Pro Tips for Teaching Abroad with a Chronic Illness

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This article was previously published in the free, downloadable Ebook, Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Health and Chronic Illness Abroad.

You’ve managed to get through the first day of class without spilling coffee on your white shirt, misspelling a word on the chalkboard, or falling for the whoopee cushion on the chair prank, so the rest of the year will be a piece of cake, right? 

How to Manage Your Symptoms in an ESL Classroom

Alright, alright…teaching won’t always be a piece of cake. That is just wishful thinking. 

Being an ESL teacher comes with challenges, unplanned disruptions, and last minute changes almost on a daily basis. It may seem daunting to be responsible for lesson planning, test grading, homework checking, attention grabbing, and behavior correcting all while adapting to the varying levels of English amongst your students. It may seem even more daunting if you are also trying to manage symptoms of your chronic illness without it affecting your classroom. 

The wonderful news is: Teachers with chronic illnesses manage classrooms successfully every day, and managing an ESL classroom is no different! Here's everything you need to teach abroad with a chronic illness.

How to handle your illness / symptoms in the ESL classroom

To help you out, here are some effective symptom management strategies for the classroom, so you can manage symptoms appropriately when and if they decide to pop up. Traveling with a chronic illness and becoming an ESL teacher abroad is manageable if you follow these tips!

Make self-care your new best friend.

The importance of self-care cannot be emphasized enough, especially when you’re dealing with a chronic illness. Yes, there are the full-throttle teachers who are running six different clubs after class, guzzle coffee like gasoline, and somehow manage to stay smiling every. Single. Day. And that is great! But, that doesn’t have to be you. 

Empty desks in a classroom
You know how to manage a classroom, you know how to manage symptoms, but how do you do both?

Find priorities. These will likely be along the lines of: being an engaging teacher in class, being in class every day as possible, being properly prepared with lessons, and maybe also keeping the one extra study session you hold each week. Choose YOUR priorities.

Then, take the steps you need to take to maintain those priorities! Don’t let anything get in the way of your eight hours of sleep, spend three evenings a week in the yoga class you love, pack healthy snacks and lunches to keep up your energy…you get the drill. 

Setting boundaries to p – a – c – e yourself is another high need when it comes to chronic illness symptom management in the classroom. Not signing up for the optional five-hour seminar on Saturday or missing out on staff game night does not mean you are a bad teacher or co-worker. 

Taking care of yourself enables you to take care of your classroom, which is exactly what you signed up to do.

Don’t sweat the bad days. 

When you teach abroad with a chronic illness, bad days are inevitable. Even if you’re a pro at symptom management. Sometimes no matter what you do, your body decides it’s going to act up. Having a bad day doesn’t mean you have to call in sick. It’s perfectly OK to be human and not feel great while you are at the morning meeting and later while teaching your class.

Books stacked on a staircase
At this point you know your chronic illness pretty well, but you might not know your host culture and school – get to reading so you know how to manage your symptoms abroad. 

Do anything you need to do to give yourself more support on these days. Maybe you don’t turn the lights on in class to control the headache, or you teach from a chair instead of walking around the room. Maybe today is the day you add in more independent or small group work, or let students co-teach each other (sometimes that’s more fun for them anyway!)

And of course, if you do have to call in sick—that’s OK too! You can take personal days when traveling with a chronic illness. Giving yourself a day or two to recuperate could prevent you from overdoing it and missing an entire week instead. Remember that thing about pacing yourself? It’s the real deal! 

Communicate with your supervisor/program advisor/institution.

Be upfront. Feeling like you have to hide your illness or when you are feeling lower than low takes more energy than you need to spend. In those first meetings as you are preparing to take on the position (or even if you have to schedule a private meeting), give your supervisor a heads up on what you are dealing with. If you need special accommodations, such as a first floor classroom or access to the elevator, now is the time to request it.

Tell your institution way in advance that you will be teaching abroad with a chronic illness and if you will be missing class due to doctor appointments at different times of the year. If there is a chance you will be calling in sick more often than they would expect, be clear about this and ensure you are both on the same page about the protocol and policies in place for such days. 

Doctor in white coat holding a clipboard
You’ll need to have a plan of action to share with your school/employer for when your symptoms act up/if you regularly need to check in with a doctor.

You also want to make sure the institution is the right environment for you. If there’s one thing my chronic illness(es) have taught me, it’s that I need flexibility in my schedule. If a program isn’t willing or able to accommodate at least some flexibility, then it might not be the right program for me. A working relationship is a two-way street, so make sure your needs are also being met or it won’t work out in the long run. 

For the most part, your supervisor shouldn’t need to worry about a thing. Discussing it ahead of time will probably calm your mind more when health concerns do arise (since they already are in the know!) and make for a happy teacher-supervisor relationship.

Communicate with your students.

If it’s visibly obvious, then telling your students that you are traveling with a chronic illness the first day makes sense. My former teacher with multiple sclerosis had a scooter, so it made sense for her to inform us right away about her condition and explain to us ways we could help her in the classroom. It was beneficial for all of us. 

If no one would know by looking at you, and it’s not something that will directly impact your teaching each day, then waiting after the first week, first month, first time you feel your symptoms coming up in class, whatever you are comfortable with, is fine. 

Bed with blanket and book spread out
Some days you might need the flexibility of taking a rest day. Your health and wellbeing comes first.

Either way, be matter of fact. These are your students, not your friends. They don’t need your entire medical history, the emotional side of the story, or what your illness looks like at its worst. What they do need to understand is that you are human, just like them, and that part of you being human includes having a chronic illness. They should know that you might have visibly good days and visibly bad days – or even visibly good days that are actually bad days – and that it’s nothing that should cause them concern. Explain different things they may see you do to cope with symptoms in class, and what you may need to ask of them at times (for example, the small group work activities).

You can definitely educate them about the illness itself, too! You are a teacher in a school after all, and knowledge and understanding is always a good thing. 

Plan ahead.

Especially when you are away from home, family, and friends, you can’t rely on those around you to know your exact needs should a medical issue arise while at school. When you teach abroad with a chronic illness, you have to plan ahead.

Creating an action plan in case something goes wrong is your responsibility. Make sure to have your insurance card and passport copy with you, as well as a document that lists your medications, diagnoses, allergies, and in-country and out-of-country emergency contacts. This is of course for the worst case scenario, but you want to be prepared.

Similarly, it is your responsibility to carry with you what you might need in less-urgent situations: painkillers, water, a fresh pair of pants, a stress ball, etc. — whatever you might need for proper symptom management.

Researching the community you are teaching in ahead of time will also help you prepare for any cultural (siestas are encouraged— bring a pillow!) or logistical (toilet paper isn’t a thing— pack your own) factors that could influence your needs.

Classroom full of students smiling
But, with all of this you’ll soon be taking the ESL classroom by storm!

Enjoy yourself.

How cool is it that you get to teach ESL in a foreign country? Pretty darn cool. Don’t let planning ahead, talking to administration about your needs, or practicing self-care take away from that! In fact, all of these things can only set you up for even more success and enjoyment as an ESL teacher, no matter what chronic illness you have and no matter where you are teaching abroad. 

Since you will be helping to keep your symptoms at bay and prepared for when they do arise, you can focus on what really matters— the rewards of teaching your students and watching them succeed.

Don't let your illness stop you from teaching abroad

From the anxiety of seeing new faces enter your classroom on day one and wondering how in the world you will manage, to a smile from the quiet boy in the corner, an A from the girl who has struggle all month, and a round of high-fives when the whole class passes the all comes together as you watch your students leave your class more confident, adaptable, curious, and fluent. On to year two!

Download our Ebook on Handling Your Health While Traveling Abroad

Topic:  Travel Tips