Teaching with Chronic Fatigue
It was February, and I had just returned from a birthday trip to Disneyland with my husband. I was launched right back into finishing my Teacher Work Sample, interviewing for a position for next year, preparing my students for state testing, and still managing to try new things and continue using best practices in my teaching. I came home every day and collapsed on the couch, napping for hours. I figured it was just the stress, but no matter how much I slept, I still couldn't shake the constant tired, achy feeling. I was just miserable.
Finally, at the end of April, I was carpooling with my pregnant coworker, who was within weeks of her due date, and the last thing I wanted to do was get her sick with whatever I had. One day I felt so horrible that I took my prep and lunch time to run to the urgent care. I tested positive for mononucleosis, and was told my symptoms could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
Mono is a viral disease that has no treatment. Once you have mono, you have the virus in your system for the rest of your life, and can be contagious periodically. Symptoms can last weeks to months after the virus first sets in. However, by the time we reach adulthood, most individuals already have the virus in their system. It is most common in teenagers and young adults, and children and elderly individuals who are affected do not have typical or severe symptoms. Since mononucleosis attacks your white blood cells, healthy young adults are very susceptible to severe symptoms, including fevers, chills, aches, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, spleen, liver, and tonsils, nausea, headaches, and, most commonly, extreme fatigue. Mono is ONLY transferrable through direct contact with saliva or other bodily fluids in situations like sharing food or drinks and kissing. Because of this, my students and others were not at risk for getting it from me, only my husband and friends or family who might have happened to share a drink with me in the previous weeks.
For me, mono felt like constantly having a bad fever. My body was achy all over, my eyes constantly felt heavy and painful, my spleen and liver were really swollen and uncomfortable, and I could hardly stay awake, even when teaching. No matter how much I slept, I still could not shake the tired feeling. Though I was constantly feeling miserable, since mono can last for months, taking time off until I felt better was not an option, especially since I had to finish out my internship/first year of teaching in order to graduate.
Another teacher at my school had experienced recurrent mono, and was very sympathetic and had great advice. However, when I looked for additional advice and support online, I couldn't find much. The one website with any mention of teachers with mono was a forum in which a parent was livid that their child's teacher had come to school with mono (she didn't know she had it, and as previously mentioned, her student would not have been at risk). So here are my top five tips for teaching with mono (or any chronic fatigue):
- Don't be afraid to tell others how you're feeling. A lot of people don't realize that they are not at risk for getting mono unless they share food or drinks with you. Help educate them so they understand! When my teammates realized how crappy I was feeling, they were more sympathetic for when I wasn't "all there" during staff meetings, struggled to stay awake in the mornings before school, or had to stand during assemblies. I usually wasn't comfortable asking for help, but during this time I leaned on them more than I had before, sharing ideas, lesson plans, copies, etc. to take some of my load off my shoulders. This support made a huge difference, and I was able to contribute where I could.
- Prepare in advance to take days off. Have a set of sub plans made that you can use when you wake up knowing you can't make it through a full day of teaching. If you wake up feeling awful and still have to write sub plans, you won't get the rest you need. However, if you get partway through the day and are too tired to keep teaching, have a plan. Find some Bill Nye or Planet Earth videos, and make copies of centers students can do on their own.
- Don't guilt yourself over how you feel. You might have to eat out more often. You might have to rely on your spouse, partner, family, or roommates to help you with the basics- making sure you eat, helping with laundry, getting you water and ibuprofen, etc. Be grateful for those that love you enough to help you through this rough time. Know it will end, and you will be back to normal eventually, but most of all, know it's not your fault you feel this way. You are doing what you can, and that's enough right now, even if it isn't what you used to be able to do.
- A sitting teacher is not a bad teacher. When I was sick I felt SO guilty for sitting the majority of the day, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to make it through the day if I used the little energy I had to stand and walk around the room all day. Instead, I used my kidney table as my desk, and had students come up to me and sit there when they needed help. If I knew a shy student was struggling, I went and sat in an empty desk near them and continued to help other students as well. I found that my students learned to be more independent and self-aware, recognizing when they needed help and seeking it out. I was able to pair struggling students with those I knew could answer their questions, giving both learning opportunities and lightening my load. My classroom unintentionally became more student directed, and I learned to let go of my guilt. I was doing what I could, and that was enough.
- Take care of yourself. Do what you have to do. Do you need to close your door and take a nap during prep time? Do you need to pause a lesson and put a video on while you sit down for a few minutes? Do you need to take a day off? Do you need to eat a snack during your guided reading groups? Do it. Your body is being attacked, and you have a right to take care of yourself.
Months later I finally feel I am returning to my normal self. I don't have to nap all day, but I do sometimes feel more tired than I think I should be. I don't have to take ibuprofen every morning to get through the day, and I don't have to put a hot pad on my back and shoulders as soon as I get home. You will feel better too. It will take time, but it will be okay! Do what you can, and that's enough.