I was in my first year of teaching when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I knew life would never be the same, but desperately wanted to keep working
It was New Year’s Day when I woke with pins and needles in my hand. I didn’t think much of it at first, but two days later my hand had seized up and I couldn’t even hold a pen. The day after that, I was struggling to walk in a straight line. I saw the GP and was admitted to hospital for a series of tests. By this time, I couldn’t even feed or dress myself.
The consultant neurologist was blunt in his delivery of my diagnosis. “There are lesions on your brain,” he said. “It’s clearly multiple sclerosis (MS). You should follow a different career – you won’t be able to be a teacher.”
MS is an auto-immune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord – there is currently no known cure. My life was going to change, and my mind was filled with questions. Was I going to end up in a wheelchair? Should I give up teaching, even though I was only in my NQT year? Then I became defiant. There were surely other teachers who had similar conditions. I realised, despite the stress of the job, I did still want to be a teacher. What I didn’t want was to let MS dictate my choices in life.
After physiotherapy and steroids, I regained most of my mobility and went back to school on a reduced timetable. I shared my news with the head of my department, senior leadership team and a few colleagues but made the decision not to go public with my diagnosis.
One of the difficulties about living with MS is that many of the symptoms are invisible yet crippling – fatigue, loss of sensation and bladder problems, for example. Although my occupational health therapist made some recommendations to help me, the school was reluctant to follow them. I had to fight hard to have a short morning break so I could sit down between lessons. I wasn’t asking for any favours or for an easy life – I just wanted to be able to do my job.
I searched for ways to be more efficient and still deliver great lessons. I prioritised my planning and stopped sweating over the small things. I started a yoga classand restricted the amount of work I did outside of school. I began to accept I would sometimes have to take time off – and realised that on my worst days, I had to put my health first. Not enough teachers do that at the best of times.
Looking back I can see that I was in a dark place emotionally for those first few years. I was terrified of having a relapse and found the unpredictability of MS hard to deal with. But teaching gave me a focus and a routine. I had little time to dwell on my circumstances and I thrived on connecting with pupils and finding new ways to teach a skill or concept. I became determined to prove my doctor wrong.
All this became significantly easier when I moved to another school with a more supportive environment. Its leadership team believed that – as far as possible – evenings and weekends were for personal time. They ensured our department never had any full days of teaching so we could carry out extracurricular commitments. I was able to discuss any concerns and felt respected and valued. The school also had a nurse who I could speak to in confidence and who would liaise with the senior leadership team when extra help or changes to my timetable were needed. Having her there was a weight off my mind.
I’m proud of myself for not giving up. But finding a school with a more welcoming and inclusive culture was, without a doubt, also a huge factor in my decision to stay in teaching for longer. There is growing awareness of teacher wellbeing, and with good reason, but I believe we still have a long way to go. Teachers give so much of themselves to the job, and we need all leaders to be ready to provide assistance when we’re having difficulties, whatever they may be.
I knew that I wanted to make a difference in children’s lives and be a teacher they would remember, and I’m glad I stayed. Over time, I’ve found ways to manage my health, too. I now do 10K runs for charity and my latest MRI scan showed no sign of the disease progressing. At this moment in time, I’m considered too well for treatment. I can scarcely believe how far I’ve come.