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Teaching with a
Chronic Illness

How to handle common challenges, what rights you’re protected by under the law, and who to consider telling about your condition.

Female student with purple binder smiling in a classroom.

Trying to meet the unique learning needs of every student. Late nights grading mountains of papers. Constant pressure from school administrators. Let’s face it – being a teacher can be a huge challenge. And if you’re part of the 60 percent of adults who live with a chronic illness like diabetes, arthritis or cancer, you know it’s an even bigger one.

How can you overcome the struggles that come with having a chronic illness in the classroom? Who at school should you tell about your condition, if anyone? And what employee rights are you entitled to under the law? These are all critical questions we explore and answer throughout the following guide. You’ll also hear first-hand advice from a teacher with a chronic condition to learn how you can effectively balance managing your classroom with your health and well-being.

Editor’s Note: Any treatment suggestions provided in this guide are not meant to and should not replace expert medical advice. Always consult a licensed medical professional.

Working with a Chronic Condition: A Teacher’s Personal Story and Advice

McKenna-Reitz

McKenna Reitz‘s life forever changed when she lost all her hair due to the autoimmune disease alopecia. Instead of allowing alopecia to define her, McKenna decided to define it. When most would believe that losing your hair would take away your identity, alopecia actually gave McKenna her identity and true purpose in life. As an AP Psychology teacher and varsity volleyball coach at Springfield High School in Ohio, McKenna uses her strength to inspire others to change their perspective on life and others, while understanding that we are all battling something and must support one another unconditionally. A mother of two beautiful little girls and the wife of the most loving, supportive husband, McKenna is heavily involved in many philanthropic projects that have raised thousands of dollars for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation and donated almost forty thousand toys to the Toledo Children’s Hospital over the past five years.

What has your experience been like as a teacher with a chronic illness? How has it impacted your work every day?

The past almost five years have been a total rollercoaster physically, mentally, and emotionally since being diagnosed with alopecia. Being a teacher, I couldn’t hide even though that was all I wanted to do. However, it forced me to be open and honest with my students from the beginning because there truly was no other choice. I am very blessed that I work with such a supporting staff and students who have given me the strength to fight every day. The first year or two were extremely difficult because I was embarrassed of how I looked wearing a wig and everyone knew that I was wearing a wig, or if my eyelashes would start to come off while teaching, or knowing how terrible my eyebrows looked because I had to draw them on every day. I just wanted to cry.

Once I came to terms with having alopecia and where I was at in my life, those things didn’t bother me like they once did. I am now confident in my own skin and I own alopecia. No longer am I allowing alopecia to define me, rather I am defining it! If my eyelashes do start to fall off, then I will just go to my desk, pull out some glue and put it back on where before I would try to hide it completely. I now teach bald. It was extremely difficult at first. My anxiety was through the roof. I was so concerned that I was going to be a distraction to the learning environment, but what I learned is it was me truly holding myself back. I am 100 percent open and honest about having alopecia with my students and it gives me the platform to show to them that we are all battling something in our lives, mine just happens to be visible and we must support one another unconditionally.

I do have to say that my head is cold a lot though!

How did you handle disclosing your illness to your coworkers and students?

The best thing that I ever did as I started to lose my hair was being open and honest with my students. As my hair started to recede, I started wearing headbands to cover my bald spot and it let me know that I didn’t understand what was happening and I was going to start to look different. I explained to them that I was losing my hair and that I had no idea what the future held for me. I also informed my principal and colleagues aware of my situation from the beginning as well. This enabled me to not feel as though I was hiding and living a lie every day as I stood in front of my classroom.

What challenges have you faced in the workplace because of your condition?

I have faced many challenges throughout my journey of having alopecia. I was so uncomfortable with myself that I didn’t want others to see me bald either because I couldn’t even look at myself bald in the mirror. I didn’t want to wear a scarf on my head because so many people believed that I had cancer. All I wanted to do was wear my baseball hat and feel as comfortable as possible, but of course I couldn’t. No hats allowed in school, so I finally broke down and bought a wig. Do you know how itchy and hot wigs can be? I was constantly scratching my head or terrified what people thought of me knowing that I was wearing a wig. It takes a psychological toll on your mind and body. I remember teaching and my eyelash started to fall off. I wanted to cry. I didn’t want my students to notice because I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to draw attention to it either.

When I finally felt that alopecia gave me my identity, instead of it taking it away from it, I decided to fully embrace alopecia and start this current school year off bald. Now I had to deal with every single student and teacher who didn’t know my story stare at me and wonder if I had cancer. But I took it upon myself to educate others on alopecia and being confident with who are you. However, my head is cold all the time!

How have you been able to overcome those challenges?

I have overcome these challenges through different means: First, by being 100 percent open and honest with my students and colleagues. This allowed me to no longer feel like I am hiding my inadequacies. More importantly, I overcame these challenges by no longer being in denial. I have accepted the fact that I no longer have hair. I allowed alopecia to define me for far too long and consciously made the decision to start to define it.

Every day I try to inspire my students to be strong both mentally and physically by not comparing themselves to others. I want my students to understand that we all have our own story. We all have or are battling something and regardless of the size, we must support one another unconditionally. Since my story is visible, I reference myself to have a greater impact on my students.

What has been the emotional impact of you living with this illness?

The biggest emotional impact for me is been coming to terms with having no hair and understanding it is not about what other people think of me, but what I think of me. I thought I was so concerned with what other people thought of me—Did they think I was dying of cancer? Why do they stare so much? Do they know what alopecia is—but ultimately it has been about me. Being able to look at myself in the mirror, understanding my strength, still trying to be a good mom and a wife while battling my inner demons. I have come a long way. I use to cry at least six out of the seven days of the week and now I am able to stare at myself in the mirror and finally see beauty again. Once I accepted that I have alopecia and that alopecia has truly given me my identity and purpose in life I have experienced so much more happiness in my life. Not to say I still don’t have the random mental breakdown, I am human. But I am so much happier than I was a couple of years ago.

What advice would you give to other teachers living with a chronic illness?

Be vulnerable. The lessons that you will teach to your students are beyond any curriculum you could ever teach. When you are open and honest to your coworkers and students, you will feel so much more free and have the ability to be yourself instead of being someone you are not. Show your students what true strength looks like.

Understanding Your Rights: 3 Things Teachers with Chronic Conditions Should Know

It’s difficult navigating the physical, psychological, and mental issues associated with a chronic condition. But it’s important to educate yourself about legal issues that can arise in the workplace and understand the rights that are afforded to you. Here are the top things you should know.

1

Teachers with serious chronic conditions are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, protects people who are living with various types of disabilities from discrimination in workplaces with at least 15 employees. Under this law, people cannot be denied a job or fired because of a disability, and people who need reasonable accommodations to perform the duties of their job are entitled to this help.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as “as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” Because of this broad definition, those with serious, anyone with a life-altering chronic condition is protected, not just those who are medically considered to have a disability.

2

Teachers with protection under ADA have special rights in the workplace.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, some of the rights that are available to workers include:

  • Protection from discrimination in various employment practices, including recruitment, hiring, firing, promotions, and job assignments. The law also prevents discrimination when it comes to pay and benefits.
  • Reasonable accommodations are available to people living with chronic illnesses. These accommodations may include job restructuring, the availability of equipment or devices, and reassignment to another open position.

Under the ADA, some of the workplace accommodations that teachers may be able to receive include, but are not limited to:

  • Accessible communications, like materials in large print
  • Modified workspaces
  • Ramps in the restrooms
  • Screen reader programs
  • Aids to help with writing on a blackboard
  • Computer software
  • Adjusting work schedules to accommodate doctor’s appointments
  • Job reassignment

3

Teachers protected under ADA will have to ask for workplace accommodations.

Teachers with chronic illnesses who need reasonable workplace accommodations are not given this assistance automatically. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees must request accommodations by explaining what the problem is and what they need to make it easier for them to do their job. Although workers are not required to put their request for accommodations in writing, employers may request that the person provide documentation about why the accommodation is necessary if they have a condition that is not obvious.

Disclosing Your Chronic Illness as a Teacher

Deciding whether or not to disclose a chronic illness at work isn’t easy. There are many things to consider before letting your colleagues, as well as students and parents, know about your health issues. The following section addresses this complex dilemma and guides how to make this choice.

FAQs About Disclosing a Medical Condition to Your Employer

Do I have to disclose my medical condition at work?

No. If your illness is not affecting your ability to do your job, you are not obligated to disclose any information about your illness. However, if you need reasonable work accommodations made to make teaching with your condition easier, you will need to disclose it.

If I do disclose, who should I tell?

If you choose to disclose at work, it’s a good idea to start with your direct supervisor. You’ll also want to make the human resources department aware of your illness in case any problems arise in the workplace in the future.