When the Teacher Became the Student

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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My first day in rehab and it was off to a rocky start. I was restless throughout most of the night, out of a mixture of anticipation and dread for the upcoming daily events. I was going to meet a whole crop of people again: doctors, nurses, therapists with a whole new set of questions for me, many of which I would not be able to provide the appropriate answers.

physical therapy stroke
Not needing a wheelchair was a surprise for my nurse.

I was keenly aware that I was no longer in control over my medical care, marginalized to the sidelines, a spectator in a tennis match between health care providers and the people who loved me. Everyone was doing the best they could to look out for me, to think about my needs first, but I was determined to take back control again, to live my life back again on my own terms.

I want my walking papers. The first part of that is showing that I can walk.

I sat up in bed, gingerly put my feet to the floor, and stood up. Startled, the nurse looked up at me. “Have you done that before? We haven’t gotten your wheelchair yet.”

Wheelchair? I don’t need a wheelchair. I need a cup of coffee and to get dressed.

She followed my careful walk to the bathroom worried for possible stumbling and admiring me for my independence.

I sat down on the toilet absolutely exhausted from my journey of 150 feet. “Well, look at you go, girl! You will be out of here in no time!” I looked up at her trying to detect if she was serious.

“Good?” I said.

Her laughter said it all. “Good? After having a stroke most people would dream to do what you just did all on your own. Now let’s get you cleaned up.”

How Do You Do That?

As she gave me a washcloth bath, she talked enough for both of us so that my only responsibility was to listen and laugh at her stories. I liked her instantly and looked forward to our times together. My husband had done the best he could to bring all of my clothing and toiletries from home, I realized that my conditioner, curl gel, and makeup were missing.

Allison Zmuda strokeHow do you communicate that when you don’t know the words for any of it? I fumbled around for a few minutes, clearly looking for something that I couldn’t find.

“What is it?” the nurse asked.

I just shrugged my shoulders and tried to make do with what he brought me. The words will come eventually. Be patient. Until then, I’m up for a series of bad hair days.

I slowly got my arms though my bra straps, noticing how much more difficult it was on my right side. How do I hook the closure together? The nurse was right there and effortlessly tapped into my thought process. Her stories continued to flow as we continued to get me dressed together — underwear, lounge pants, socks, t-shirt, cardigan — each new article posed its own unique challenge, but as focused as I was on becoming independent, I was also enthralled by her ability to effortlessly speak.

How do you do that?

I gazed up at her trying to see if she could read what I was thinking, but she was already making preparations to leave.

“You are all set sweetie pie. Breakfast will be here in a flash, with that cup of coffee you’ve been wanting. See you tomorrow morning!” And with that, she was gone.

The Long Road Ahead

I met Paul Fisher in the hospital on my first day of in-house Rehabilitation and continued to work with him for my six days of rehab and for months outside of the hospital.

“Hi, I’m Paul,” he said.

He said it with an ease and effortlessness that would dominate our sessions, a mixture of jealousy and reverence. How can he do that, so naturally, so easily? His fluency with language was disheartening and inspiring all at once; I was determined to meet what would soon become our shared focus of our rehab venture together: full recovery. I had not opened my mouth yet, but I nodded, and made my way from the bed to the chair.

We have a long road ahead of us, you and me.

Teach with — not at — the Student

At this point in my hospital visit, I carved people up into two camps: those who were squarely on my side and those who were doing their job. I could do that appraisal within two minutes of meeting someone new. Dr. Agola, the nurse who woke me up on the rehab floor each morning, and now Paul all passed the test with flying colors. They truly saw me — my capacity, my losses, and they were committed to do whatever it took to get me whole.

The rest were in the “other” camp, invisible to me as they looked at charts, asked questions with fully formed ideas in their heads about the appropriate course of action.

How could I make that assessment so quickly?

The tip off was that they revealed themselves through what they were focused on. Making little to no eye contact with me was an instant give away. Never underestimate the power of what you can see on someone’s face.

When words failed me, I became very astute at reading people’s faces. Those doctors and hospital staff did their job to make me better without attempting to have a relationship with me first. They generally talked to everyone else but me, once again, making me feel like a spectator when the stakes could not have been higher.

The Importance of Relationships

In that moment, I became very clear on the importance of relationships. When your fate, or your loved one’s fate is in someone else’s hands, they have to convince you over and over again that you can trust them — trust them to be candid, to be compassionate, and to be genuine.

You only have one chance to make a first impression.

I knew this as a teacher and an education consultant. Now I am relearning this as a student. Look me in the eyes when you first see me. I am the most important one to reassure, because it is going to be an uphill battle.



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