No matter the age, students notice changes caused by illness. How one woman's discussion with her pupils opened her classroom to new teaching experiences.
My name is Lynn Watson-Gross, I am a preschool teacher and work with ages ranging from infants through 5 years of age. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in September 2016. It was a very traumatic time for me. Most children think teachers are like God or Superman. They think we don’t get sick; we live at school and all we do is teach.
I was concerned about how the children would react to my crisis. Each child reacts differently. So why tell the children about my cancer? So they are not surprised!
Children can think the worst if not informed and it can be scary for them. Cancer is almost impossible to keep a secret. Children pick up on one’s anxiety, appearance and behavior. I had to give information to the children truthfully in a way that allows them to understand it and be able to have a discussion if needed. Students are observant, they notice side effects like hair loss, tiredness, weight change, vomiting, etc. Like I said, if students are not told ahead of time what is going on with a teacher’s health, it can be terrifying.
Age is an important factor in deciding what and how much information should be said to a student about cancer. You have to be considerate of the students' age and their individual ability to understand things. So I am careful how much information to give a child. The older the students are, the more likely you can give more information.
One of the first questions most students asked was, "What is the matter?" I would tell the students that something has gone wrong in my body and that the doctors and I are trying to get it right again. I explained that many treatments will be needed and that this illness is not a quick fix.
Some students asked me if they can catch cancer from me, like a cold. They were relieved they couldn’t catch my cancer. So many questions and so many answers every day. When will I get better? Why do I get treatments and how many? What is a port, what is cancer, why am I bald, why do I wear a wig, why do I wear a hat, may I touch your wig, may I touch your bald head, what is chemo, why am I tired, why are my nails discolored, why do I walk funny, why do I walk barefoot, why do I come to school/work when I am sick ... the list goes on.
The students' questions and answers brought on discussions learning about science, vocabulary, math, social skills, emotional and physical learning skills and lastly spiritual skills. The students learned science through cause and effect, (cancer, chemo, recovery). Students learned math skills about how long of a recovery it would be — days, weeks, months, years. They learned new vocabulary like what is a port, what is cancer and what does recovery mean?
Social skills were used when we had discussions, and sometimes with more than one student in on the conversation. The children saw a physical change in my appearance like weight loss and hair loss. They also saw I could not do some of the things I was used to, like running with them or picking up certain things. Emotional skills were used, such as empathy, and children caring for others. Lastly and importantly to me spiritual skills were learned as some said they would pray for my healing and recovery.
Some of the students shared their leaning skills with their parents. So the discussion did not just stay in the classroom, it was brought elsewhere. The students' curiosity and empathy was part of my recovery and healing. I saw the students learn from my difficult time in life, and I too learned from the children. I learned how to be strong through myself, the children, family, co-workers and friends. Amazing how we can heal not just through medicine but kind, caring, loving and inquisitive children.
Lastly, I am recovering well and the children have seen me come back in full force again. Now they really think I am a super hero, wonder woman. I appreciate that my students were part of my journey and learning as well.