Bringing the Classroom to the Bedside

Published on 
May 1, 2017
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Every day, countless individuals make a difference in the lives of the young patients at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. But did you know that some of those individuals are schoolteachers?

These teachers, who work for the Carlson Home and Hospital School at the Los Angeles Unified School District, teach at the bedside and in small groups at CHLA. Their efforts help long-term patients keep up with their classwork—and feel a vital sense of normalcy.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we salute these dedicated teachers. Read on to learn more about them and the special role they play in patients’ lives:

Bettina Lee

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In 10 years of teaching math in high school and middle school, Bettina Lee never once had a student ask for more homework.

But at CHLA—where her students are patients in the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Bone and Marrow Transplantation—it’s a regular request.

“The kids here really value education,” Lee explains. “They’re fighting for their lives, and for them, every day is a blessing. They take nothing for granted.”

Her students’ eagerness to learn is just one reason Lee loves her job as a hospital teacher. Another benefit: the opportunity to teach kids one-on-one. Because many of her students are immune-suppressed, she doesn’t have a classroom. Instead, she teaches patients individually at the bedside or in CHLA’s Family Resource Center.

She admits it can be tough to watch her students struggling through debilitating fatigue, pain and sickness. Her challenge is to find a way to help them learn despite the hurdles.

“You have to be able to change the curriculum at a given second and modify it and make it more fun or just more doable,” Lee notes. “If they have a headache, I’ll have them close their eyes and just listen and answer questions orally. Or instead of giving 20 math problems, I might give them two problems.”

Lee, who is finishing up her doctorate in educational leadership and social justice, also helps kids outside the hospital through her nonprofit, Fors Humanitas. The organization offers free mentoring, tutoring and financial assistance to underprivileged students, including those suffering from long-term illnesses. She’s helped several young people, including a former CHLA patient, achieve their college dreams.

“These kids go through so much,” she says. “It’s an honor and a privilege to help them.”

Michael Maher

Michael Maher’s path to teaching began when he was 20 minutes into taking the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). That’s the moment when he put his pencil down and walked out of the room.

“I said, ‘I can’t do this; it’s just not in me!’” he recalls, laughing. “It was a blessing, because then I thought, 'Now what?' And I decided to call up LA Unified to see if they needed teachers.”

One thing led to another, and Maher found his way to the Carlson School. He’s been at CHLA for 11 years now, teaching patients in the hospital’s Margie and Robert E. Petersen Foundation Rehabilitation Center.

“I ended up exactly where I’m supposed to be,” he says.

Unlike CHLA’s other teachers, Maher has a physical classroom—a small but cheerfully decorated space in the Rehabilitation Center. He typically teaches two or three students at a time, grouped by age and grade level.

That’s a perfect setup for Maher, who says he’s always done best in small-group settings. He thrives on giving students individual attention—and getting through to kids who are “a tough nut to crack.”

“Sometimes kids come in and they’re shut down. They’re just like, ‘I’m so over this; why am I in the hospital?’” he says. “And then I’ll say something or something will happen, and I’ll see that little flash of a smile. And I’m like, ‘Yes! I got in!’”

He notices many of his students proudly carrying their school supply pouches everywhere in the hospital, attaching them to their walkers and wheelchairs. At home, he keeps a folder stuffed with thank-you cards from students and parents.

One he particularly treasures is from a kindergartener who scrawled on a piece of paper in giant letters: “Mr. Michael, I LIKE BEING IN YOUR CLASS!”

“I love my job,” he says. “It isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, but when it is, it’s magical. It’s just so great.”

Aloi Chung

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“People ask me why I’m always so happy,” says Aloi Chung. “I tell them, ‘Well, look at where I work.’ The kids here, they teach you. They teach you coping skills, that’s for sure.”

Chung has been a teacher at CHLA for 15 years, working one-on-one with students across the hospital. In fact, she’s spent her whole career at the Carlson School, starting as a special education assistant at another site before becoming a teacher.

“I’ve never even thought about teaching in a [traditional] school,” she says. “I think once you’re in, you’re in.”

Originally, Chung’s career path was pointed in a completely different direction: at becoming a commercial pilot. But when the airline industry took a downturn after 9/11, she changed course and pursued teaching instead.

She never looked back.

“I love working here,” Chung says. “It’s quite humbling when you meet the kids. They’re going through a lot. But you know what? They put that effort in to complete their homework. And if they’re doing their best, I have to make sure I’m taking my best to them.”

The biggest challenge is emotional, particularly if she has to deal with the death of a student. “When one of them goes to heaven,” she says, “that’s the really tough part.”

She says she often develops close relationships with students and families. And while you might think that academics would be unimportant to kids and parents during a health crisis, she’s found that the opposite is often true. School, it turns out, can help kids cope.

“School is the one normal thing kids do outside of the hospital that they also do here,” Chung explains. “As teachers, we’re kind of this outside force. We bring back normalcy.”

Katie Sweeney