Teaching With an Autoimmune Disorder or Chronic Condition

Tips for making it work from teachers who’ve been there.

Lisa Rodriguez is a 32-year-old third grade teacher. She was recently diagnosed with lupus after several years of frustrating doctor visits and tests. As she learns about her new diagnosis and adjusts to medications, two questions keep coming back to her: “Can I really keep being a teacher with autoimmune disease? How will I handle the overwhelming fatigue and chronic pain as well as the day-to-day stresses of teaching?”

Fortunately, she’s not the only teacher with lupus, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, or any of the other myriad chronic conditions that make life more challenging. Here are tips from real teachers with autoimmune and chronic disorders, from our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Explain your diagnosis and ask for accommodations.

There’s a stigma around certain illnesses that may cause teachers with autoimmune or chronic conditions to hold back when asking for help. But the best thing you can do is be up front with your administration. There are some accommodations you may be entitled to by law; often the administration is willing to make sure you can do your job well. This includes allowing you to take time off when needed. “If you provide administration with proper documentation of a diagnosis, they should be understanding about extra days you need off for flare ups,” points out Allison B. 

One note: Don’t bring up your illness when interviewing for a new job. It’s illegal for interviewers to take that into consideration when hiring. “They can’t pass on hiring you because of it, so I didn’t mention it during the interview,” explains Sara C. “The first week of training I let them know I had a disease, and we discussed accommodations that I would need. I’ve never had an issue with reasonable accommodations.”

Be open with students and parents too.

Teachers with autoimmune and chronic illness often feel the need to hide their health challenges from students and their parents. These teachers may think it reveals weakness—teachers are supposed to be invincible, right? Flip that thinking on its head by viewing it as a learning opportunity for your kids. Chances are good that at least some of them will also face chronic illness in the future. Show them that you can be successful despite the daily challenges you face.

Erin M. does just that. “I’m honest with the kids (I work with seventh and eighth grade). I have diabetes and IBS, and the medicine I’m on leaves me a WRECK. I let them know that occasionally there will be days where I am sick or may have to run out of the room in a rush, but that I know they will be able to stay focused at those times and still learn even if I have to teach from my desk.”

Take your meds wherever you need to.

Another issue teachers with autoimmune or chronic illness face is where and how to take their medications. Many feel like they shouldn’t be taking medications in front of their students. They wait until breaks, even if that affects their health. (One teacher shared a story of ducking under her desk and pretending to tie her shoe whenever she needed an Advil.) Again, try thinking of it differently. As Jennifer M. says, “There is no shame in having to take medication. It might just make [students] feel a bit more comfortable if/when they have to take any. Set a timer and show them how to take care of themselves.”

“You have to take care of yourself because your students need you,” stresses Deirdre L. And Lucy M. agrees: “It doesn’t bother me taking medication in front of the students. I just make sure it is locked up or in a place they can’t get it. If they are old enough, I usually explain to them that I have an illness and the medication helps me stay healthy so that I can teach them. That way they are understanding if I do get sick, which has happened, and they were WONDERFUL! Take care of yourself for you, your family, and your students!” 

Take any precautions you need against getting sick.

For teachers with autoimmune and chronic illness, one of the biggest dangers can be dealing with the flu or common cold. Teachers are susceptible to every germ their kids carry, and many spend their first few years in the field being sick pretty much all the time. But when you already have a chronic illness, especially an autoimmune disorder that requires medication to suppress your overactive immune system, a cold or flu is much more serious. It can take weeks or months to recover, so the better route is to avoid getting sick whenever possible.

Lois W. has lupus and takes plenty of precautions to avoid germs. “I do not touch students at all. I am careful to wash my hands or use hand sanitizer before touching openings like my eyes, mouth, etc. I am regularly cleaning desks and tables and sanitizing with Lysol.” You might also consider wearing a face mask if a particularly virulent airborne illness is making its way around your school. Just be open with your students about why you need to do so.

Try to keep your teacher supplies away from kids, too. “I would also recommend little things like carrying a pen in your pocket that only you use,” suggests James V. “A lot of germs can be traded just from sharing a pen. I do this anyway for convenience as well as germ reduction, but small details can go a long way.” This is a great excuse for keeping students’ hands off your favorite teacher pen!

Plan your day and pace yourself.

This is easier said than done for teachers with autoimmune disorders. Still, try to set clear boundaries for what you can and cannot do in a day. “Pace yourself during the day. There’s no rule that says you have to be on your feet all the time,” notes Keith K. “Lunchtime was always my quiet time—the faculty lounge can be a real drain. If you have a planning period, try to limit your movement around school.” 

Find ways to reinvigorate yourself during the day. Some teachers like midday stretches or a brief walk outside. Others use their planning period to close their eyes and rest or meditate for 10 minutes. And when the school day is done, give yourself the rest you need. “Oftentimes I plan out my day so I can come straight home after work and rest for an hour straight,” Sarah Y. shares. “Usually if I have that hour to just lay and rest, I can get up and do whatever else I have to do that evening. That helps me get through those really tough days.”

Ask your colleagues for help.

It can be hard to ask for help when you know your colleagues are just as busy as you are all day long. But teachers often work best as a team and are almost always glad to help each other out. Marcea E. says, “Change up your routine a bit to see if it helps. Talk to your colleagues and see if they can take on a few tasks just to take a little weight off your shoulders on days you aren’t feeling great.” Sometimes it’s just a matter of switching duties; if winter’s cold weather causes flare-ups for you, trade outside recess duty for taking care of administrative paperwork. 

Teachers with autoimmune and chronic disorders can feel isolated at times. Try to reach out to your fellow teachers for support, even if it’s just a good laugh between classes. “I’m very fortunate that my department makes up most of the group that eats lunch in the staff room,” notes Karen H. “We laugh every day, share ideas, and mostly talk about things other than work. It’s a really helpful midday break.”

Make time to take care of yourself.

Overall, this is the most important takeaway. Teachers with autoimmune disorders and chronic illnesses have usually spent a lot of time and energy getting diagnosed and finding treatment. Don’t allow the stresses of your job derail your quest for better health and quality of life. Stay hydrated. Rest when you need to. Take your meds and use accommodations that are available. Ask for help. Be honest with yourself and others about what you can and can’t do each day. When you do have a flare-up or get sick, take the sick days you need! The sooner you can rest and heal, the sooner you’ll be back to being the best teacher you can be.

Are you a teacher with autoimmune or chronic conditions and need some support? Come chat in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

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Teaching With an Autoimmune Disorder or Chronic Condition

Posted by Jill Staake

Jill Staake is a writer living in Tampa, Florida. She's spent most of her life teaching in traditional classrooms and beyond, from 8th grade English to butterfly encounters, and believes learning is a life-long process.

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