Several years ago, Karen Casteel’s husband was diagnosed with a neurological disease that has left him unable to walk or speak clearly.
The diagnosis was heartbreaking, but last summer the family received more terrible news when Casteel – a music teacher at Halls Middle School – was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In the intervening months, Casteel continued teaching between chemotherapy treatments but took most of the spring semester off while recovering from surgery.
Through it all, her fellow teachers and school employees at Halls Middle and other schools have organized fundraisers to support her husband’s nursing-home care; offered child care during her recovery; and prepared meals for the family.
Casteel said the support has been overwhelming. “I feel like God orchestrated it so that all the little pieces that I needed fell into place by people’s generosity and willingness to help,” she said.
May 5-11 is Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity for students and parents to express their gratitude for all the work that happens in the classroom.
But for teachers who have suffered tragedies or challenges, it’s also a chance to remember the ways that their own colleagues have helped carry them through the hard times.
Brandon White is a teacher and administrator at Karns Middle School, and his wife, Qwynn, is a fifth-grade teacher at Gibbs Elementary who previously worked at Halls Middle School.
In November 2017, the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Meris, was diagnosed with Alexander disease, an extremely rare nervous-system disorder that has left her unable to talk or walk. White said the couple has made it a mission to raise awareness about the disease, which, according to the National Institutes of Health, is fatal by the age of 6 for most children diagnosed as infants.
White said colleagues at the schools where they work have generously helped with fundraisers and emotional support, and that effort has even spread to other schools.
On Rare Disease Day in February 2018, White posted a picture on Twitter that showed employees from Karns Middle, Halls Middle, South-Doyle Middle and Halls High wearing blue shirts in support of Meris. He said employees at Powell Middle and West Valley Middle also sent pictures, and that other schools had also been talking about the effort.
Qwynn White moved to Gibbs Elementary this school year, and Meris is now a pre-K student at that school. White said employees at Gibbs embraced her immediately: “As educators, that’s what we want to see every day. And we see it with our own child now; it’s hard to put into words really.”
While fundraisers often draw the most attention, support from co-workers also takes other forms.
Martha Sileno is a math teacher at Holston Middle School whose son, Noah, was diagnosed in July 2018 with B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
The first person Sileno called was principal Katie Lutton, because Sileno knew how hard it would be to find a math teacher to take her place. Sileno ended up missing the entire school year but said her principal was “very, very empathetic” and promised that the school would help in any way the family needed.
In addition, she said, co-workers on their own time helped rearrange her classroom for a substitute and made sure Sileno’s classroom items were stored.
“They never once made me feel like I was letting them down or letting the kids down,” Sileno said of her colleagues. “They never made me feel like I wasn’t going to be able to come back to my school the following year … Their whole focus the whole time has been getting Noah better, and that took a lot of the pressure off.”
Four-year-old Noah is now in remission, although his treatments will continue until November 2021. Since his diagnosis, Sileno said employees throughout the building have helped with fundraisers and blood donations, including some who had never donated blood before. She said the community support shows that Holston is “an amazing school.”
“Everybody came together,” she added. “It wasn’t just one individual – from administration to teachers to cafeteria workers, anybody in the building came together for Noah … Whatever I needed, they were willing to do.”
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.