Classroom Management

How to Be Present Even When You’re Not There (Ep. 028)

Dealing with a long-term absence is a complicated situation and one rarely dealt with in art education. This week, Tim talks to Kelly Parvin, an art teacher from Alabama, about her fight with cancer and how she handles being gone for significant amounts of time. They discuss ways to prepare for time away (06:00), how to adapt lesson plans to help the sub fill your shoes (09:00), and the potential benefits of a different “voice” in your classroom (15:00). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host Tim Bogatz. One topic that we never touch on it seems like is how to deal with a long-term absence. That goes not only for this podcast but for art teachers in general. It’s a conversation that frankly we need to have. Now I’ll just put it out there, I’m not the most qualified to talk about this. I was never gone from school for any length of time. I got a week off for a paternity leave for each kid but I don’t know how to deal with being gone for eight weeks or twelve weeks or even longer but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cover it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. In fact I’m going to say the opposite, this is a really important topic that is relevant to a huge number of teachers and there just isn’t enough discussion or enough information out there for how to handle a long-term absence as an art teacher.

This episode obviously won’t have all the answers but I hope we can at least get the discussion started. My guest will be Kelly Parvin, an art teacher from Alabama who is about to start her third long-term absence. She’s been gone twice for maternity leave but this time around she’s facing something quite a bit different. Right now she’s battling cancer. She continued to work through her illness last year, teaching while going through treatment from new year’s eve all the way through the end of school in June. She rearranged her daily schedule to fit in her chemo treatments and was present at school every possible moment so that she didn’t miss her kids.

This school year though she unfortunately does not have a choice. Her test results have shown that the cancer is back and she’ll be having a bone marrow procedure. She’s forced to be gone out of class and out of town for treatment. We’re going to talk a little bit about how she’s dealing with this setback. I’m really looking forward to having the chance to talk to her and I think you are going to appreciate the conversation as well. She’ll have a lot of great things to say about being present even when you’re not physically in your classroom. Kelly’s attitude, her perspective, her advice and her ideas are all worth admiring. We have a lot to get to so let me bring her on right now and get the interview started. I am here with Kelly Parvin. Kelly how are you today?

Kelly: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

Tim: I appreciate you joining us thank you. To start out with though Kelly can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your teaching situation, your health situation so our listeners know where you are coming from with this whole discussion?

Kelly: Sure. I’ve been teaching since 2004. I’ve taught middle school, undergraduate students and at the start of 2015 I took a position teaching pre-K3 through fifth grade. Prior to teaching visual arts, I was a graphic designer and though I really enjoyed that work I didn’t find my passion until I started teaching. Last year I didn’t feel quite right physically around Thanksgiving and I followed a course of action that led me to being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December. I had my first chemotherapy treatment on new year’s eve. I was just surrounded by amazing support from my colleagues and everyone at the school I’m currently employed. I was able to make it through the school year with very few absences. It was amazing. It twas amazing to go through these radical changes that you experience with a cancer diagnosis, the physical changes that you can and can’t see in your body with young students.

I learned that they are not actually concerned with many of those changes like as I lost my hair and was fatigued, as long as I had a positive attitude the kids really didn’t care at all as long we were focused on the creations that we were making in the classroom. If they asked me a question, I was pretty open and answered with the fact that I was taking some medicine that was making my hair go away and eventually my hair would be back. With that the students weren’t very scared of what was going on. My family and colleagues were all looking forward to my last treatment which was scheduled for just after the school year ended. We were then getting a scan that was supposed to show that my cancer was gone but when those scan results came back we were all really surprised that it showed that my cancer had actually grown.

That created a new path where I got more treatment over the summer for the Hodgkin’s lymphoma and I now I’m facing a bone marrow transplant which is how we are sitting here talking today because I’ve spent my summer preparing my classroom for a long-term substitute. I think all art teachers know it’s really challenging to leave your art classroom for a substitute.

Tim: For sure and I know that has to be a really challenging situation both in real life and in the classroom too. Kind of a question about that, how does it feel for you to not be there at the start of the year because I know so many teachers identify really closely with their classroom? It’s not just what we do but for a lot of us it’s very much a part of who we are. What is it like to be disconnected from something that’s so important to you?

Kelly: When I first discovered that I was not going to be in the classroom, there was real grief involved. I love teaching art and I love connecting with my students and to have any of that time taken away is difficult but having the beginning of the school year taken away, it’s just one of the most challenging things. It’s because that’s the time of the year where everyone is fresh and new and excited about the possibilities that the year offers. The other thing about missing the beginning of the year in an elementary setting is the students shift is so large from the start of the school to the end of the school.

It’s just really hard that I’m not going get to see that full transformation of my students and get to appreciate and enjoy watching them grow over the course of the full year. So much of my personal joy comes from my students’ reactions to their growth in my classroom, to their successes, the pride that they show and excitement when they create something that they didn’t think that it was possible. I’ve had to come to terms to how I can fill that void for myself since I’m not going to be able to enjoy that connection on a daily basis for quite sometime.

Tim: That’s understandable. When you’re looking for a replacement, somebody to come in and do what you do, are you able to choose who you get for your long-term sub? I guess what do you look for in a long-term replacement?

Kelly: This is actually my third long-term absence. I had two maternity leaves prior to this health-related absence. Each of those has been unique in how the substitute was selected. A lot of it has to do with availability and timing. Additionally there’s so much that has to do with the ability for the school and the administration and your colleagues to be able to function with the least amount of disruption during your absence. In all three of my absences I was very respectfully asked for input in regards to my substitute. I was at different schools but I always wanted to think about what was best for my students and what would be best for my school which meant I had to take myself out of that equation.

Tim: That’s understandable. That has to be tough to be like take yourself out of there though. Following up on that, how much do you adapt the planning, the planning that you do for the long-term sub depending on the sub that you have on who that sub is?

Kelly: That has a lot to do with taking myself out of the equation. As most of us know, we aren’t handed a strict curriculum when we go into our art rooms. Most of us have an outline that we work from. That outline usually stretches based on our skillset. The strengths that I have have never aligned specifically to the strengths of my subs. My first long-term sub is someone who I keep in contact with today and watch the work that he’s created with set design on shows like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things.

Tim: Cool.

Kelly: It’s amazing. What he brought to the classroom was entirely different than what I offer students and it was really a gift. In order to let him bring his gift to the level that was taking full advantage of his skills, the best way that I have seen to approach an art substitute who is going to be in my class for a long time is giving an outline of basic coverage without demanding a certain set of projects that will be produced. My first two substitutes were new to the classroom so I did provide a package of project opportunities that they could utilize but I didn’t demand them to be used. Instead they were suggestions and jump off points and gave them a really good idea of how the classroom usually ran but without that strict guideline the students and my subs were confident utilizing the skills that the substitutes were bringing to the table. I think that allowed a broader experience for my students than if I were trying to micro manage my subs.

My current substitute who will be beginning the year for this long-term absence is a veteran teacher. She absolutely brings the skill set to the classroom that does not require me to tell her what plan she should be doing in my classroom. By respecting her approach, the classroom that she’s going to be creating and how she’s comfortable approaching lessons instead of demanding her use the lessons that I’ve introduced and the techniques that I like to present, I think it creates a more positive environment. My view of the classroom is that it should be somewhere for my students to experience the joy of creation. I think the best way for me to honor that is to make sure my students are as happy as possible in my absence. I think it’s sort of like a domino effect. I can’t think of that happening if my substitute doesn’t feel welcome and comfortable in the space that they’re teaching in.

Tim: I agree and I think that’s a good point. In order to help your students find that path to success, you need to let them be at your best. They can’t do that unless that long-term sub is at their best too. When you’re letting go like that and letting the sub do their thing, is there anything that you can do to keep your personality, your voice, or your teaching style present in the room while you’re gone? Is that something that’s important to you?

Kelly: It is important to me. I’m going to be gone for over a hundred days which is a long time. It’s the standard required isolation time for a bone marrow transplant. I have been working up some plans to stay in touch with my children because I think that’s super important. I’m going to be writing notes to each of my classes as I’m absent that I’ll mail to their classroom teachers so that they’ll receive some notes and can hear from me throughout the school year. I’ve also put together a package to take to the hospital with me and I’ll be making works of art for each of the classes that I’ll also mail to the school teachers in order for the students to see work that’s created for them by me.

I think that what that shows the students is that I’m still making art, which I think is one of the best ways to show the continuation of my personality even outside of my classroom. I think that’s extraordinarily important not just as a teacher but as a role model to show consistency inside and outside of the classroom. I want my students to see that during what’s a very challenging time for me personally I’m maintaining focus, and a positive focus at that.

Tim: That’s a great idea. If we can circle back around to what’s happening in your classroom, obviously you’d rather be there. Your colleagues would rather have you there. Your students would rather have you there but do you think there are some benefits to letting a different voice be president? Like someone with some different strengths and a different skillset leading the way?

Kelly: Like I was saying before, my first long-term sub was a set designer and I know my students gained great knowledge from him. Those who stay in touch with him today have a connection that’s just completely different than their connection with me. My second long-term sub was extraordinarily gifted in realism and that’s just not something I focus on primarily in my own art creation. Though we do still life drawing and realistic rendering in class, it’s just not what I’m a creator of so I know some of the students really made a deep connection with him through his work.

I know the same way that those connections were made with those two subs, my current substitute will have relationships that she develops with my students that are meaningful and will continue beyond this time that are different than the ones that I have with my students. They are not going to override my relationships with my students. What I hope is that they’ll enhance my relationships. One of the best things I find about students seeing different teachers in my art classroom or in any art classroom is the ability to see how wide the breadth of the artistic perspective actually is and that the creative language and the way we approach design and visual problem-solving can be done in so many different ways and still be effective.

Tim: That’s a great point. I like the idea not necessarily connections that replace what you have with your kids but actually enhance that. We have those benefits that come with someone else leading your class but is it still difficult for you to give up the control that you’re used to? How do you deal with that?

Kelly: One of the most difficult things, I think, for art teachers leaving a classroom is the anxiety of leaving consumables. We are in classes that have budgets and materials that we see as precious and, let’s face it, many of us are hoarders so what is trash to you might be a treasure to me and there is just no telling what might be mistaken for trash in my absence. One of the ways I’ve dealt with my absence was prior to handing over my keys, I went in and went and organized my classroom so I felt a little bit better about my departure. I know I can’t control everything.

I have to think the worst that I can come back to is a little bit that I’m going to have to reorganize but I did honestly take home things that I felt like I needed to get out of the way and make sure that they were protected so I just didn’t worry about that. I’ve reminded myself of everything that is in the classroom but the classroom is for the students and I’m a facilitator for that room. The materials that are in that room are for the students and for creations that they make and at this time I’m just not the facilitator. Those materials and the space are being used by the people it’s meant for and those people are the students of my school. I can’t think of a much better way to deal with it than to be happy that the space is still going to be fully active.

Tim: That’s a good way to think about it. A couple of more questions for you and these are probably a little bit more personal. As you’re getting your room set up and getting everything for this absence, obviously the reason you’re going to be gone is far beyond your control but do you still feel a little sense of guilt from being away? Do you feel like you should be or are supposed to be present in your classroom and how do you deal with those kinds of feelings?

Kelly: Until you asked that, I actually hadn’t placed the feelings that I was having as guilt but that might be actually what it is though it might actually just be sadness. I’m not really sure the exact word that would define it. The situation is so out of my control. The fact that my life is actually at risk in the big picture of these events, it makes me want normal so badly that there’s a deep longing that I could be there the first day of school and that the projects that I had planned and the events that I was going to do with my students that were on my freshly printed planning book that was color coded, that those things were going to happen.

It’s as if school, and work and my students represent the healthy me. The way I’m dealing with those feelings is looking forward to getting back to work. I’ve already counted out the hundred days and staying thankful that I have these amazing children to go back to. I’m also trying to find the teachable moment. By taking care of myself in all these months, that’s also a lesson for all these children because they will see me not just as a teacher but as an adult who took the time to walk away from work and take care of herself when that had to be done.

Tim: That’s such a teacher answer through and through. It just goes to show how dedicated you are and how much you care about your kids and your classroom. I think everybody who is listening can respect that completely. I love the idea that you have that date circled as far as when you’re going back and that you’re looking so forward to getting back there when you’re ready and when your kids will definitely be ready for you. I know this is another kind of personal question but I think it’s something we should talk about because it is probably on everybody’s mind. Can you speak a little bit about how you deal with finances during a situation like this? We are all teachers. We obviously don’t get paid a lot. How can people get through the time when they are not being paid for a few months or even sometimes like half a year? How do you deal with that?

Kelly: In each of my leaves my financial situation was strained. I can’t speak to how anyone can solve such a difficult gap in income but I can suggest asking around for potential resources in your area or related to your specific circumstance. Some health issues have grants and things like that but there are many assistance programs that you might be eligible for. If your employer doesn’t know how to connect you, I would suggest contacting a government or church support agency to find out if there is anything available.

Tim: That is some really good advice and then before we let you go, do you have any last words of advice for people listening to this?

Kelly: I think trusting that everything will be okay in the end is the biggest advice I could give. The worst that you’re going to come back to is depleted supplies or some disorganization that needs to be cleaned up. Your health and well-being is worth having to overcome a small amount of room disruption when you consider the balance of the two. You have a great opportunity when you return to show your students how to handle whatever you come back to. Perhaps you could allow students to help you get the studio back to its original form or just have a fantastic attitude. The small teachable moments it’s really what it can be about. We can extend great examples to our students in regards to how we handle those difficult situations.

Tim: That is really well put. Really well said. Kelly thank you very much for joining us. It’s been a wonderful interview with a lot of really really good insight. I know everybody who listens to this will be thinking of you over the hundred days that you’re gone and hopefully we’ll get you back stronger and better than ever once you’re done with this. Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you so much.

Tim: That was a wonderful interview. Kelly had a lot of really powerful things to say. I know it was a long interview too so I’m going to try and wrap things up quickly here. I do want to highlight a few points that I really appreciated from her. First, I love the positive attitude. Kelly talks about keeping the positive environment both within her classroom, no matter who the teacher might be, but also outside of the classroom so that she can continue to be a positive role model for her students. That is so important. Secondly she’s come to the realization that it’s okay to let go and I think that’s good advice for just about everyone who needs to be gone for some extended period of time. It’s okay to let someone else take over your room temporarily even if they are not following your plans exactly or even if your supplies are a little disorganized when you come back. That’s okay. You can and frankly you should be worried more about the important things in your own life. Finally going along with that idea of letting go, it’s important to realize this above all else, your kids and your classroom are going to be just fine without you.

In fact it’s not even about you. It’s about your kids, the ability they have to create, to problem solve, to make art and to be happy. Sure you can do it better than your replacement. That’s fine but the point is that your kids still have those opportunities no matter who is in the classroom to experience what makes art the incredible subject that it is. You’ve already done enough to establish your classroom culture, your environment, your space that allows kids to make art and you don’t need to worry abut keeping it perfect. You don’t need to worry about neglecting them or not being present for those experiences because you’ve already established all of those positive things that are going on in your classroom. You’ve already put in the hard work and your absence is a time to take care of more important things, okay? You’ve done your teaching right and because of that things are going to be just fine without you but don’t forget they’ll be even better once you make it back.

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