Imagine this scenario: It’s 7:15 am and your phone is ringing. It’s a principal, asking if you’re available for work that day. “Sure,” you reply, knowing that if you don’t take the day of work, you won’t be getting paid for that day. “School starts at 8:30, see you soon!” You hop in the shower, eat your breakfast, get your lunch packed, and oh – maybe my Crohn’s is acting up a bit this morning. You’re hoping that you can get everything out of your system before you leave for work. After all, you’re working in a school you’ve never been to before. You have no idea when you’ll have a break to go to the washroom. You have no idea where the washrooms are. You have no idea what students you will have or whether or not you will have a friendly teacher nearby who could “be so kind as to watch my class for a couple of minutes.” But it’s okay, you’re starting to feel a little bit better, so you finish packing up and leave your place at 8 am for school. You’re almost there and you start to feel that recognizable grumble in your stomach. You start thinking, “Do I have time to stop at a coffee shop on my way to school to use the restroom? Can I hold it until I’m at school? Will I even be able to find the bathroom there?” Welcome to my life.
I’m a young teacher with Crohn’s going into my third year of teaching. For the first year of my teaching career, I was lucky enough to have a full year contract. I was able to teach the same groups of children every day, be in my own classroom, get to know the staff and have a familiar environment and routine. For the past year and a bit, I have been doing what most new teachers have to do – supply teaching.
As most of you can imagine, teaching in an elementary or secondary school is not an ideal job for Crohn’s sufferers. You’re in class for up to two hours at a time, as well as standing outside for yard duty a few times per week, and you’re not allowed to leave the children alone. You have a limited number of sick days and you’re responsible for planning the days when you’re away. Not that Crohnies who work in other environments have better sick days, but at least their morning isn’t spent thinking up a lesson that is manageable for someone who doesn’t know your students and school routines.
Crohn’s is unpredictable. Teaching is unpredictable. Not the best combination. When I was applying for teacher’s college and teaching jobs, however, this thought didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t want my Crohn’s to affect what I did with my life – why should I limit myself to a desk job if my passion is working with children in a classroom setting? When I would get asked, “Are you worried about your health with teaching?” I would respond with, “Sure, but it’s what I want to do.”
My choice to stick with teaching has left me with a few obstacles which I must continuously work on.
As a contract teacher, I was at the same school every day. I had a great daily routine – I could wake up, eat, clear my bowels, and move on with my day. Knowing the routine, if I felt my tummy rumblin’, I could check the clock and I knew when the bells would ring and when I could quickly make it to the nearest restroom!
As everyone with Crohn’s has probably had experience with, even when we talk about Crohn’s with co-workers or friends, a lot of people don’t understand what we’re dealing with. Working with the same group of teachers throughout the year, I felt I was able to open up more about my illness. For the most part, the staff at my school were very understanding of the illness. The closest staff members to my classroom knew that, on occasion, I may pop my head in and say, “Watch my kids!” while I sprinted down the hall to the staff room washroom. They knew my situation a little bit and weren’t surprised when things like this happened.
I also had many dealings with my principal about my Crohn’s. The schedule of the teacher, being very much an 8:30 am – 3:30 pm type of job, doesn’t always allow for easy scheduling of appointments. My teaching contract was in a small town 2 hours away from my GI. In order to make it to an appointment, I would have to take a whole day off work. My principal was very understanding every time I had to take a sick day for a doctor’s appointments or colonoscopy, but I always felt like I was wasting my sick days on appointments. Shouldn’t I be using these sick days when I actually am feeling sick, instead of when I need to go for testing or checkups?
With Crohn’s, we also all know that a lot can change throughout the course of a year. September and October of 2010 in my classroom were great. In November, the stress of the job, being away from my family and friends, and the unpredictability of my Crohn’s, made my health go downhill. As I look back now, almost two years later, I still wonder how I survived November and December of 2010. I was waking up at all hours of the night to use the washroom, I was making an hourly trip to the washroom between every class, I had lost 15 pounds, and I wasn’t eating well, especially during the day because I was worried of having to make even more frequent trips to the washroom. After all, I can’t leave my students alone in the classroom. Meanwhile, I was trying to plan entertaining lessons for my students, mark assignments and tests, and write report cards. I had to work my hardest at staying energetic in the classroom, knowing that I hadn’t slept through the night in weeks.
Coming back after a much needed Christmas break, my new double dose of Humira and my large quantities of prednisone were keeping me on track. Many people did notice the puffy face – but I guess that is a small price to pay for feeling healthy.
The rest of the year went as smoothly as I could have hoped for my first year of teaching. My health stayed on track for the most part and I planned, marked, and taught my way to the end of June. I had survived my first year of teaching full time.
Since that full time contract, I have been put back into a supply (or substitute) teaching environment. I am basically on call every teaching day and replace teachers when they are sick or when they have a meeting. When I walk into a new “work” environment every day, I’m forced to meet new staff, learn new routines, and figure out a new environment. This, on its own, is a stressful situation. Add in a group of students and a full day of activities, and you’ve got yourself a normal day in my life.
Maybe being a supply teacher, though not an ideal job since I’m not working every day, has been a blessing in disguise for me this past year. I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason and I think this has been a good chance for my Crohn’s to settle down. Being on call, I know that if I’m feeling sick on any given day or have had a bad night, I don’t need to accept any teaching work. And when I do need to teach and have to have that awkward, “Will you watch my class for a couple of minutes while I run to the washroom?” moment, I just have to think to myself, “Well, everyone has to poop. And for me it’s just right now. I have a reason, and it’s ok.”
While there are many challenges to being a teacher with Crohn’s disease, I think I’m proof that it can be done. As with any job, I think it’s a matter of knowing your routines, your environment, and your co-workers, and finding a way to make your job work for you.
You can check out Sarah’s blog about the novels she reads at http://www.bookstacksarah.blogspot.ca
You can also follow her on twitter @Sarah_Bo_Bera
I am also a teacher with crohn’s and I agree with everything that you said. I now have an ileostomy and having a bag means I can poop whilst I teach. Brilliant and I have never felt better.