Cancer, school work and coronavirus: 10 tips from a teacher

Coronavirus has made education more challenging for everyone – but for young people going through cancer, a lot of the disruption is nothing new. English teacher and Teenage Cancer Trust volunteer Bethan has shared some brilliant tips to help you keep learning and keep up with school work.

Bethan, an English teacher and Teenage Cancer Trust volunteer

Rather like you, I used to spend hours in school. Rather like you, I now miss being there. Rather like you, I alternate between feeling very scared and hopeless, and when the sun shines – hopeful and thankful that I receive treatment.

Rather like you, I have cancer.

However, I am not like you: I am a teacher, Head of English at a school in Hampshire. Teenage Cancer Trust has asked me to write this blog to give you some help and advice on learning and education whilst undergoing your treatment and care.

At the moment, with coronavirus restrictions, everyone has joined our world: remote access to friends and school, infection control, feeling frightened, uncertain and bored. However, this has a positive side for you, as schools are now more familiar with remote learning and how to reach people who have to isolate and not be physically present in school.

Listed below are tactics that can be used in lockdown / restricted / normal times to help you learn. I’ve broken it down into:

Staying in touch with your school during cancer treatment

1. Communicate with your school

Your point of contact will most likely be your Head of Year / House. If you aren’t certain who this is, the school office will be able to direct you to the right person.

Initially, it’s better to deal with one person rather than lots of people. Tell your Head of Year about your cancer treatment, what it is, how and when it will take place, your side effects, your prognosis and the time frames for treatment.

None of it will shock them – they will have dealt with this situation before and they will be very sympathetic and understanding. They will also let you know about the access arrangements that will be available to you, which is important if you are due to sit exams at some point in the year.

2. School materials

In discussion with your Head of Year, talk through the materials you will need while you are learning at home. They will have your timetable and ensure that you get all of the necessary textbooks, paper, even a laptop (on loan).

It can be arranged for your work to be emailed, posted or delivered by online homework platforms in order to provide you with any worksheets / information you need to work in that subject. This will also be the way for you to submit your work for marking.

3. Online lessons

Particularly during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, lessons are online – teachers can send you a link to participate in the virtual lessons along with the rest of your class. You can join the class when you are strong enough to do so.

This will be less likely to happen when schools are open again to students, but many lessons and presentations will have been recorded during this time and teachers can send you access to these. They can also recommend which commercial / free services are best to access online.

Practical learning advice for you at home during cancer treatment

1. Keep a sense of perspective

Your education is important and learning gives you a real boost as it makes you feel like “you” again. However, your cancer treatment is taxing and it is also the current priority. There will be days when you can’t work, accept it! Ride out those days and when you are able, pick up learning once again.

Some of you could be having exams during your cancer treatment but your circumstances are extraordinary and access arrangements can be made and, if necessary, resits taken at later dates. The key thing here is to be kind to yourself and recognise when you have reached your limit.

2. Subjects you like and dislike

It is very easy to concentrate on the subjects that you enjoy. However, it is important to also do the subjects you like less / find challenging. If you are doing GCSEs or A-levels, it might be useful to discuss which subjects you need to go forward in your life and consider the possibility of dropping / delaying ones that aren’t essential to the next chapter of your life.

You can also return to being creative; the busy school curriculum sometimes doesn’t allow for this. This might be the perfect opportunity to make the life-size papier-mâché version of the Death Star that you have been yearning to make.

3. Organising yourself

Keep your work for each subject in its own exercise book / folder or folder on your computer. Get into the habit of beginning each piece of work with a date and title.  This will help you find it when you need to send it in for your teacher to assess / see and will also help you create a sense of control.

4. Talk to your friends

You might not be in school but you can work with your friends as if you were in the class. You can talk through ideas, plans and structures together; read each other’s first drafts / first answers; review each other’s work.

This can be online, or if your immunity allows, in person. This is not cheating or getting extra help. King’s College, London acknowledge this “social construction” as a vital part of learning. It also gives you confidence in your own ideas and helps you gauge your own progress.

5. Read

Of course I’m going to tell you to read, I’m Head of English! However, reading underpins all learning in all subjects and will help everywhere. Sometimes when a lesson or work seems too taxing, reading is a great substitute.

Read what you want: books, fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines. You could even listen to audiobooks or podcasts on those tired days. Be aware that reading your Snapchat isn’t the same, by all means stay in touch via social media but don’t kid yourself – that’s not reading!

6. Diamonds are small

Let’s face it, you won’t be doing as much school work while you are having cancer treatment but every equation that is solved and each question that is answered is a precious diamond. You really should acknowledge that and keep creating those beautiful gems until you have a full and magnificent crown.

7. Building it up

If and as you make progress with your cancer treatment, you will find that you can do more.  This is where you will need to show resilience (again). You might have got into a comfortable place of doing two hours work a day but don’t shy away from the challenge of doing more when you are able; you can always draw back if it is too much.

This is part of your pathway back to “normality” after cancer and will also give you a real cause for celebration. As the novelist TS Eliot said, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

Cancer, school work and coronavirus: Final word

What we are going through is horrible and it is really tough. Learning and school will give you wonderful moments of “normal” during cancer treatment. You will be supported by people who have great sympathy or an experience of what you are going through, and they will do everything they can to help you.
You are not alone – every teacher stands behind you with arms outstretched ready to support you, get you back on your feet and, if necessary, hold your hand.