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How our Children's Cancer Hospital school helps our pediatric patients

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CCH_School_0287_master.jpgBy Bonnie Butler

Teaching in MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital school has helped me fall deeper in love with the art of education. I owe this to each child and family with whom I have had the pleasure of working. After all, they have truly inspired me and showed me what it means to be passionate about education, what it means to teach and to be taught. 

Teaching pediatric cancer patients is my dream job
If someone had told me a year ago that I would have this job, I would have said they were lying. For me, teaching children at a hospital was always a dream, I knew that working with children facing an aggressive disease who still desired to learn new things would be especially rewarding. But I had convinced myself that it always would be. 

I used to be a public school elementary educator.  But after the birth of our second child in 2013, my husband and I decided that I would stay home with our children. So, with a leap of faith, I resigned from the school district that I had been so committed to for the past six years.

Not long after that -- truly out of nowhere -- I learned MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital was hiring a pediatric school English as a Second Language coordinator. I thought, "There's absolutely no way that I'll get this job, but I'll go ahead and apply." 

In my eyes, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and here I am today, blessed beyond measure to work with amazing fellow educators, pediatric cancer patients and their families.

For children with cancer, our classroom, our school program, is so much more than just school. Many of the patients I work with have traveled across countries to receive top-notch cancer treatment.
 
Once here, our families learn that we can offer their children an education that is carefully designed and implemented to meet their specific needs. Our patients and students come from all over the world. Some of them are struggling to learn English while coping with cancer. This is where my background as an ESL teacher proves to be especially helpful. The work that I do here for the Pediatric Education and Creative Arts Program is similar to what I did within a public school setting. The difference is that I have the freedom to create individualized instructional tools that allow me to focus in on the specific needs of each child. 

Parents of children with cancer need something they can control. The children need something they can control. They desire some normalcy. They want a place where their disease is not what defines them. They want to learn, grow and thrive in an educational setting. We are providing that setting for them. With open arms, we welcome our students and their families into our classroom so they can reach their potential and be who they want to be. 

What I've learned from my students
At MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital, we have the privilege of educating a wide range of children. They are the most determined, courageous, intelligent young men and women I have ever met. So many of us would be quick to not go into work or somehow cut back on our daily responsibilities if we were facing just half of what they are. Yet, the challenges they face  seem to push them to work harder and achieve new things. Working with such amazing children has taught me to let go of the small details that can bog us down and to focus on what's truly important, not just for me, but my family as well. 
 
My students' hope and passion for a life full of learning and exploration are what drive me to come to work each day. The children we work with are facing a disease that in far too many cases is terminal, but they greet each day with a smile and a mindset of, "What can I achieve today?" 

I can confidently say that working here is an educator's dream. Our students really want to be here. For students in a public school, attending school is a must. For our students, school is a place of normalcy and refuge.  Our students do not have to be here, but they want to be here.  They feel the need to continue to learn and excel in academia. I think that coming to school is a way of saying, "I'm not giving up on my future."

I am truly amazed each and every day when I see my students come to class with their IV poles, pills that must be taken at exactly the right time, or vomit bags. They're all fighting for their lives. To them, that means fighting to continue to learn and progress as members of society.

My job -- our job -- is to help them reach their goals, even if it is just one day at a time.

MD Anderson depends entirely on donations to support our Children's Cancer Hospital school. Please consider supporting our school by making a donation through our online donation form.

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