Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching With a Chronic Illness

Pace of life.

We have all taught (and smiled) through nasty headaches, various aches and pains, and plain old fatigue, but what about when your body just doesn’t seem to cooperate any more and your health is a constant challenge? Below are some ideas I have used personally and also those of other music teachers that I interviewed for this blog. I hope today finds you healthy and strong, but if not, take courage. Teaching can be a time of enrichment and satisfaction in your day.

  • Be a fun, warm and friendly person to be around. This is not always easy, but it will help others to see you and not your disability or illness.
  • Enjoy each lesson and each relationship. This can actually take your mind off your own problems for awhile.
  • Carefully plan your energy usage for the day. If you have to teach all afternoon, you might not be able to clean house and run errands all morning.
  • Be realistic about your schedule. Don’t take on more students than you can keep up with and also maintain your strength and health.
  • Adapt your environment to your needs. Get the right kind of chair, use a baton to point out issues in the music, keep all your supplies close at hand.
  • Don’t over do it or over commit on days you are feeling pretty good. Continue to work according to your overall ability. It is so tempting to try and get the one million things done you have been neglecting for so long, but exercise restraint. It is easier to plan a big event down the road than it will be to get through it once it gets here.
  • Schedule breaks between students or groups of students.
  • Strategically talk to parents and adult students about your limitations. They are usually willing to accommodate and adjust where needed.
  • If you need to cancel more frequently because of illness, design a more lenient “sick policy” for you and for your students.
  • Enlist the help your older teen students to help around the studio filing music, dusting the piano, or helping younger ones with theory lessons.
  • Be very clear about your teaching priorities and focus on core skills. Now is not the time to add extra programs and studio activities.
  • Have a volunteer sign up list for your studio parents. They can bring snacks to group lessons, emcee at recitals, help set up for events, take pictures and many other things.
  • Build a good support system. Have friends you can call for advice and support when needed.
  • Get help with housework and meals if possible. A little extra help might mean you can continue to teach, which is probably a higher love on your list than scrubbing floors. Sometimes you can trade services for lessons.
  • Take care of yourself every day. Do all the things you know are healing for you.

If you are worried about how your students will react to your challenges, I think you will be encouraged by this note from John Ledell.

Piano Teaching With a Debilitating Illness, by John Ledell

“When the doctor announced I had to go full-time into a power wheelchair, many thoughts flashed through my mind but the dominant thought was what would my piano students and parents think? Would I still be able to teach the way I always had, jumping up on the piano bench to play parts of pieces for students? How would I show them how I wanted certain passages played in the music? Would people want to take lessons from an old man in a wheelchair?  Lots of questions and very few answers popped into my mind.

First a little background. I had polio when I was two. From an Iron Lung, it took 14 years of rehab and more than a dozen operations to bring me back to as normal physically as I would ever be. I could walk with braces but had a very pronounced limp. I was proud of my accomplishments in being normal enough to pass for normal. Flash forward to my 40’s when something called post-polio syndrome set in. The motor neurons controlling the muscles that were damaged by the polio virus started giving out. Thus my ability to walk was gone completely. I started using crutches full-time and got around satisfactorily but I always hid that fact from my students. 

In the room where I teach, I would enter before lessons and sit in a rolling office chair and then hide my crutches in a closet so my students and parents would not know I was disabled. I could still hop onto the piano bench to play and then hop back to my office chair. I learned the hard way that it’s important to go to the bathroom before lessons in order to keep my disability hidden. 

When the doctor told me I had to use a power wheelchair, it was because decades of using crutches had ruined my shoulders and made continued use of crutches unbearably painful. However, there was no place to hide the big bulky wheelchair in my teaching room so my secret would be discovered. I even thought of giving up piano teaching and let my wife, and fellow piano teacher, take over my students even though she already had a full schedule. 

In the end we decided to confront the disability openly and just explain what was going on to both students and their parents. It turns out most of them suspected what was going on because my behavior and lack of movement was unusual. Instead of being put off by my disability, students and families rallied around me and threw their complete love and  support to my wife and myself. It turns out what they loved about my teaching was my humor and supportive efforts with their children and music. No one cared about my mobility only the love and encouragement I always gave to their children and their music.”

Please add your insights in the comment section below so we can all learn from each other.

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8 Comments

  1. Arizona Pain

    Thanks for the mention Sandy! Those are all great tips above when it comes to teaching with a chronic illness. We will help share your article.

  2. Asim Khan

    Going through school with an illness is challenging, and getting your teachers to understand your situation without drawing unwanted attention can seem impossible.

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