Teaching with Chronic Pain
No, the kids are not worse-behaved this year than last. The problem is me.
You see, I have a birth defect that caused the sockets of my hips to be too shallow. As if to make up for this, the balls of my femurs have a lot of extra bone growth. The combination of which has led me to wear down the cartilage in my hips at an alarming rate over the past forty years. While I still had plenty of cartilage left, I didn’t even notice the problem. Now that the cartilage has worn completely down, I’m in pain… a lot of pain… every day.
At first, I hid this from my students. It’s not a part of our curriculum; this isn’t a health class. It’s certainly not on either the state standards or on the state-mandated tests that are used to judge my school. Plus, I thought it would be unprofessional to talk about my personal health struggles with my students. Finally, I felt that I should just suck it up, soldier on, and pretend that everything is fine.
All the while, my tenth graders continued to behave like tenth graders. There is a reason we call it sophomoric behavior! Behaviors that I could usually ignore because they were only passing moments began to irritate me. Issues I used to be able to solve with a joke and a gentle redirection would cause me to stop the lesson and confront directly. I found my good humor turning sarcastic and acidic. I found myself shaming and embarrassing my students, as if that would get them to behave.
The first six weeks of this year were a nightmare.
Teachers are human beings. I had almost forgotten that. When I finally pushed the unit plan aside for a day and opened up to my kids about what was going on with me – it was like a breath of fresh air or a weight being lifted off of the shoulders of everyone in the room. A kid who had one of my classes last year even commented, “That makes sense, ‘cause you weren’t like this last year.”
Things are much better now. We have an “Orphal’s Pain-o-Meter” on the wall now that lets the kids know where I am on a given day. My students are being great about toning down their play on days when they know I just can’t deal with it.
Where is all of this leading me? What is the big idea for education reform in this post? I’m not really sure. This post is quite the departure from my usual topics of high-stakes testing, teacher recruitment and training, and teacher evaluation. I think the message is this: it was important for me to be human with my students; taking time to be vulnerable and talk with them about the non-academic issues that I sometimes drag into our classroom. I think it’s also important for all of us who talk and write about school reform to take a moment from time to time and just be human with one another.
I think that if my colleagues who disagree with me about the direction that reform should go could take a minute to recognize my humanity, and if I could take a minute to do them the same courtesy, we all might be able to reengage with our political disagreement in a much more agreeable tone.