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We are heading into finals week at my university, and as the semester finishes up, I have been thanking whatever spirits/deities/luck I have had that I have survived it (so far) relatively well.  Last summer I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and I had the thing out, radiation treatment, etc., and went into the fall semester without a voice, and without a thyroid.  The voice eventually came back and I was pleased to discard the microphone I had borrowed so I could interact with the class less artificially.  

As we have started our end-of-term meetings and socials, in the last week I've seen several colleagues I haven't seen since early in the semester.  Lots of them have asked me how I was doing, and I've been pleased to tell them I have only missed one day.  Of course, there have been days I desperately wanted to stay in bed, but generally it hasn't been too awful, in spite of my general exhaustion.

Beyond the spirally interlocking croissants of orange goodness I have some thoughts about teaching through a semester in which I wasn't feeling my best, and my admiration for those who do so when they are actually ill, instead of just recovering.

Even if a teacher has a lot of important material to cover, it seems desirable for him or her to stay home when a communicable disease is in the picture.  I realize that sometimes this is a difficult thing to do, and college is a bit different from elementary or secondary school teaching.  I am one of those who always gets whatever vaccinations I can (flu, measles, pneumonia, etc.).  But one cannot vaccinate against rarer diseases, or such things as cancer, MS, and all sorts of other things that are not generally communicable.  And our students and staff and faculty all are subject to those things.

A few years ago I met someone at a party who clearly became very interested in a friend of mine, and the evening was really quite entertaining.  It was in the spring; he was a new member of the faculty in a department across campus so I didn't see him again, and didn't hear much about him until a few months later, when I heard to my shock that he had gone into the hospital for an xray (perhaps for a pneumonia diagnosis), at the end of the spring semester only to be diagnosed with metasticized cancer and there was speculation that he would have a tremendously expensive and challenging road ahead of him.  My friend who had been the subject of his passion was talking about going down to the cancer hospital 90 miles away after finals week was over.  He had gotten sick in the last week of classes. And he was dead by the end of the week after graduation.  No one knew him well enough to know if he had been feeling poorly and had taught through the illness.  

I do know several faculty who have taught through cancer diagnoses, and while being treated with chemotherapy and radiation.  There is a real advantage to being in a supportive university environment where colleagues can and will step in and cover classes and where full time faculty have decent sick leave.  There are very few part time faculty, and I know that there is some sick leave, but I do not know how good it is.  This is something I worry about, of course, and hope that the ACA will make a big difference in the health of adjuncts across the country.

In my case, my cancer diagnosis had been at the end of the spring semester and was not firmly established until after finals, so I never had to deal with missing classes through the process of treatment.  But I knew from the beginning of the semester that I was not completely healthy.  I had very little energy, found myself dragging in everything except the actual teaching (classes tend to energize me).  I didn't stay late into the afternoon if I could avoid it, conducted office hours exclusively by appointment and relied on email for the first month of the semester, and for most of the semester, email was the best means of communication with me (which is not that much different from a semester in which I am perfectly healthy).  Later in the semester I tentatively scheduled office hours for Monday and Wednesday afternoons, but was rather protective generally of my time.  Only after midterm did I push myself toward all-nighters to finish my grading, and when I did that, it tended to require several days to recover.  But over the whole semester, I missed a sum total of one day of classes.  While higher than normal for the fall (I average one sick day a year, usually in the spring when the allergies kick in and I get a chest infection), it seems to me a great achievement to have survived the semester without worse damage to myself or the class content.  

When I see people in the semester's end parties, people have often assumed that I have been teaching a lighter load what with my illness.  I have been pleased to say that no, I was not on any sort of reduced teaching requirement.  That leeway I will take advantage of when I am really ill and not just recovering.  Others who are teaching through various cancers need that reduced load or complete leave.  I will pick up for others when they need help; others will help me when the need is there.  

It is certainly easier to teach through recovery than through illness.  I am glad to say this semester I have done the former, and I will be glad to see the full year in my rearview mirror.  This coming spring I will be completely healthy; I promise.  I have my fingers crossed.  

How is your semester ending up?  Are you looking forward to the spring?

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 01:14 PM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge.

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