Pupils are often depicted in a bad light. They are often stereotyped as being rude, uncaring, and self-important but ThebigCteacher experienced the opposite when they broke the news to their school that they had advanced cancer.
There are, as you may expect, several things that go through your mind when being diagnosed with advanced cancer. It shall forever perhaps be a burden of shame that my very first question to the surgeon, who bore a resigned smile to my fate staring down at me, that I asked ‘but, will I be able to see my year group through to their GCSEs?’ Honestly, that was my first question; I still ruefully chuckle about it to this day.
It was evident therefore from the very beginning, back in January 2020, that my job as a History Teacher and Pastoral Lead was pretty important to me, and I wondered long and hard about the way in which students found out. I was determined to tell them, as I wanted to prove to them that having cancer doesn’t resign you to bed awaiting your potential fate, it means you live as much of a normal life as the all-important drugs allow you to. I wanted to take away the stigma of cancer.
We eventually decided that the students should know the truth as best to tell young people, and for me to be absolutely nowhere near school when it happened. So it was, on a drizzly Thursday afternoon, after I had had an oncologist appointment where my condition was painted in a rosier picture than before, that the students were told. My year group by senior staff, the rest of the school by simple letter, explaining that for me the school year was over to focus on fighting this cruelest of disease. I didn’t know what to expect, but what then happened convinced me that ‘the kids are alright’.
In the short term, we had tears. A lot of tears. Period 1 of the Friday was, in a moment out outright stupidity on my behalf, a lesson on the Holocaust. Needless to say, the students did little learning and eventually, we broke it down into a careful ‘Cancer Q+A’. What struck me, and still lives with me today, is the number of students that asked ‘are you in pain?’ and the look of outright relief when I said no. It takes a genuinely kind soul to ask and react in that way to that question. At break, there were plenty of stares, possibly because I was carrying a large bouquet of flowers a student got me from her pocket money.
As the weeks progressed and Corona took hold, the caring didn’t stop. Email from parents beginning ‘My son/daughter wanted me to see if you were doing ok’; the Microsoft Teams messages from students themselves ‘just checking up’. Then some presents came in. A video made by a form class, a signed football from another, a painted portrait of me dressed as a king proudly teaching a lesson. Kindness was an understatement. It’s probably ‘uncool’ to say those acts of kindness helped me get through the 7 months of being away from the thing I do best. As teachers, we’re often meant to shrug off acts of kindness as a ‘part of the job’, but in those dark hours, that was unthinkable to me. If fighting cancer was a medieval battle, I knew I had an army of young warriors behind me.
I returned in September and faced another spell on the side-lines in November, shielding once again. On my return in December, I had to teach a lesson on Cancer to my year group. No books out for that one, just an hour-long chat. I had waited for that moment for 10 months. Afterwards a student said it was the most interesting lesson she had ever been in. Worth the wait then. I sit here now though, awaiting another round of shielding, another few Teams lessons, and eventually a sharp poke in my arm, setting me free.
What for me sums up the incredible young people I work with? On the last day of term, a student saw me struggling to open a box of Celebrations, as I’d lost feeling in my fingers due to the cocktail of drugs saving my life. One of them, without any fanfare, saw my plight and quietly asked me ‘Sir, do you need any help?’ I didn’t need it on that occasion, and besides, they’ve probably already helped me more than I will ever admit to them.
In 2021 – I’m looking to raise awareness. Please give me a follow on Twitter @ThebigCteacher or if you are affected, join us in our Facebook community ‘Teachers with Cancer’.