What four educators have learned about life in the classroom with IBD

Life with IBD impacts our careers in many ways. Our disease can often dictate what path our future takes. As students, teachers, and families gear up for another school year, I thought it would be interesting to hear from educators who have IBD about what it’s like to lead a classroom while living with an unpredictable chronic illness. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s hear the inspiring stories and perspectives of four unsung heroes who don’t allow their IBD to rob them of their career aspirations.

Sarah Rife has been a teacher for seven years, she’s also an IBD mom and an ostomate. She’s currently teaching eighth grade math in the Chicagoland area, but previously taught high school Geometry and Algebra.

“I have taught through many highs and lows Crohn’s wise. For the first 5 years, there wasn’t a single year that I didn’t use every single sick day I had (and then some unpaid days). I believe four out of five of those first years, I had at least one hospitalization where I missed consecutive days, as well. In this time, I was on four different medications and tried a clinical trial.”

While this was going on Sarah says she rarely ate at school and if she did, she stuck to 3-4 “safe foods” to help get through the day.

“I constantly taught with an escape plan in the back of my mind. You can’t just leave a room full of 28-32 kids sitting unsupervised, so I constantly had to think about things like ‘Who will I have cover my class?’ ‘What if I am gone more than 5-10 minutes?’ ‘What can they work on that they will know how to do if I have to step out in the middle of teaching them something new?”

Sarah is open about her IBD with students and their families and says having IBD has made her a more compassionate educator since she understands when students need to miss school.

“When I was younger, I was the student missing multiple days of school. I remember the things that some of my favorite teachers did that helped me to not stress when I felt like I had mountains of missing work. Whenever I have a student gone for health reasons, physical or mental, my standard answer when they come back is “Worry about everything else first, and then I’ll talk to you about what we can do to bring you up to speed in math class. Don’t stress, I will work with you on it.”

One year while being evaluated by her principal during a drop-in visit. He walked into her room, sat down, and started typing. He was aware of her Crohn’s, but Sarah panicked when she knew she needed to make a mad dash to the bathroom while he was in her classroom observing her.

“I ended up going over to him and asking “I really need to step out and use the bathroom. Do you want me to grab someone like I usually do, or do you just want to watch them since you are here” He agreed to watch them, and I ran out to go to the bathroom. Whenever I had to step out, I was also conscious of what time it was. This time, there were about 30 minutes of class left. In my head, I needed to get back ASAP because THE PRINCIPAL was in there and he was supposed to be observing me. When I heard the bell ring and I was still on the toilet, I panicked – I’m talking instant tears. I was able to finish and tried to hurry back to my room. My path crossed his on the way back and I started to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I would be that long.”

Sarah says her mind was racing with crazy thoughts about her abilities as a teacher and what she was capable of. The principal could see she had been crying and more tears were starting to fall, and he interrupted her and said, “Sarah, I am not worried about it. This is your third year here and we know this happens. I am worried about what I see when you are able to be in the classroom and what I saw meets and exceeds our expectations. Please don’t worry about it.” – This reassured her so much more than even he will ever know, but the story replays in her head every time an administrator pops in her room for an unannounced observation – even 4 years later.

When Sarah taught high school, she was nowhere near remission, forcing her to be extremely transparent with her students.

“I told them that I had a disease called Crohn’s and that in a nutshell, my immune system was attacking itself, specifically my intestines. They knew that me having to step out of class and disappear to the bathroom was a possibility and witnessed it multiple times a week, sometimes in the same class period. They were also aware that often these bathroom breaks would result in pain, nausea, and exhaustion.”

Whenever Sarah would have an episode, she says the students went above and beyond to be empathetic and understanding.

“I had students volunteer to work out examples on the board so I could sit down, and they were extremely good at switching gears and changing the plan if I needed to do something with less walking around, standing, or talking – for example work on a worksheet instead of doing notes or bringing questions to me at my desk over me walking around offering help. I really do think high school students are more resilient and compassionate than people give them credit for.”

Since her ostomy surgery, Sarah’s life in the classroom has changed for the better.

“I feel like a completely different teacher. My energy isn’t nearly as much of an issue, I can teach without constantly having an escape plan or worrying how long I’ll be stuck in the bathroom, I can eat lunch at school like a normal person, without worry or only packing the same 3 things, and for the first time in my teaching career, I had paid sick days left at the end of the year. I had a chance to worry about the content I was teaching first and my health second, which I had never been able to do in the past.”

Sadly, this past week, Sara’s ostomy leaked while she was in the middle of teaching 30 thirteen-year-old students. Luckily, she works less than one mile from home so she yanked her shirt down as far as it could go and told the admin she’d be back in 15 minutes.

Sara Margolin of New York has been a professor of psychology for 15 years, with a focus on neuropsychology, cognition, and aging. She says her experience with ulcerative colitis and two other autoimmune conditions has made her more understanding toward her students.
Sara says, “Robin Roberts said it best, “everybody has something.” And she’s right. I’m not the only person with a chronic illness. Many of my students struggle or someone they love struggles. Understanding that they deserve the compassion that I wish to have has only made me a better professor.”

Sara has had to leave the classroom on multiple occasions to urgently use the bathroom.

“I will either quickly show a film if I have one at hand or pretend to get a call from my children’s school and “need to leave to take it.” But in my smaller classes, where the discussion leads us there — in the discussion of medical trials, medications for chronic illness, or psychological issues stemming from chronic illness, I’ve discussed my condition. And there have been a handful of students over the years who have been diagnosed while in my class, and I share with them that I understand what they are going through. We bond over that.”

Now that classes are back to in person this fall, she has some concerns knowing she is not fully in remission and not able to teach remotely anymore.

“When I was teaching at home, I had a time or two where I turned my camera off and taught from the bathroom…. EEK! … and knowing that I may be in the position to need to do that but not be able to is nerve wracking. But I know that my colleagues will fill in for me if I do need them to.”

Madison Laspisa of New York has taught fourth grade for four years. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2020, during her first year of having her own classroom. Not only were schools shutting down when her severe symptoms began, but she was dealing with school closures and remote teaching, on top of being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

“My life was flipped completely upside-down to say the least. I was truly devastated at everything that was happening around me and to me. My first year in my own classroom should have been the most memorable part of my career (in a good way), but I sadly cannot say that. My life changed before I had a minute to truly process what was happening. However, since we were forced to stay home because of the Covid-19 pandemic I had the availability to see doctors and get procedures done as needed. Had it been a normal school year I would have had to take a leave of absence during my very first year of teaching.”

Since then, Madison says her IBD has impacted her experience as an educator in more ways than she’d like to admit.

“Aside from needing to take days off to receive my infusion, there have been days where I needed to take a last-minute half day because I desperately needed to see my doctor. At times, this can leave the main office scrambling to find a substitute for my class with an already existing shortage. Not to mention the schedule change my students have to now adjust to with their teacher leaving mid-day.”

Madison says the toughest challenge for her is the amount of time she needs to take off to receive her medication and meet with her care team. She does her best to schedule doctor appointments after school hours, but sometimes it’s not realistic. Right now, she receives her biologic every four weeks, which was changed from every eight weeks.

This required change in my treatment plan will now require me to miss time in my classroom with my students twice as often. It’s not as simple as “taking a day off” as it is very time consuming to create thorough substitute plans on the days, I am absent. It makes me feel like I’m a “bad teacher” because I have to take time away from my students and classroom. I feel guilty when I’m making substitute plans because I know I am going to be absent the next day and my students have no idea.”

Madison says the weight of the unpredictability of her Crohn’s makes her anxious. She worries about waking up one morning and not being physically able to go into work and do her job.

 “I love what I do with a passion and anything that can hinder my ability to do my job to the fullest breaks me. Having the summer months off allows me to slow down and take a break from my rigorous work schedule. In a sense, it provides me with some relief because I know being home, I don’t have to worry about missing work because of my IBD.”

Madison hopes that if someone reading this article aspires to work in education, that they don’t allow their IBD to deter them from taking the leap.

Teaching and being with my students is my escape from my reality with IBD sometimes. IBD has robbed me of so much and I refuse to let it rob me of my dream job. Do not let IBD dictate what you can and cannot do. Being a teacher and having IBD are both full-time jobs and can be extremely overwhelming at times but loving what you do makes all the difference.”

Krista Deveau has been a teacher in Canada for seven years, she recently became a mom and is an ostomate. She currently teaches kindergarten but has also taught third grade and worked as an intervention specialist helping students with literacy and numeracy. She started her teaching career three months after having a bowel resection surgery. She ended up landing back in the hospital three months later, weighing under 100 pounds, in one of the worst flares of her life.

My GI team told me that I had to work part time if I was able to or else my chances of being back in a hospital bed were quite high. Working part time has really given me a work- life balance where I can take care of my health and myself and also focus on my career.”

Prior to receiving her ostomy, Krista tells me it was difficult to teach, as she was having accidents almost daily and was vomiting in a garbage can outside of her classroom. During her first year of teaching, she had a meeting with an administrator after school and happened to have an accident. Krista had forgotten to bring a change of clothes.

“I was so embarrassed that I stayed behind my desk all afternoon so students couldn’t smell me. I cleaned up at recess as best as I could. After school I went to meet with admin and told them I had to leave because I had had an accident and didn’t have a change of clothes. I had already told them about my situation and how I was experiencing incontinence, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I was humiliated.”

Krista says teaching is a stressful and demanding job—and that it’s important to be honest with your admin team so there are no surprises along the way.

“Make sure to take care of yourself. Don’t stay late every day. Work smarter, not harder. Collaborate and share plans with other teachers so you aren’t reinventing the wheel. Lean on your coworkers. Find one good coworker friend that will have your back. Don’t work on weekends. Don’t take on too much of the extras, it’s okay to say no. Try to have a healthy work life balance. And find a school/school board that’s a good fit for you and where you feel supported.”

Helpful Tips for Educators with IBD

  • Be flexible and rework plans, not just in terms of being absent, but also what you can do instead if your energy level is too low to actively teach on your feet or if you need to talk for an hour straight multiple times a day.
    • For example: Create PowerPoint slides where every single step of a math problem animates itself with the click of a button so you can be sitting instead of standing up, exerting energy.
  • Teaching is a pleasant distraction. Teaching enables you to get your mind off your IBD and do what you love. Regardless of what you do professionally, your IBD is going to be a part of you, why let it take more from you than it already has? Enjoy the thing you can enjoy.
  • Make the appropriate accommodations for yourself. Once you are hired or work in a school district, provide school administrators with medical documentation as to why you are unable to work on a certain date. At the start of the school year, it can be helpful to turn in a letter stating your treatment plan along with a request to use the bathroom when needed stating your medical condition. Typically, teachers use the bathroom on their scheduled breaks, but this accommodation allows that in the event you need emergency use of a bathroom, someone will need to cover your class at any given time. This type of documentation for my district must be renewed every school year.
    • For example, if a typical teacher instructs five classes with an hour to plan and a 25-minute lunch, split with a 25-minute study hall, inquire about keeping your schedule consistent year after year and teaching two classes, then having a plan period, teaching two more classes, and then a ‘duty-free lunch’—meaning you get the entire 56 minutes for lunch, instead of having a study hall to give you a buffer for a bathroom trip along with minimal interruption to other classes.
    • Request a classroom close to a bathroom and department office so that there are people nearby in case you need someone to cover your class on a moment’s notice.
  • Try not to fear the worst. Being hospitalized is beyond your control and whether you have a chronic illness like IBD or not, life happens, and co-workers will need help from time to time. Rather than stress about who gave up what time to help you, focus on how to pay it forward and help other teachers when you feel well and when someone else is in need.
  • Teaching takes a village. Everyone is more than willing to help you out if you let them. Besides, it all becomes so much easier when you don’t feel like you must hide such a huge part of who you are. The sooner you realize people are willing to help you and you don’t have to try and keep it hidden, the easier teaching with IBD becomes.

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