How to handle school when your child is chronically ill

Lisa Lockley is an assistant headteacher and mother of a seriously ill son awaiting a liver transplant. Here, she explains how she balances her work and life

Lisa Lockley

ill child teacher hospital

Maternity leave, 2010.

I turned my car around en route to Tesco with my tiny, yellow 12-week-old son in the back; I was worried I didn’t have enough muslin cloths with me if he started haemorrhaging blood.

It was at that moment that I decided I needed to get back to my classroom.

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I had become accustomed to a constant feeling of dread, and it was exhausting. I needed to escape the fear and take back control in some part of my life.

He was my first child. Eight weeks earlier, he had been diagnosed with a rare liver disease and at four weeks, four days old, he had surgery at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

It was a success, but we knew that his health would eventually deteriorate and he would need a liver transplant. And that’s what we are waiting for as I write this.

Just as the surgeons saved my son nine years ago, I credit my teaching career for saving me. Many times over.

hospital ill child teacher

We have had some incredibly dark times over the past nine years and the distraction of work, as well as the companionship of colleagues, has undoubtedly enabled me to cope; my job has not allowed me to become consumed by my son’s illness.

If you are parenting a chronically ill child and considering how this can possibly work alongside teaching, here are some things I have learned along the way:

Be part of the right team

Honesty is the best policy at interview; if you’re not appointed on account of your commitments to your child, is it a leadership team you’d want to work for anyway? Is that a culture you’d want to be part of?

Be prepared to tell them what the impact can be but equally be ready to explain strategies you have in place to minimise your own stress and manage workload efficiently.

Make the right connections

Consultants’ PAs and secretaries are your key to keeping those plates spinning! Get their email addresses by whatever means necessary; send them Christmas cards; say thank you and give positive feedback to their line managers at every opportunity.  

Use them to work out appointment times that aren’t going to cause you any additional hassle.

You’ll find that, where they can, they will usually be more than happy to work around your term dates and schedules and understand that it is sometimes easier to communicate via email when you can’t get to a phone in the middle of the day.

Organisation is everything

It is a harsh reality that, at any moment, all of those carefully managed plans will come crashing down around you: it could be unplanned hospital admissions, infections and IVs, unexplained temperatures and a variety of other complications that need you to react quickly.

In the meantime, keep that to-do list open and aim to cross off more than you add: deal with things quickly; communicate effectively and, as Mark Twain said, swallow a frog for breakfast every day.

It will be tiring to constantly be responsive and ready to hand things over, but this will allow you to feel in control. I truly believe that taking the lead and being proactive in the aspect of your life you can control allows you to better accept those things, as a parent, you just can’t.

Take time for yourself

Part of being organised also means being disciplined enough to routinely give yourself some time. Go to the cinema or a yoga class or the gym, or have a massage.

This must be a non-negotiable. Nothing else will work if you can’t commit this; so do it publicly. Tell people when your time is (mine is every Sunday evening).

Care for colleagues

You need them! You need the normality they give you! Understand that you do not have a monopoly on parental worry and concern. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that staffroom conversations about their little ones’ sickness/ sprains/ snot are insignificant.

Every parent feels their child’s pain and it is always a big deal. Listen to them. Don’t judge. Don’t compare. Don’t alienate yourself.

Of course, some of this is dependent on context. I am fortunate that I work in a school with wonderful staff and a hugely supportive leadership team. Added to that we have had long periods of relative stability in terms of health.

However, I have made conscious and determined choices which have allowed me to model to all three of my children that we are not defined or restricted by my son’s health; he may have liver disease but it does not have him.

Lisa Lockley is assistant headteacher at John Willmott School in the West Midlands

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Lisa Lockley

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