'Teaching with a chronic illness isn't easy'

Exhaustion, caffeine addiction and migraine strips are the realities of a day in the life of a teacher with a chronic illness, says Katherine Wright

Katherine Wright

Woman, lying on sofa, in pain

When I trained as a teacher, nobody said it was going to be easy. 

By that time, all my adult life had been spent working in the NHS, so I knew what it was to work in a large, publicly funded organisation that relies on the goodwill of its employees to go the extra mile for the people it serves. 

I’d completed subject-knowledge audits, read many behaviour-management guides and introduced myself to colleagues and students through weeks of work experience. I felt prepared.

But what I didn’t consider was the impact that my chronic illness would have on my teaching practice. 

Fatigued and tearful

I have an underactive thyroid. Sometimes, because the disorder is treatable, people think it’s a minor issue. I can emphatically say that this is not the case. 

Before Christmas, while the evenings grew darker, shorter and colder, and the excitement of teaching classes brimming with Advent chocolate built, I felt my thyroid function slowly deteriorate. I became extremely fatigued and tearful, and my hair started falling out. 

I should have gone to my GP, but I didn’t. When I eventually got there, I was in a much worse state. Blood tests confirmed that I was having a thyroid flare-up, so I’m now going through a dose change of my medication. 

Between fatigue, the inability to regulate temperature, weight gain, carpal-tunnel syndrome and anxiety, there are many other symptoms of hypothyroidism and side effects of the medication I take to counter it.

I don’t experience every symptom every day, but each day is an interesting spin of the roulette wheel. 

Day in the life of a teacher with a chronic illness

5.30am: I wake up. Just. It’s a struggle to open my eyes, and I feel less rested than I did the previous night. 

My husband is already up and ready for work. He hands me my levothyroxine, which I take with water. He asks me if I need help getting into the shower.

I lay still momentarily, assessing how I feel. I think I’ll be able to do it on my own today. I kiss him goodbye and he leaves. 

7.15am: I arrive at work and head straight for the kettle. Currently, I’m obsessed with coffee bags. I’m not sure whether there’s any science behind it, but drinking proper coffee makes me feel like I’m getting more caffeine per millilitre, and at the moment I need all the help I can get. 

I’m pretty sure I’m developing a serious addiction to caffeine, but I can’t deal with hypothyroidism as well as caffeine-withdrawal symptoms, so I’ve decided that it’s better the devil you know.

7.45am: I stand at my classroom door, waiting for the students to arrive for registration. I’m nervous every morning. 

But as soon as they get there, I bounce into action, bursting with energy drawn from unknown reserves. 

No time for the toilet

10.15am: Breaktime. A student wants to talk to me about his ideas for his new creative-writing project. 

I’m as excited as he is about his new idea, but talking to him means I don’t have time to go to the toilet. I pray I don’t have any gastrointestinal symptoms today. 

1pm: I’ve had to keep two students behind. We’re going to spend 10 minutes of our breaktime discussing how persistent meowing is inappropriate behaviour. 

I don’t have time to heat up my lunch, so I eat a packet of crisps instead. Coffee and Pom Bears constitute a balanced diet, right?

2.30pm: School is over, and the students stream out the gates. I take some migraine medication because I notice a dull thudding behind my eyes. I have an hour and a half of meetings still to come. 

Last week I had a migraine so bad I had to wear a menthol cooling strip on my head during three different lessons. The relief it provided was almost worth having to answer the same questions from the kids about it over and over again.

4pm: The meeting is over. In my classroom I open all the windows and make my room uncomfortably cold. It’s the only way I can stay alert enough to mark and plan, especially after I’ve taken migraine medication.

Sheer stubbornness and support

6pm: I get home and trudge to the kitchen, trying not to catch sight of myself in the mirror on the way.

Last night’s dinner plates float unappetisingly in the washing-up bowl, and the idea of cleaning the kitchen before cooking and eating seems crushingly big. I know I only have the energy for two out of the three. Luckily, my husband comes home.

9pm: Bedtime. I fall asleep on the sofa 10 minutes into the television show we’ve just started watching.

My husband, irritated because this is the sixth time we’ve tried to start this series, wakes me up and suggests that I go to bed. I’m so tired I don’t even argue. It’s only Wednesday. 

Teaching with a chronic illness isn’t easy, but neither is living with one. The situation presents challenges but, in my experience, these can be overcome by sheer stubbornness and the support of people around you. And the right medication, of course. 

If I’m going to be the teacher I know I have the potential to become, I need to learn to pace myself.

Katherine Wright is a secondary English NQT in Essex

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