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.

Meet the Expert
McKenna Reitz

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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.

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?

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

How have you been able to overcome those challenges?

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

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

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?

What should I tell people when I disclose my illness?

Advice for Disclosing Your Illness to Parents and Fellow Teachers

It can be uncomfortable to disclose an illness to fellow teachers or parents, but in some cases, it may be a good idea to tell them if the illness is impacting your work. If you do decide to share, here are some tips:

  • Think carefully about what information you should give during the conversation and how it will be conveyed.
  • Consider a worst-case scenario and be prepared for it.
  • Communicate in the best way for the specific person, whether that means email, a phone meeting, or a face-to-face conversation.
  • Explain how the illness may affect the way you do your job and what it may mean for other people.
  • Be prepared to answer other people’s questions about the condition, but respectfully decline to answer questions that are too uncomfortable.
  • Reassure the other person that the illness does not mean you won’t be competent at your job.

Should You Talk About Your Illness with Your Students?

In addition to deciding whether or not to disclose an illness to an employer and coworker, teachers have to also consider whether or not to tell their students about the illness. If teachers have absences from work or certain accommodations in the classroom because of their condition, chances are the students will have questions. The following are some ways to best handle disclosing to students.

Do’s

  • Use language that is age and grade-appropriate
  • Be prepared to answer questions
  • Give facts about the illness
  • Expect students to want to help
  • End the conversation on a positive note

Don’ts

  • Tell more than the class can handle or understand
  • Answer questions that are too uncomfortable
  • Present information in a way that will worry students
  • Discourage them from doing things that will make them feel like they’re being helpful, as long as it’s appropriate
  • Discourage students from sharing their feelings about your illness if they need to

Teaching with a Chronic Illness: Solutions to Common Challenges

Chronic illnesses often have side effects that impact teachers’ ability to work—whether the conditions cause them to have difficulty concentrating in class, standing on their feet for long periods, or communicating verbally. This section explores the challenges that teachers with specific illnesses may face and the solutions to these issues.

Asthma, COPD, Cystic Fibrosis & Other Lung Conditions

Condition Overview

Chronic lung diseases—such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, emphysema, and cystic fibrosis—cause narrowing and blockages of the airways, which make it difficult for the body to transport oxygen and gasses in and out of the lungs. The symptoms of these chronic illnesses include a continuing cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, frequent pain in the chest, and coughing up blood. To manage these symptoms, people may be given oxygen therapy, medication, or pulmonary rehabilitation, and in some cases, surgery may be necessary.

Teaching Challenge Solution
Intense regular coughs throughout classPeople who are smokers are encouraged to quit to help manage their symptoms. Also, they may need to limit their exposure to certain cleaning fluids, perfumes and colognes, and animals.
Feeling tightness in the chest when teaching classesBreathing exercises can help people catch their breath, as well as relieve stress. Also, drinking a hot beverage before teaching a class outside can warm people’s airways. In some cases, carrying an inhaler during these outdoor classes may be necessary.

Arthritis

Cancer

Arrhythmia, Cardiovascular Disease, and Other Heart Conditions

Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, and Other Digestive Conditions

Chronic Migraines and Other Types of Ongoing Pain

Depression, Anxiety and Other Mental Health Issues

Diabetes

Epilepsy

Narcolepsy, Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders

Parkinson’s Disease

Additional Resources for Teachers with Chronic Ailments