How Cancer Helped Me Bond With My Students

A guest post from Justin Birckbichler

I’m honored to share this amazing post from awesome educator and valued friend from my professional learning network, Justin Birckbichler. Justin is a 4th grade teacher from Fredericksburg, VA. After being diagnosed with testicular cancer, he made the incredible decision to document his journey and use his blog and social media to raise awareness and hopefully save lives. Follow his story here: A Ballsy Sense of Tumor

Learn how Justin turned this challenge into a powerful opportunity to build high levels of
rapport with his students even in his absence.

Here’s Justin:

In November, I was told I had an aggressive form of testicular cancer. The good news – it’s not a death sentence. I have over a 90% chance of survival, and I’ll find out if I am cancer free in early March. However, this silver lining came at a price: nine weeks of chemotherapy.

Some cancer patients get chemotherapy once every few weeks and are able to work throughout their treatments. Since my cancer was so aggressive, I would need chemotherapy nearly every day, which meant that continuing to work during treatment would be impossible.

Once the shock of hearing my diagnosis subsided, my thoughts turned to my fourth-grade students and how this upheaval in my life would affect them. I decided to be honest with them. After returning to school post-surgery, I told them that I had cancer and would be out of school from November to February. Obviously, the students were upset that their teacher had cancer, but I shared that my prognosis was good. Their compassion and genuine worry for my health showed that we had created a community of caring students, which has always been more important to me than any academic goals.

I also told them that we would stay in close contact while I was gone. On Google Classroom, I set up an assignment for students to create individual Docs to write back and forth to me. I left it open ended; students would write about whatever they wanted. I didn’t want to frame their thoughts for them. This was to be a way for me to continue to bond with them while also developing their writing skills. Giving prompts felt like it would just be another task for them to do, rather than a genuine experience.

This freedom resulted in a wide array of writing to read every day, instead of reading 25 canned responses. I got to see each individual student’s ideas. Some days, students would ask me how I was doing. I did my best to answer them honestly. If I had a good day, I told them. On bad days, I shared what was making me feel unwell if they asked.

Other days, students would tell me about what was going on in school or at home in their lives. I heard about Super Bowl parties, sports and extracurricular accomplishments, what they were reading, problems at home, and what subjects they were struggling with. Even though I was sitting in a chemo chair dozens of miles away, I felt like I was right there with them.

I can honestly say I learned more about my students during my time away from the classroom than I had before leaving. I always like to think I know my students well, but I got to know each of them on a deeper level. As much as we would love to sit and talk to each of our students, we often can’t in a typical classroom setting because of time constraints, large class sizes, and content that needs to be taught. Despite all of the negative aspects of my diagnosis, cancer did give me and my students something positive: time to focus individually on each kid every single day.

Choosing to have my students write to me each day also let me hear voices that I wouldn’t normally hear throughout a regular classroom day. My introverted students wrote far more than they would ever verbally speak. Some students may only say a few sentences all day in class, but now I was getting paragraphs of information from them. When communicating with their parents, I found that these quieter students loved the time to write to me. It helped them to express themselves in a way that they might not have otherwise had the ability, confidence or desire to do.

Writing daily letters wasn’t the only we used writing to stay in touch and build relationships. We also did a “Choose Your Own Adventure: Active Engagement Edition” writing activity for a week. Students chose which paths to take in a story and justified their answers, and I provided the what happened next in the story for them. It was a nice change of pace and allowed me to see the inner workings of their decision-making skills, as well as their creativity.

Beyond using writing to stay in touch, we also did a Google Hangout on one of my “good days” in January. It was the first time the students had seen me since leaving and the first time they saw me after my hair had fallen out. I got a chance to speak with each student individually. I must have looked significantly different, because many of them acted shy, like it was the first time meeting them. After breaking the ice with some “no hair” jokes, the students were all smiles and more at ease. I hadn’t seen them for months, and it was great to see their little faces again.

I head back to work at the end of this month, exactly three months from when I left my students. I am excited to get back to them, but I will honestly miss having a large amount of time to bond with them on an individual basis each day. Writing to each of my 29 students takes anywhere from 60-90 minutes a day, and I simply don’t have time to do that every day during a normal school day. I know that, as we finish out the year together, our relationships will continue to grow, thanks in part to the groundwork we laid while I was out of the classroom. Seems contradictory, but being gone helped bring us closer together.

Part of handling a cancer diagnosis is finding small victories. Instead of being down about missing so many moments with my students, I consider this absence from the classroom as a time to get to know my students, which is a huge win. Each day, it gave me something to look forward to and something to fight for. I know I will be a better teacher who is more attuned to their needs and interests because of this time. I know these are the memories they will remember about their fourth grade year, memories much more valuable than any lesson I could ever teach them.

Justin Birckbichler

Wow! Thanks to Justin for sharing his journey here. I have been inspired by how he has navigated these tough challenges and obstacles this year. And…honored that he asked me to give him head shaving tips, too! He now uses a race car razor just like me! Feel free to share thoughts on this post with Justin in the comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

9 thoughts on “How Cancer Helped Me Bond With My Students

  1. Dear Justin,
    Thanks for sharing your story. How lucky to be a student in your class! The value you place on knowing your students has certainly helped them learn and grow. Your decision to keep them included in your life has made them feel valuable as well, I’ll bet. Wishing you a full recovery….

  2. Justin,
    You truly rock! I am inspired by your story, and your strength and fortitude during a very difficult time of your life. You didn’t just make lemonade out of lemons, you made some connections the will last a lifetime for many of those students. You may have changed some lives forever. I wish you godspeed in your recovery, and an easy transition back to the classroom. I would love to hear what you do to continue the open cyber-dialogue, knowing full well it would take too long as a full-time teacher. I am going to encourage my students to email me more details of their lives, not just homework questions. Thank you for sharing, and making me proud to be a teacher… best wishes.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Your students are so blessed and I can’t imagine the excitement when you enter back into your classroom. Thank you for the reminder that even a little one on one time goes a long way and is so important especially this time of year. Have an amazing rest of the year! God’s Blessings!

  4. This is such a touching story and one that will have a positive impact on the students. As a principal of a large suburban elementary school, I included the students in my journey battling breast cancer. I cut my hair at an all school assembly. The students wore pink on the day I cut my hair. It helped me so much in my journey and the parents appreciated the lesson their children learned about cancer and it isn’t always a death sentence. Best of luck Justin on your full recovery:)

  5. Justin: You have taught your students a more valuable lesson about life than any book, guided reading group, or graphic organizer on the planet. Teaching is both personal and professional and the relationships that you have forged with your students is incredibly powerful. You taught them to never be defeated in life and that you can conquer any pitfall when passion is put to the test. Barriers can either destruct or construct us and you have constructed an amazing legacy. I’m thinking about your recovery each day. Enjoy your students when you reunite with them, yet again, soon.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this! I will be out for two weeks at the end of March to get some cancerous Lymph nodes removed and possible chemo after that. My main concern was leaving my students. They are the best part of the job and I will miss them so much! I planned on having them write me letters while I was out so that I could read a few each day and respond to them individually while I was out. I was very honest with my students about what was going on. Many of them have been appreciative of that. I have always tried to create a family like atmosphere in my classroom and I think sharing with them is a part of that bond. Justin’s blog post is so inspiring to me! Thankful for technology so we don’t have to be out of the classroom completely!

    • Hi, Jennalee. Sorry to hear of your health challenges but glad that Justin’s post resonated with you. Sending you tons of positive pirate healing energy and I know the family atmosphere you have created will pay huge dividends in helping the students deal with your absence, as well. I will be pulling for you this spring!!

  7. Dear Justin,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad to hear that yo were able to focus on something so positive while undergoing treatment. I’m curious, knowing that the 60-90 minutes a day you spent responding to students won’t be possible once you return to work, how might you continue to build those individual relationships? In a future year, would you try a similar exercise through writing once a week to each student? I understand that it won’t be the same if students see you daily.

    Please take care of yourself. Thank God you detected your cancer early enough to have a positive outcome.

    Theresa Muschkat
    Grade 7 Teacher
    Ontario, Canada

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. It inspired me and gave me some ideas for writing with my first graders. Your students are very lucky to have you and I hope you are well soon!

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