Every day Sarah Smith preps lesson plans, prepares activities for her students and coordinates with various school personnel to teach her students.
But while these daily tasks may elicit images of a teacher leading a traditional classroom, her “school” actually isn’t a school at all. It’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, and the students she teaches are patients here.
Her day is usually spent working with kids in dialysis chairs, putting together lesson broadcasts that can reach kids even in their hospital beds, or helping a child transition back to school following treatment.
“Every day is a little bit different,” the certified teacher says of her job as teacher and educational liaison at the hospital. “Flexibility is definitely the name of the game.”
Smith is among a handful of teachers in Michigan with the unique role of providing school services within a hospital setting to kids and teens diagnosed with chronic illnesses. Alongside the doctors and nurses, these educators play a vital part in the healing and coping process. After all, a diagnosis that leads to extensive medical treatment and staying long hours, days or even weeks at a hospital disrupts day-to-day life, interfering with those kids’ full-time jobs: going to school. But thanks to these teachers, learning doesn’t have to be put on hold.
“Our hope in this is to bring a glimpse of normalization into the lives of these children,” Smith says.
Kids diagnosed with certain conditions can continue to go to their regular school while being treated. “As long as your body can handle the stress of school, we want you in school,” says Beth Stuchell, a school intervention specialist at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital who works with kids who have cancer and blood disorders.
But other times, that’s just not reality. Depending on the condition and treatment needed, children with chronic illnesses could be out of school for an entire year – or at the least missing several hours of class multiple days a week. That puts kids behind, and for their families, it could grow into an added worry.
“We ask families to be in charge of a lot of things, and that part called school is such a common denominator for all kids,” says Brenda Henne, a certified teacher and educational specialist on the three-person hospital-school program team at C.S. Mott, working specifically with dialysis patients and those in the comprehensive eating disorders program. When diagnosed with a serious illness, “that medical component takes precedence,” which, she notes, “really has a potential to impact that educational component.”
Locally, C.S. Mott and DMC Children’s Hospital in Detroit are the only two with “a formal hospital school program,” Stuchell notes, though others may be able to provide some level of coordination with a child’s school via someone on staff – which, in those cases, is “more informal and usually parent driven.”
At Michigan’s major children’s hospitals, teachers and educators on staff step in to keep kids of different ages meeting important milestones. Not all of those associated with a hospital’s school program do the exact same job, however. Some hospital teachers are employed by the hospital system while others are employed by local school districts, Henne notes. All of their specific job duties and roles vary based on the hospital and the size of its program, Smith says.
The ultimate goal no matter the location, though, is keeping that academic piece intact.
Patients, regardless of where they are, when you have really complex and chronic health conditions that put that medical treatment right up there as a top priority, keeping that school connection is pretty important and pretty challenging,” says Henne. But luckily, hospitals can support that endeavor.
Instruction takes place in a number of ways. C.S. Mott and DeVos have a classroom-type space for group work (if the students are well enough to leave their hospital beds or are not having a procedure). Bedside assistance is also an option. The day’s video lessons for elementary through high school kids at DeVos (called ClubTBC, or “Taking Care of Business”) broadcast across the hospital’s closed-circuit TV, and students can perform the activities in their room instead – plus there are volunteer tutors, many of which are retired or current teachers.
At C.S. Mott, Stuchell says one of her teammates, Carol Fanning, who has more of a traditional teacher role, handles bedside work.
“She provides that regular routine reminder that there is some normalcy in this,” Stuchell says, “and having those hour appointments where she comes bedside and does teaching with a patient, I hear from parents, is greatly appreciated – along with providing respite for the parents.”
Another major role for these educators is working as liaisons, coordinating with the child’s regular school to keep them in the loop with lessons and classwork they’re missing. That can lead to creating lesson plans based on the subject provided, too.
But the role of liaison can go far beyond communication. Bridging that gap between patient and school is a huge focus for Stuchell at C.S. Mott. Through the Partnership with Schools program, she helps students reentering school do so more smoothly, making academic plans, talking about side effects with the school, special accommodations and more.
“Ideally, they pick back up where they were. That’s tough socially and academically,” she says. To help with the transition, Stuchell works with the returning student’s teachers and classmates to help ease everybody back into the routine. That can include a developmentally appropriate presentation.
First, she talks with the patient to make a plan about what’s comfortable to discuss with classmates. “Then, we design the presentation around what they want to talk about – what their biggest concerns are,” she says. Sometimes, she notes, it’s the diagnosis itself, and other times it’s how it manifests physically. She even has special teaching aids, like a big rubber bone showing cells.
“I really like that I can let the kid lead the process, give voice to their journey and just be there to kind of be behind the scenes to provide them the props and information that they need to explain to their schools,” Stuchell says.
A special role
Smith, who also handles liaison duties at DeVos, says even later, treatment can sometimes have an effect on the children’s learning, and teachers can help in noticing and supporting the student. Some kids return to school and take their time with reentry, attending class just a couple days a week.
“The goal is to find kind of that balance that’s healthy for them,” Stuchell says. Going to school, however, doesn’t happen for every child with a chronic illness. Sometimes keeping them caught up academically doesn’t get them back into class with their friends and teachers to resume a regular lifestyle.
“There are times when we make sure maybe a kid graduates early because there’s a possibility they won’t make it,” Stuchell says.
Of her team, she adds, “Working with kids who have chronic illness is a passion of ours. It drives us; it motivates us. It can also be fatiguing at times. It is hard to be with these kids and these families at these difficult times.”
It’s tough to get a definite number of just how many teachers work in hospitals throughout Michigan, but Henne estimates there are only about 12-15 people statewide working in hospitals to provide some sort of school service – and that includes those who aren’t certified teachers, like nurses and social workers who might step up to fill the need.
And there is a need.
“I think we’re finding more and more kids are being affected by these medical conditions,” Smith says – and if it’s not your kid, it might be your child’s classmate.
The most challenging aspect of the job, she says, is seeing people struggle. And at the end of the night, when she’s done with work, she gets to go home – but the kids don’t. Yet the job is far from dismal.
“It is an incredible honor to be able to walk alongside and serve these families,” Smith says. “It’s an honor to be able to take something off of their plate … and to continue to help these children move forward in their education.”
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski