Is teaching a physically taxing job?
November 2, 2009 1:55 PM   Subscribe

How hard, physically, is teaching? Can someone with fibromyalgia and other physical limitations do it?

I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, degenerative disc disease (lower lumbar), and various other aches and pains. As a cherry on top, I also have bipolar - which is controlled by medication. All of these are in the mild to moderate end of the spectrum, but put them all together and I’m a walking ball of pain some days. I am in pain every day - only the degree changes.

I used to work as an administrative assistant, mostly temp work, but I made living. I can’t do that anymore because of my mutinous body. If I sit down for too long, my knees and hips hurt. If I stand too long, my knees and back hurt. I can’t lift anything over ten pounds, and forget writing or typing for hours (my hands and wrists rebel). The U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, believes that because I worked as a cashier in the past (for four months) that I can work as a cashier again, and therefore I do not qualify for disability. Bless their hearts.

I’m studying for a BA in English and even as a student my hands ache and there are days when I can hardly move after classes and studying. I cannot take pain medication (any of them) because of adverse affects or lack of results.

I want to become a teacher. My question is for teachers really - how hard is the job physically? Can I do it with the above limitations? I made a good-enough living working temp in the admin field. If I find the right city/state can I do the same as a substitute? I briefly worked as a substitute before I entered college, and I enjoyed that - it wasn’t too hard on me physically and I didn’t have to put up with any politics (my bipolar just doesn’t play well with politics). But if I can't make enough to pay the bills then I guess I have to find a full time job somewhere - but if working as a full time teacher would be too physically taxing then it seems that subbing would be a good alternative. I want to teach ESL, and I think I can handle it part-time if I can supplement that income as a sub.

Any information, suggestions would be great. I'm not really looking for a "career," I just want to teach. It doesn't have to pay great, it just has to pay the bills.
posted by patheral to Work & Money (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Teaching is relentless, from the time you get to school until the time you go home. With the exception of duty-free (by contract) times, you are "on."

I would think that someone with pain issues would have difficulty with it, if it's full time.

Also, I knew of a bi-polar teacher who had to have her room next to the principal's office in that her meds occasioned sudden and random need to empty her bowels, and the principal had to cover.

Teaching is hard, and underpaid. Sorry to rain on your parade like this. My opinions only.
posted by Danf at 2:06 PM on November 2, 2009

I cannot take pain medication (any of them) because of adverse affects or lack of results.

This statement right here raises some red flags for me. Have you seen a pain specialist? Have you tried medication targeted specifically for Fibromyalgia? It seems you've resigned yourself to a life of pain without exhausting all of your resources.

And, to be more on topic, a good friend of mine teaches 7th & 8th grade social studies, and he's wiped out at the end of the day.
posted by Oktober at 2:06 PM on November 2, 2009

IANAT but my mother is, and has suffered from pretty serious arthritis pain for most of her career. To the best of my knowledge it has never been an issue anywhere she's worked. I think the key issue is absenteeism. Are you going to miss work regularly? because that could be a deal breaker. It's not a profession that takes especially kindly to repeated missed days.

FWIW one of my favorite professors suffered from a battery of health issues that had him in a wheelchair since childhood, and he never missed a beat.
posted by French Fry at 2:06 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I taught 3rd grade, so this is based on my experience. I broke my kneecap in October one year while teaching. It was extremely difficult to teach elementary school without the ability to bend. My principal did not look favorably on teachers sitting down, ever - unless sitting on the floor surrounded by students. Good shoes help, but esp. when my knee was broken, I came home every day in pain, absolutely exhausted.

And there is always politics in teaching.
posted by quodlibet at 2:17 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oktober: I've only been diagnosed with fibro two years (a car accident triggered it they think), but I've been in pain a long time - I've tried a lot of pain meds... trust me, I don't want to be in pain, but there aren't many options left. I don't have medical insurance at this time, and I've reached the end of my resources. A pain doctor is out of my reach.

I can't take NSAIDs - any of them - because that class of medicines clouds my cognition, I walk around dazed and confused (this got me fired from my last long term position because I didn't know they had this affect on me). Opiates flat out don't work, neither do muscle relaxers. Other "fibro" meds are generally antidepressants, which I cannot take with my other bipolar medications. Ironically, the bipolar meds I am taking are atypical for fibromyalgia - and I'm still in pain... I wonder if I would be in more pain without them?

What about subbing? Does anyone know if I can make a living subbing? It didn't seem taxing when I did it last (before the fibro).
posted by patheral at 2:17 PM on November 2, 2009

Physically taxing? It doesn't have to be. I would imagine that you can figure out a groove of sitting and standing that would be least painful.

However, it seems to be intellectually and emotionally exhausting.

However, if you are in an urban area, the pay and benefits are usually quite good compared to the time spent at work and the experience needed.
posted by gjc at 2:19 PM on November 2, 2009

Could you clarify exactly what you want to teach, and at what type of institution? You mention wanting to teach ESL- is your question about how grueling teaching is on an hour by hour basis, or are you thinking about teaching in a middle or high school where you'll be working for eight hour stretches?

The reason I ask is that 'teaching' can fall into a number of categories. I used to teach at a community college, where numerous persons with disabilities were happily employed. At this particular institution, one's office was usually only a few steps from the classroom, and a full-time professor might teach four classes a semester, which means only standing in a classroom for 12 hours a week. Plus many taught online courses, minimizing their in-class time.

College teaching at a big university is a lot more strenuous, but at a small community college you could make decent money and have some options. This would require getting a graduate degree, however.

Also, I'm not sure about ESL teaching, but I assume that the schedule is a lot more forgiving than what public school teachers do every day. One ESL instructor I know teaches two classes, both in the evenings. He has another income source, but I'd imagine that, again, there are more options if you're willing to look outside of the public/private school world.
posted by farishta at 2:22 PM on November 2, 2009

I have a friend who has lupus and who is in constant pain. (She was misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia for years, so I'm assuming the symptoms are similar.) She taught grade school full time for years but it really cost her. She went to bed almost as soon as she got home and slept as long as she could every night, and more on the weekends.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:43 PM on November 2, 2009

I would have to say that I found teaching full time at a community college to be fairly strenuous. Even if you aren't spending that much time in the classroom, you still have to spend your other time writing reports, exams, quizzes, answering student email, etc. You also have to grade all your own papers and hold office hours; you don't usually get an assistant at CC. Part time might be easier, and the upside is that on the days you don't have to be on campus, you can work from home.

I do have a friend that works part time as a language specialist at a couple private schools in our area. She usually works with small groups of students (5-10) at a time. She works 3 days a week. It's my impression from her that teaching at a private school is much easier than teaching at a public school where the classes are much larger and much more demanding. I do have to say, though, that I don't think she makes a great living working part time.
posted by bluefly at 2:47 PM on November 2, 2009

I find teaching kind of tiring, but it does get better as you get used to it. Start slow and work your way up to a manageable part time, realizing that the more times you teach a session the easier it gets (so your second semester of the same material will be much easier).

Physically, teaching does have the nice perk that you can sit or stand as you desire. I spent most of my classes perched on tables with my boots off, and since I taught in the arts my (high school and university) students found it very endearing, in fact they specifically mentioned how comfortable and approachable it made me in my evaluations.

I also think it's totally acceptable to explain any physical limitations to your students. I had a visually impaired teacher once who told us not to wave or smile at him in the hall as he wouldn't see us, and it made most of us actually relate to him better as we made the extra effort to have real conversations that would allow him to learn our voices and differentiate us better.
posted by twistofrhyme at 2:59 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was a teacher for a while, and I'm not going to be as discouraging as others. I taught elementary grades, and I did find it very tiring and somewhat physically taxing. But a lot of that was a result of my own teaching style. I moved around a lot, sat on the floor and on other stuff, did a lot of active projects. None of that is specifically required for the job.

I had many colleagues, and many teachers myself, who didn't move around much and who took it slow. I think it can be a disadvantage, but it doesn't have to be if you consciously structure your instruction methods and teaching style around this.

In high school, I had two teachers who had mobility-related disabilities. They were good teachers; one was a favorite of mine, Advanced Bio. I still remember much of what he taught. He used pretty classical lab-class instruction methods. I remember he made a lot of use of the overhead projector, so that he could sit at it and write on transparencies - much easier than standing at the board. Today, you could do an amazing amount with a SmartBoard, PowerPoint, and the like.

You can't be the only person with a disability who wants to become a teacher. I'm sure resources are out there - my first Google returns this, this, and this. Start doing some research. Look for professional associations, conferences, papers.

Yes, teaching is intensive and draining. But, as someone noted above, a lot of the drain is intellectual and emotional, not so much physical. A quick look at how many teachers are shockingly out of shape proves that it's not physically demanding in the way, say, masonry work is. I still needed to work out when I was teaching; it was a lot of standing and bending, but not enough to really tax the body in any useful way.

The primary quality you need to succeed as a teacher is to really want to be a teacher and to really enjoy teaching. I think if you approach this with dedication and true desire, the added challenge of making your disability work could be a mere roadblock and, in some ways, be perceived as an advantage or a unique personal quality which informs your work. In truth, the bipolar disorder would probably become more of a problem than physical pain for you, because teaching does tend to grind one's energy down in the ways bipolar folks need to avoid, and it does have seasons that are very very demanding during which you get little rest and rejuvenation time. But if your meds are controlling things well, that need not be an obstacle. Again, you would certainly not be alone.
posted by Miko at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2009

I am high school teacher and where I work, many teachers "travel" to different classrooms. This year I teach in 3 different classrooms, all on the same floor. Last year, I taught in 4 different rooms on 3 different floors. This means that I usually have an armload of papers, materials, books and the like with me at all times. I have to walk to the main office at least twice a day, the copy room as needed, and the teacher work room several times a day. I also bring a lot of work home with me on a daily basis. My husband teaches high school English, and he has stacks of papers to bring home as well.

At the school where I worked previously, I had my own classroom and everything was very centralized. I had more planning/grading time during the day so I had considerably less work to bring home. So, in a way, it could depend on the school size and other factors.

I cannot stress how mentally and emotionally draining teaching can be. If you are in pain, it might only make things worse.
posted by Hop123 at 3:21 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in my second year of teaching second grade and I have found the lack of sleep to be the most physically draining part of the job. I'm up at 4:30 everyday and I work non stop until about 7 pm. I teach from 8-3, but the planning, grading, prepping, and data collection/analysis is almost a full time job in itself. When I'm not working, I'm thinking about work, e.g., how to help the kids; how to keep up with everything I need to get done; who do I need to meet with during my lunch period to give a make-up test to or to assess their reading ability... Here are the physical conditions I have developed since I began teaching in September 2008: folliculitis, insomnia, loss of memory, anxiety, lots of colds, loss of hair, rashes, acne, lump on my testicle, back pain, neck pain, and shaky hands. I'm convinced all of these issues are aggravated or caused by stress and/or exposure to kiddy germs, not the physical demands of the job. That being said, I'm squatting and lifting and bending and hugging and jumping and hopping and singing and using my whole body all day long. This isn't a "requirement" but it does help keep the kids engaged.

My mother, who suffers from fibromyalgia, is an aide in a high school ESL class. She seems to always be sick, stiff, in pain, and chronically fatigued. Honestly, teaching kids is incredibly strenuous. If you want to teach ESL to adults, I think you'd be able to do it because the physical demands simply aren't the same. Just know that if you become a teacher, you'll probably end up spending twice as much time on your work as you're expecting to spend.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:29 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you live, but from what I've read in online teacher forums and heard from subs, it's getting fairly difficult to get regular subbing assignments. Many people who can't find work, including teachers who have been laid off, are competing for those assignments.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:32 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about doing online tutoring or similar instead? Because if this was me, I'd be concerned about lots of the stuff already mentioned, and one thing that hasn't been mentioned--most people with fibromyalgia are more subject to viral infections, and teachers generally catch whatever's going around.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:32 PM on November 2, 2009

Best answer: I'm a grad student hoping to become a professor. I also have chronic inflammatory arthritis. I obviously have no idea how my pain compares to yours, but I definitely have pain and fatigue and just a lot less energy than I did before I got sick. Right now, teaching is working great for me. I teach labs, mostly, as a grad student and that means a lot of moving around, standing up, and then sitting down for a few minutes helping a student. This is much better for me and my issues than just sitting all the time or just standing all the time. I have similar feelings about research, since it's rare for me to ever have to be in one position doing the same thing all day and I really really appreciate that. Obviously I haven't gotten to be a professor yet, but I hope that the general constantly rotating activities will always be a feature of any job I have.

All that said, it is hard work and everybody's different.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:16 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Subbing is a totally unreliable way of earning a living, you can't count on getting jobs regularly and you don't get benefits. It sounds like you probably need health insurance, that is if you're in the US.
posted by mareli at 4:20 PM on November 2, 2009

Best answer: Almost everyone above is right, unfortunately. I'm hard-pressed to think of very many (public school, anyway) teaching assignments in which you'd not be pretty physically beat by the end of the day if you have struggles with pain etc. Being "on" for an entire day and performing in front of class for hours is harder on you than people assume it is. I consider myself a fairly fit person and spend my summers off hiking, kayaking and running to beat the band- but every year, coming back in August just kicks my butt physically for a week or two. It's fine after that, but if I were someone with a lot of physical issues I would think very, very hard about whether I wanted to deal anymore.

The points others have made about it being more emotionally draining than it is physically are also accurate. Especially the first few years, it's tricky to figure out how to balance your social/family/work life in a way that doesn't leave everyone but your students feeling slighted.

Subbing has generally been a good way to get into it without the commitment and the planning and the staying-after-school (also, unfortunately, without the benefits and the fairly-acceptable-depending-on-where-you're-coming-from salary), but now is not a great time to get into it in most states, since there have been a lot of teacher layoffs and credentialed former teachers will generally be first in line for any sub jobs that come around at this point. I would think that the question of whether you could make a living at it would vary greatly by city and state. Where are you?
posted by charmedimsure at 4:29 PM on November 2, 2009

Best answer: I've been teaching for 10 years, sometimes in the same room for every class, sometimes travelling to different classrooms for different classes. I've had lower back disc problems since before I started teaching, and only recently gotten rid of a gallbladder/stone that was making everything worse. The length of time I've dealt with the pain has, in some ways, raised my pain threshold way past what it used to be, allowing me to push through my worst days. What I understand of fibro (which comes from my sister, who's had it longer than I've had back problems) is that it takes away your ability to get used to pain. That's a problem for teaching. My sister does teach, part-time, at a Hebrew school, so it's only Tues, Thurs, Sun, but even that is taxing for her.

And teaching is a demanding job. I was stunned, the first time I taught, how tired it made me. You certainly have to be alert and focused, mentally. As a student, it's all right to zone out for a short time, but never for a teacher. If you have a sudden bout of agony that keeps you from continuing, where you've gotten to with the class could fall apart, and you might need to start over to regain the same place, if it's doable at all.

Physically, teaching requires a lot of movement and standing. I was once yelled at by a boss for sitting in class. At the time, it was a five person class, and I told him that in such a small class, being on the same level as the students made the atmosphere better, which he didn't buy. Also, my back was killing me from all the standing. Large class sizes require more standing, more action. You've got to be able to walk all around the room to be able to manage it, as some students who will be the most disruptive will sit as far away from you as possible, and will only respond to direct proximity to the teacher.

So you've got to be able to focus, you've got to be able to move around the room, and you've got to be able to stand.

The focus thing is something you have to decide, can you do that, or will your pain get in the way? The movement thing, and the standing thing, those can be helped. I structure my classes so that students have a lot of time where I'm not the focus of the lesson (but then again, I'm teaching a language, so the students need time to practice in class). During those times, if I'm up for it, I walk around and check on students' progress. If I'm not up for it, I have a seat for a little bit. It is important to remember, though, that large seated groups are more likely to listen to a teacher who is standing, rather than one who is sitting.

I think the only one who will know if you can do it is you. Fibro is tough, but you're the only one who knows your own limits. If you think you can handle all of these things, then give it a shot. Don't let yourself be too limited.

(but don't try ESL overseas... most entry level teachers teach small children, in cramped rooms, that involve running around and playing games. A good number of schools view teachers as interchangeable, and if teacher A isn't pulling their weight, for whatever reason, they have no problem replacing them with teacher B)
posted by Ghidorah at 4:43 PM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: I want to teach - it's the one thing I've always wanted to do - before life interfered and I had to work for a living. I have the talent and I'm working on the credentials. I've considered tutoring as well because I worked as a tutor before when I was in community college, and I enjoyed it a lot. Teaching is something I enjoy. It's what I want to do.

As for defining "teaching" I guess I've really aimed for teaching adults more than kids, but I didn't mind subbing at elementary schools. I'm not sure if I could handle it full time though, which is why I'm looking for information.

Right now, I live in the South. I'm about a semester and a half from my BA, and I'm considering grad school - whether I will be able to do that financially, that remains to be seen. Once I'm done with that, I can move anywhere. I have no ties to any one place. I can move anywhere in the Americas with very little effort.
posted by patheral at 6:13 PM on November 2, 2009

Ask Stephen Hawking if a person can be a teacher with physical limitations. Or ask the faculty of Gallaudet University or the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Watch some Paralympic Games to see how the athletes and their coaches are doing.

I work in K-12 schools and I do/don't have my own physical limitations. It doesn't matter if I do or don't because I made it happen. And I'm not smart, rich, good looking or well-connected.

Yeah, it's hard. It only gets harder because soon enough you'll have all the difficulties you have now plus you'll be old. Time's a-wastin' - step up.
posted by eccnineten at 7:44 PM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As for defining "teaching" I guess I've really aimed for teaching adults more than kids, but I didn't mind subbing at elementary schools. I'm not sure if I could handle it full time though, which is why I'm looking for information.

Well, there are a lot of different kinds of teaching - all sorts of age ranges, learner specialties, content specialties, and educational formats (from tutoring to full-day classroom instruction to seminars adn workshops). I don't think your disability needs to be a barrier in working as a teacher, but it might inform your decisions about what kinds of teaching will be easiest for you to adapt to. Since you haven't yet started making decisions about what kind of instruction you'd like to get involved in, I suggest you start pursuing those questions and think more closely about what age groups and content or skill areas you prefer to work within. That will help begin to narrow down the possibilities. In your position I might want to do some informational interviewing at this point, reaching out to my network and ask people who know different kinds of teachers to get me in touch so that I could ask them some questions about what sort of training they took and how the teaching format impacts them.

After answering this last night I remembered that I had a co-worker at an environmental education program with a pretty serious mobility disorder. She walked using two crutches, and she managed to teach in a setting that ran a 13-hour-a-day educational program including hiking and field experience. She did well and in many ways the visibility of her disability was an encouragement/inspiration to students of all kinds.

One thing to remember when talking to teachers is that part of the culture of teaching is to complain about teaching. There are a lot of historical reasons I might point to for that, but I won't go into them here, and certainly there is still much basis in truth - it's not an easy job at all, and requires a combination of talents and skills that is somewhat unusual: particular kinds of stamina, intellect, empathy, patience, and knowledge. On the other hand, it's not the hardest job there is, either; so don't be easily scared. I've done a lot of different kinds of work over my lifetime, from manual labor to service to administration, and teaching was not the most physically demanding among those either in terms of strength or energy. I found the difficult parts of teaching to be much more structural and political than physical or intellectual.

So just be aware that when you casually ask a generic group of teachers about teaching, you will often hear a lot of negatives and not many spontaneous positives. This is never a popular observation for me to make, but it's demonstrably true as compared with other professions, and it's one of the most draining aspects of being a teacher. Yes, much of it's justified, but yes, a lot of it will sound more dark and dire than it really is. Attitude and approach are everything.
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your great answers. I didn't ask the question as a way to deter myself from my chosen path, I just wanted information. :) I know that I'll be teaching - because that is what I want to do... But as Miko says, it's just a matter of what kind of teaching. I'm pretty sure that my first choice is probably the right one - ESL in a community college with maybe subbing to pick up the slack if I can't find full time work as an ESL teacher. Of course, that depends on whether I can get the financing for grad school. :-/

Thanks again everyone, I appreciate your advice!
posted by patheral at 7:49 AM on November 4, 2009

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