Across the country, students are heading back to school this month. For teachers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, working with patients in the classroom is a year-round focus.
“Going to school is a normal activity for children. When children are diagnosed and come to St. Jude, their world—including going to their own school—gets put on hold,” said Laurie Leigh, director of the St. Jude School Program Presented by Target.
Treatment for cancer and other life-threatening diseases lasts for months or years. Young patients may be challenged to keep up with their school work. Teachers at St. Jude help children continue their regular educational activities while going through treatment. The teachers are an integral part of the child’s health care team.
“When patients come in, they often can’t do everything their peers are doing in the classroom,” Leigh said. “We have to modify the amount of work that they have and even modify how to present it. We follow patients where they are to make sure they receive the services that they need, and we adjust what we do based on how the child is feeling. If a child is inpatient for a week, then that’s where our teachers go, if the child feels like it. If a child has to be in the Medicine Room for the day to get chemotherapy, then that’s where the teacher goes.”
St. Jude teachers also work closely with the patient’s home school, often using the same books, curriculum and materials.
Cancer is a complicated topic no matter the age, but for children returning to school after treatment, putting the experience into words can be difficult. Through the school program’s reintegration process, patients are supported by teachers and Child Life specialists to make re-entering school easier. On request, hospital staff members visit local schools to talk with classmates about diagnosis, to discuss treatment and its side effects, and to answer questions. For those students from other cities across the country, teachers can provide information and materials for school staff to present to classmates.
“Education is an important part of these kids’ lives,” said Justin Gardner, a teacher at St. Jude. “They can’t control what’s going on with their treatment, so school can offer a familiar and reassuring routine, which brings a sense of normalcy.”
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