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As a Teacher, How Much Should I Tell My Students About My Fainting Syndrome?

As mid-August rapidly approaches, teachers everywhere are setting up classrooms, planning curriculum and generally preparing for the start of a new school year. This will be my first full year as a high school English teacher and I am having the following conversation with myself: How much do I tell my students about my illness?  I’m pretty sure no other teachers have a section of their syllabus called “What to Do if Ms. Manning Faints.”

My neurocardiogenic syncope has been with me since I was about 6 years old and has not become any less prevalent with age. I fainted once in middle school, twice in high school, and collapsed once trying to leave a college classroom. I even fainted sitting down in a movie theater, which is what prompted my mother and I to again actively seek some type of diagnosis. 

It’s been 19 years since I first began having dizzy spells when I stood up and not being able to have blood drawn without lying down, and I’m mostly satisfied with my diagnosis. I understand what happens to my body when I experience certain triggers, and I’m usually capable of avoiding said triggers.

In the classroom, I try very hard to announce when things on the screen might be a bit bloody or graphic, not only for politically correct reasons but because these are my own triggers and I would have appreciated the same thoughtfulness from my teachers and professors over the years — as an anecdote, I made sure to sign up for a science credit during my undergraduate career that would not feature any talk of human anatomy (geology and weather) only to find that my professor would eventually display a large and graphic image of his skin cancer to prove ozone was being depleted. Because of this, I warn my students.

But for the times I can’t predict, when a student creates a presentation or something graphic comes up in a book that we’re reading, how much should I warn my students about my condition beforehand? Part of me feels like these teenagers don’t need to know that much about me and that my illness will never be an issue. The other part of me knows how frightened my loved ones become every time I collapse, turn a ghostly shade of white, and my heart stops beating. Do I make my students anxious about the possibility of their teacher fainting randomly one day, or do I prepare them for a reality of working and living in a world where people have odd chronic illnesses? 

I struggle with these questions mostly because I see how difficult life and employment can be for others with invisible illnesses and my students are future coworkers, bosses, friends and spouses of people with those illnesses. I feel as though it’s my job to teach them empathy, to show them some of what they’ll see out there in the “real world,” even if it’s frightening or anxiety-inducing.

There’s a middle ground somewhere, but as a brand new teacher, I have yet to find it.