Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging the status quo.
You probably know her, that dear student to the left of the text. Students like her appear inattentive, drowsy and forgetful, and they can sometimes drive us crazy. And what usually happens is we categorize them as simply lazy or disorganized, and we try to tackle those less-desirable classroom behaviors missing the root cause. Many times they aren’t bored or tired or even disrespectful to an education; they could actually be struggling with the side effects of the medication they take for their epilepsy. Because they are often controlled, we do know and do not give them the attention and modification needed for their success.
November was actually Epilepsy Awareness Month and who knew? The Epileptic Foundation reports that 1-26 will develop epilepsy in their lifetime so the odds are high that we have controlled epileptics in our classroom. Because of the stigma that accompanies the disorder, many of them are hesitant or afraid to ask for modifications that will make them successful. They want to avoid drawing attention to their condition.
The Cure Epilepsy website offers these stats, but their following statement demonstrates why we are so in the dark and somewhat hesitant to discuss this disorder: “Historically, epilepsy has been neglected, feared, and misunderstood. A veil of secrecy surrounding the disease has resulted in myths, superstitions, and a general lack of knowledge…. Admittedly, we are still somewhat murky on the facts of epilepsy and how best to teach a student with a seizure disorder.”
As this is the 21st century, we believe we are aware and enlightened. But are we? Epilepsy is a loaded word, and the literature we teach where the characters have seizure disorders make it more problematic. So we have to ask ourselves how we handle the subject in the classroom. Or do we?
- Simon of The Lord of the Flies: Considered touched by the boys on the island, after a gran mal seizure, the evil on the island reveals itself and its plan to him. As a result, he is savagely murdered by the boys.
- Julius Caesar of Julius Caesar: Making a speech before a crowd, he falls down and foams at the mouth. He is mocked by the other Senators for his seizure. He is later murdered by the Senators.
- Sefelt and Frederickson of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: The side-effect of an anti-seizure drug causes Sefelt’s teeth to fall out so he gives the drugs to Frederickson who takes them for him. They represent two men who are institutionalized because of a seizure disorder and represent how often individuals with epilepsy are perceived by the mainstream society.
Yikes! A student with a seizure disorder would not want to self-reveal and have their condition equated to the characters in literature. Their condition is beyond their control and is something they are learning to manage and the characters do not represent their lives. The many causes for their disorder ranges from severe illness to head trauma and is defined as, “Epilepsy is a controllable condition caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain resulting in temporary seizures. It is not a disease! Epilepsy is actually an umbrella term covering about twenty different types of seizure disorders.”
Young people have to learn how to handle the disorder, but the personal demons that accompany this for many is only it magnified by their adolescence and can impact their classroom participation and behavior:
- Low self-esteem: With the awareness that they have a conditions that is not openly talked about, they try to hide that condition, making them feel a little ashamed. For all their talk about wanting to be different, students have to feel a part of the pact. Their difference is highlighted by the meds, their regimen and their fears of a seizure.
- Insecurity: Is there anyone more insecure than a teen-ager? Under that proud chest bests a heart of a human that questions themselves at every turn. Am I enough like the others? Do I have a place in this culture? Will anyone like me if I have a seizure? An epileptic is aware that they, like every teen-ager, do not fit into their unstable environment, but add the knowledge that their brain is different and they have no control, makes them emotionally fragile.
- Anxiety: Not aware when they could have a seizure, they stay in familiar/safe areas. Afraid to venture from their comfort zone, they chose to stay with the familiar in case their worst fears are realized. As a result, they will withdraw and not take the chances, preferring to be safe. However, that safety does not allow them to experience the success that could change the trajectory of their lives.
- Fear: Afraid of losing control in front of their peers, they choose a life of routine and consistency. Staying close to ones they trust, they are ruled by their fear of humiliation rather than the desire to stretch themselves and take chances. Often coming to school the day after a seizure is the greatest risk they want to take.
Our profession is about helping all students. But if we are truthful, as teachers preparing for our profession, there is usually one class period in one methods class on helping students with special needs that addresses epilepsy. And that is it! Because teachers make a profound difference with their acceptance and encouragement, developing a better awareness of epilepsy is foundational for every good teacher.
Teachers can begin by reading posts or articles online that will help them understand the young persons struggle with their meds and condition. Self-education maximizes our opportunities to help our students as we gently guide the student through our classes.
It follows that if we have little awareness of the condition, we will not know what to do when a seizure occurs. Following these basic steps from Dr. Reza Shouri, MD will give teachers control when a seizure occurs:
- Do not panic and be calm.
- Do not attempt move the person having seizure to another location, since this may injury you, the person having the seizure, or other bystanders.
- Do not leave the person having the seizure. Stay with them until the seizure stops.
- Look for bracelet tag and contact information for contact information or verification that the individual has epilepsy.
- Protect the individual from any kind of injury. You can do this by moving chairs or other hard objects away from the person.
- Do not attempt to open the mouth and put anything in the mouth, since this could pose as a choking hazard or you could injure yourself.
- Gently put a soft pillow under the head to prevent injury to the head during the seizure.
- Carefully and gently turn the individual to their side and allow any fluid to come out of the mouth
- Do not attempt to give anything to drink or eat while the person is having a seizure.
- Seizures usually last for a short period of time (1-2 minutes). If a seizure lasts longer than about five minutes, you should call an ambulance immediately.
Pattie chose this post because, as a teacher and an epileptic, she knows first-hand the struggle living with the condition brings. After a serious case of the measles in the third grade, she joined the 1-26. Later, as a theatre-speech major, she stood in front of crowds, secretly wondering each time if this was going to be the time her brain would rebel. She remembered leaving the classroom to have a seizure and then return only to be quizzed by the teacher about where she went and why it took so long. And she had made every teacher aware of her condition. Her compassion for her students with the condition made her their advocate.
Pattie outed herself in American Lit during the study of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The classes insensitivity to the plight of the characters helped her find her voice and she shared her life-struggle. The class was quiet, and then hugs came from everywhere. Later students took her aside and shared their secret condition, and she realized it was a pretty cool moment to share struggles.
November is National Epilepsy Month, and who knew? We can do better for all the people in the class. But don’t be discouraged by what we do not know but be encouraged by how we are going to change. We can do better.