Heading Back to Work as an Elementary School Teacher Was a Rewarding, Yet Exhausting Experience, After Three Months of Fighting Testicular Cancer
It had been exactly three months to the day since I had last taught my students. In those three months, my life had changed drastically, yet I was excited to return to my classroom – a place that represented a sense of normalcy in my life.
Hanging over my door was a Captain America-themed sign, complete with red, white, and blue streamers, saying, “Welcome Back! We missed you.” As I entered the classroom, I saw a gigantic purple banner with individual messages written from each student. It was a welcome sight on a day that I was both extremely excited and nervous for. I settled into my normal before-school routine: review my lesson plans, prep any materials, straighten up the room, look over graded work. My anticipation for my students’ arrival was building. Although we had written together each day while I was gone, seeing them would be something different.
Finally, at 8:35 the first student rolled in.
We shook hands, as is our custom, which I followed with hand sanitizer, just to be on the safe side. Even though I was finished with chemo, my immune system hadn’t completely recovered. (This would prove to be ineffective as I had a cold by Friday morning.) The students all trickled in throughout the next half hour, each one excited that I had returned. The feeling was mutual. The first day began with a morning meeting, just like the day I told them I had cancer. I explained that while I was back, I was still not feeling 100% back to normal and it would take a few days (or even weeks) for be fully operational again. With compassion beyond their years, they showed that they understood. Some even came up to me later to ask me what they could do to help me during the day.
My days for the past three months had been filled with recovery in bed, chemo, and writing. Now, I hit the ground running by starting the day with teaching my math groups long division, which is a skill that students traditionally struggle with at first. They picked up on it quickly, showing me that they had been left in good hands with my long term substitute.
The rest of the day went smoothly.
Various staff members came in to check on me and welcome me back. I was amazed by this. I was still a “new” staff member and had been gone longer than I was actually at the school. Yet the other teachers and paraprofessionals treated me as if I were a valued member of their family. If the outpouring of love from my students wasn’t enough, the support from my colleagues helped buoy my excitement about being back higher.
It was a good week to transition back to work. Monday was a day off for President’s Day, giving me the benefit of a short week. On Tuesday, we had a guidance lesson, which is an extra prep period for me. We had extended grade-level planning on Wednesday and a half-day field trip on Thursday. The Brain Show (an educational game show) came to our school in the afternoon on Friday (and my team won the teacher round). These breaks in teaching time helped me ensure that I wasn’t too overwhelmed or exhausted.
It was a great week back to school, but I was still recovering
Despite the easier week, my energy level is still hovering around 70-80% of my normal levels, and I felt that most in the evenings. During the school day, I am always giving 115% of my energy to engaging students in lessons and helping with their social growth. Prior to cancer, when I got home from school, I was exhausted. However, I still had energy to cook dinner, review classwork, assessments, and lesson plans, spend time with Mallory, and do some exercise.
Now, I barely had energy to get up to bed and stretch out. Teaching is very draining, and I was feeling it even more when since I have less energy to begin with. Mallory and I prepped meals in crockpots, which was immensely helpful, or went out to eat. We spent evenings taking it easy so I could be ready for the next day. If you’re returning to work after chemotherapy, I definitely recommend easing into it and resting in the evenings.
My first week back was exhausting, but despite feeling tired, being back with my students was mentally energizing. I could not have asked for a better week of behavior and learning from them. They showed that they truly can be the great class I know them to be. I look forward to the next week (and rest of the school year) working with them. If cancer has taught me one thing, it is to focus on what really matters. In the case of my classroom, being there for my kids is what truly makes me want to be a teacher.
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