To me, the academic semester feels a bit like being launched into projectile motion in a slingshot. Inservice, callback week, whatever you want to call it, is the pull back, and then boom! You’re released into the semester starting on the first day. Ideally, you’ve got your schedule formulated for a smooth progression, with spring or fall break being the highest moment of the term, and you continue on into a gentle landing at finals. However, illness in the life of a faculty member is inevitable. If you’re lucky, it will happen over a weekend or a break. Maybe it is something you can even plan for, such as a minor surgery with a short recovery time. But no matter what, you’ve got to figure out how to make allowances for it in the life of your classes. A little preparation goes a long way towards making your time away go smoothly for all involved. I was recently sidelined by a brief illness and later reflected on what was helpful in keeping somewhat productive but still restful. Below are my recommendations.
A good part of ensuring that your class continues on is preparation that I believe is best effective when done well in advance, even if you’ve got a rock-hard immune system and haven’t been ill in years.
- Establish communication methods with students, starting with the first day of class. I make it very clear in my syllabi that students are expected to check their university-based email (which they can forward to a personal account if they wish) as well as our university’s learning management system (LMS) at least every other day. I also set the expectation that there are times when information will be communicated to them only through email or the LMS, and I reinforce that with a “getting to know you”-type survey which I announce and administer only through the LMS. This ensures that if I need to communicate to the students a sudden change in schedule, I’ve set a precedent that they will hear important information from me not only verbally in class but through digital means as well.
- Know your institution’s sick leave policy. Do you have official sick days? Is the system very flexible, almost to a fault where you don’t know what to do? Most institutions have some kind of form that needs to be filed if you are to be absent from classes, so have an idea of what is expected before anything ever happens.
- Establish a relationship with a physician who understands your profession. Between teaching, office hours, lab hours if applicable, and research, it can be difficult to get away from campus for a doctor visit. I’m fortunate to have a physician who understands the professoriate and that I can’t just pop over for an appointment at the last minute. She and I have built a rapport that means she trusts me to communicate how I’m doing over the phone, eliminating some follow-up appointments. My physician’s practice also has a Saturday clinic which can be visited at no additional cost beyond the usual copay. This service is invaluable to me, as I am able to see a doctor before things get serious but without resorting to urgent care clinics for weekend care. It keeps my medical records within the same practice so that in the future the physician has context for my medical history.
- Stock your home with the basics – everything from toilet paper to soap to over-the-counter medicines. I use Amazon.com’s Subscribe and Save program to keep my household stocked with basic items such as shampoo, paper towels, even my husband’s preferred protein powder for his workouts. Keeping up with these is one less thing to worry about in the usual day-to-day home management, and I’m especially grateful to have these items on hand when I’m ill and don’t want to have to worry about restocking. I try once a year, usually over winter break, to go through our supplies of basic medicines, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, nausea medications, first-aid bandages, etc. I check expiration dates and replace items that we’re running low on or have expired. It brings a lot of peace of mind.
- Have someone in mind who is able to get things for you. Maybe it’s your partner or spouse, a trusted neighbor, or even a colleague at work. But when you’re down and out and yet in need of things from the pharmacy, knowing ahead of time who is willing to pick them up for you is a great help.
- If you’re using a traditional textbook and it’s hefty, locate the publisher’s electronic text version, if it’s available. In my area of expertise (physics) it’s not unusual for the introductory textbooks to run close to 10 pounds in weight. I don’t like to carry the book back and forth between office and home. However, if I get caught at home unexpectedly for a length of time, such as in the case of illness, it’s nice to know that the electronic version is available should I want to prepare lectures as I am able.
Here are some recommendations for while you’re recovering:
- Take advantage of downtimes in your schedule. Sometimes, such as in the case of a minor surgery, you can schedule the time you’re out around a break. But if you can’t and you need to be away for a bit, look for opportunities in your schedule. Can you move material around? Can you administer some content online only? During my recent illness, I was able to take advantage of the fact that I had scheduled tests for three days in a row in my courses. Thanks to some very helpful colleagues, I managed to have those tests proctored and was able to rest at home, a critical part of recovering from the particular illness I had.
- Each day you are home, make a list of what absolutely needs to be done to keep your work going at a minimal level, set a timer, finish the list, and then rest. Depending upon how ill you are, you may be able to take care of some simple items that will make it much easier to get back to a full schedule. At the same time, you need to rest. I found it helpful to make a list each morning of a half-dozen items I could do at home, such as posting assignments in our LMS and triaging email. Set a timer for an amount of time you can handle, maybe half an hour to an hour. Run through the list and then rest and forget for work for awhile.
- Model professionalism for your students. As appropriate, let them know what is going on and how you are handling it. In my case, I sent my students an email message explaining what was going on, with a link to the Web MD description of the illness, as well directions as to how my absences were going to affect our class schedule. I hope that they took away from the situation what I would expect them to do if they were ill for an extended amount of time (most likely sans description of the illness, but still with a clear explanation of how they were handling their absence and planned to make up their work.) And when I returned, we talked about the importance of taking care of yourself when ill, getting enough rest, etc.
- Depending upon how ill you are, take the opportunity to rest your mind and spirit as well as your body. Have some items you enjoy saved back for downtimes, such as a few books you want to read for pleasure. In my case, I was able to catch up on a few weeks’ worth of Tivo-ed episodes of the cooking show Barefoot Contessa. I found it difficult to truly rest during my illness, so having something waiting for my attention, such as watching a cooking show I love, helped me feel like my time was at least a bit constructive but still restful.
With some careful preparation, even if you’re not expecting to be sick, and a bit of maintenance while you’re recovering, you should be well on your way to a smooth return to the classroom. What are your suggestions for managing illness during the semester?
Image by Flickr user ghindo / Creative Commons licensed