Disclosing My Diabetes to My Students

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I am a high school chemistry teacher and person with type 1 diabetes. I’ve been teaching for three and a half years and have had diabetes for 26 years, since the age of six.  After all this time, diabetes is a significant part of my identity.

As a teacher, I hope to teach my students something about the nature of matter but every year it becomes more and more apparent that my students learn very little actual chemistry in my class, despite my best efforts.  What they do learn in droves, however, are critical life skills such as perseverance in the face of a challenge (chemistry is hard but they inevitably succeed), humility (for many chemistry is the first time they’ve really struggled or failed to understand something), and critical thinking (it is chemistry, after all). These life skills are the foundation of a successful future in any field and are part of the reason every student takes chemistry.  I teach these skills through my chemistry curriculum but I also teach these skills as someone who learned them herself starting at age six with a diagnosis of diabetes.

At first, the decision to disclose my diabetes or not to disclose, to use myself as an example to students, was something I thought a lot about.  When I was in high school myself, a teacher I didn’t know told me he had diabetes.  It made me cringe and look for the nearest exit.  I didn’t feel the instant connection I had when learning about another teenager with diabetes. Plus, at that point in time I was working so hard to make sure no one knew about my diabetes that his disclosure made me really uncomfortable.  I was not at a place in my own journey that I could appreciate the connection and the offer of camaraderie. I’ve kept this interaction firmly in mind when I thought about my own disclosures to students. I also remind myself that everyone’s relationship with diabetes is unique, so I need to be mindful about how and when I disclose diabetes to students.

Most of the time, disclosure looks something like this:

During class, I might point out that that beep wasn’t a phone call – it was my CGM – or this juice box isn’t because I’m nostalgic for elementary school, but instead it’s to treat a low.  This sort of disclosure tends to go unnoticed by the masses but I catch an ear every now and then. Occasionally I get a, “My little sister has diabetes” or a, “I learned about that in Bio freshman year.”  I have yet to have a student with diabetes enrolled in any of my classes, so the connections I make mainly show my students that I, too, am a person with struggles and am balancing a million variables to keep my life seemingly put together.  

These peeks into the human condition are just as important for me to show my students as is stoichiometry, and arguably more important. In our Boston suburb anxiety to be “The Best” runs rampant and students are often not accustomed to failure and the struggle that is so vital to success in the real world. I like to use my diabetes as a way to model for my students that obstacles exist which can be overcome, or at least put in check.

As I get more and more comfortable as a teacher, and more involved with my school community, other opportunities for a different sort of disclosure have presented themselves. Every year, my school has a “One Day” when teachers and students set aside their curriculum to have a day devoted to a theme, including breakout sessions for the students. This got me thinking about teaching students what it’s like to live with diabetes and invisible illnesses, and about how powerful it could be to meet with students in a breakout session and share with them this important aspect of my identity.

I recruited the help of a few other teachers with their own invisible illnesses (everything from Crohn’s Disease and Celiac to ADHD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and together we created a breakout session where we opened a dialogue with students about some very personal and often unseen aspects of our lives. This level of disclosure with my students (and a whole bunch of students I had never met before that day) was strange and wonderful. It was strange because we were all sharing such personal and sometimes medical information with these students who we sometimes had little or no relationship with, though occasionally knew very well. It was wonderful because we got to experience students making disclosures of their own (self-advocacy) and provide students with glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes so they can see that despite the facade, we are all people succeeding despite an avalanche of challenges.

Lastly, and selfishly, I also like my students to know about my diabetes as an additional safety net.  The more students are aware that I have type 1 diabetes, the more likely one of them will know how to respond if a bad situation were to arise. In my 3.5 years of disclosing subtly within my classroom, I have luckily never had a situation like that, but I have had a million opportunities to gently advocate for people with diabetes and make my students acutely aware of my imperfections, diabetes-related and otherwise. I know my relationships with my students are stronger as a result.

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