setting. For me, when I was first experiencing symptoms, it was very hard to hide so my closest teacher friend and co-teacher knew right away that something was wrong. Once I started treatment, I became better at predicting struggles that may lead to more absent days. Knowing I would be out more often, I also decided to tell my principal in an effort to maintain transparency and a positive work environment. Again, telling your co-workers depends on your comfort level and your specific environment. I’ve heard of teachers being in places where they didn’t feel comfortable making their diagnosis known because they felt their job would then be in jeopardy. If this is ever the case, seek help from your teacher association, peers, etc. as this is not fair working practices.
This was probably one of the most challenging changes I had to make to my teaching style. Before my diagnosis, I was on my feet all day teaching then running back and forth to the office, break room, other classrooms, etc. Now that I’m teaching with rheumatoid arthritis, I structure my lessons so that I have times where I can rest. My ‘rest’ times can be sitting while lecturing, allowing students to work independently, or implementing videos. No lie, short educational clips have been my lifesaver this year and my students enjoy the videos much more than me introducing a new topic, which, in turn, boosts their engagement.
Most schools require teachers to have emergency lesson plans in case a teacher is out unexpectedly. In addition to this emergency plan, I also have an emergency plan for days that I am able to go to school, but am having a flare or am not feeling well from medications. This school year I’ve made an emergency plan like this for every unit and unfortunately have had to use every one of them. But I’m thankful that I planned ahead and had a lesson plan that I was able execute while teaching with rheumatoid arthritis. Thanks to my earlier conversation with my students, they understood that the modified lesson was still a normal lesson even though I had to modify my teaching due to not having a good day.
Most teachers take work home in some way, shape or form. I’m guilty of taking work home as well, even if it’s just the mental worry for our students. Once I was diagnosed, I quickly learned that I had to set boundaries between school and home. I needed my home to be a place of rest and allowing me to recharge (I also have a toddler so it’s difficult, but sometimes possible). I’m still struggling with not taking work home or if I have to, limiting it to a small part of the evening or weekend. Although I haven’t mastered this tip, I can tell that it has helped me make it through my days by having a bit of separation. Weekends are meant to recharge too. It is difficult, but I try not to over-schedule my weekends (and weekdays) with social events, professional development sessions or anything else that can take up time. Your personal time should be for you to rest and whatever else you set as a priority in your personal life.
For me, this was the most difficult step to make. When I was a young teacher, I was volunteering for every committee, working late hours, chaperoning field trips, sponsoring clubs, etc. With my diagnosis came a huge prioritization of my life. Quickly I realized that I wasn’t able to do everything that I did before. Determining what committees I wanted to stay on and which clubs I wanted to advise was difficult, but once the snowball of ‘unloading’ began, it became easier and easier. It is still a struggle to say ‘No’ when someone asks me to help but I have to do what is best for my health. I’m not saying that you have to shoot down everything, but by prioritizing, you will say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ with ease and guilt-free.
This tip has a few meanings. When you’re having a stressful week (they are frequent while teaching with rheumatoid arthritis), or a bad flare, or any hard struggle, have another teacher that can help. I work very closely with another teacher within my department so she is able to help as needed. If you don’t have another teacher that can help in this capacity, talk to your administration. Often times there are emergency support staff that can be pulled in to assist during hardship. Again, if accommodations cannot be made, seek advice from your teaching association. The other side of this tip involves the mental struggles associated with RA. Depression is a symptom of RA that should not be ignored. Seek help from a professional if you are feeling any signs of depression. As a teacher, I often feel too busy or proud to seek help for signs of depression, but this symptom can be just as damaging as joint damage.
It is easy during the painful and exhausting times to let RA get the best of you. This was the worst mistake I’ve made. There were times when I didn’t think I could continue my everyday life with RA but it was during those times when I had to remind myself that I couldn’t let this disease beat me. You are a teacher, you face numerous children everyday and shape them into the future of our country and you are going to let RA get the best of you? Our students deserve your best; Rheumatoid Arthritis does not. Your future self deserves your best; Rheumatoid Arthritis does not. You deserve your best you; Rheumatoid Arthritis does not. Even during the hard times, stay positive, remain on track, and keep working towards your goal!
Rheumatoid Arthritis has been a struggle for me personally. It has been a challenge to add teaching on top of it too. These tips have helped me stay afloat during even the worst of times.
Despite possibly being forced to change your go-to teaching style for a day, or not being able to participate in every committee, remember this:
“Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning.”