Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire: An HIV Poz NYC Teacher's Reflection
By Michael Sebastian
I write this piece knowing that I am joined by many colleagues who are currently teaching around the US, and the world, as an HIV poz individual each with their own story and perspective as to how this disease has changed them personally and professionally. My story is not out of the ordinary or extraordinary but I wanted to share some of my experiences with a wider audience.
My story is that of a 55 year old middle school teacher with over 30 years experience teaching and working with children at the middle and high school level in the inner city. It was difficult to balance teaching full-time while trying to come to terms with seroconverting close to 8 years ago; my teaching suffered, as I had become depressed and unable to focus. Definitely the students I taught during the first two years of becoming poz did not receive the quality of teaching that I was capable of and they deserved. As the years progressed my outlook on my health and life changed, moving in a more positive, optimistic way. I took the attitude that I would use the time that I had good health to experiment more with my teaching style. Becoming open to try more new ideas for class instruction, differentiation anybody and the energy level in my classes upped a notch to borrow a phrase from Emeril.
As my attitude shifted and my classes became more focused, effective and fun there was a noticeable change in student response to my lessons and to me as their teacher. The kids would tell me classes were more meaningful, relevant and enjoyable. 8th grade English can be rather dry depending on the topic and grammar can be the silent class killer. I found myself, and still do, surfing for new ways to interest students into my lessons through video clips, music, and relevant texts for their age and situation. I had, and have, upped 'my game' as a teacher. I meet each day with a high-energy level and I do my best to teach each day as if my time in the classroom was winding down and I am heading to retirement. To me, some humor woven into class along a solid lesson that keeps the students engaged and challenged works for me. I give my students the best I can; they get all of me for that day, week and year. I teach like my hair is on fire. It is a philosophy that keeps me going; keeps me moving and drives me.
Of course, there is the down-side to the virus when there are days physically I am fatigued or have an issue that can pull me down; don't get me wrong, it is not easy as a poz facing and teaching the children everyday. As the years have progressed with the virus I have encountered some physical issues that have altered the way that I teach. First, over the past two years I have developed uncontrollable muscle ticks in my upper right arm to the point that it was noticeable to the students. An avid chalkboard and whiteboard guy that enjoyed writing and modeling on the both boards I took the avenue of switching to technology and preparing PowerPoint presentations. In taking this avenue I am able to move the presentation along through remote control while circulating the classroom. I have taken to placing my right hand in my pocket to contain the muscular tics when they occur during class time; my attempt to minimize a visual distracter and avoid having the students inquire.
Furthermore, I have introduced a comfortable secretarial chair that will allow me to move around the room easier working and checking on students as my feet of recent have become sensitive to my constant standing and moving around all day. Last, I do experience more ‘senior moments' than I did in the earlier years of being poz; is it age? HIV? Stress? Whichever one or combination thereof I have had to become better organized and write down personal notes of things-to-do and reminders for myself. It is a tad annoying to me as I am aware that occasionally I will forget a task or meeting or be redundant in a question with a student or colleague (an entirely separate topic-homophobia within the teaching ranks). In the grander scheme of things these small challenges are just another obstacle to overcome.
After a very long career of teaching young people the joy of literature and writing I have made the personal decision to retire within the next two years. In speaking with a friend of mine I shared that I intend to make this next two years as dynamic, meaningful and enjoyable for both the kids and I; this is my choice, to leave the profession giving everything I got and leaving with the self-satisfaction of a job well done. Finally taking the time to explore and enjoy my life.
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