Perspectives

Lessons Learned

Cancer teaches lessons on life and living

By: Adam Holland, Hart District Teachers Association

Many say that teaching is a lifestyle, a hard life but a good life. The life of a true teacher is a distinguished one among so many occupations in this world.

But what happens when life interferes with our teaching lifestyle? In 2014 my life changed forever: I was diagnosed with brain cancer. While my private life was redefining itself in many ways, one area that wasn’t being redefined was teaching.

For me, teaching and the classroom were wonderful diversions to my own personal fight for life, a reminder that the world was continuing on and that despite my cancer I still played a role in this world. I knew there were things in my life that were bigger than me, like my students, my school, my colleagues, and most of all my faith.

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I waited until after my students took their AP European History exam to tell them. They were amazingly supportive. One of the most wonderful things they did was to write letters to me, laminate them and put them in a book.

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In addition to daily encouragement, school staff gave me a bouquet of historical figures containing gift cards for meals, for when I would be too tired or sick to make dinner. Several of them were willing to give me their own sick time in case I needed to take an extended period of time off.

Thankfully, I didn’t need it. But I will always cherish how staff, students and students’ families reached out to help me. I had always been told we were a family at West Ranch, and now I experienced it.

In the summer of 2014 I underwent two brain surgeries, and one of my greatest concerns was healing before school started. I didn’t want to miss it at all. I even considered putting off the second surgery for a year so that it wouldn’t affect my students’ education. A great group of people knocked sense into me, and I had the second surgery three weeks before going back to work in August.

Radiation and chemo were on the docket for the fall, and throughout it all I felt terrible and physically exhausted. I woke up each morning, dressed, went to work and did the best job I could. My colleagues and students inspired me to press on. That year I did not miss a single day because of how I felt, save one day when I suffered some side effects from a spinal tap. Through it all I committed myself to my students and school.

 “I had always been told we were a family at West Ranch High School, and now I experienced it.”

As I recovered in 2015, I realized that my journey and what I had learned were not just for me. There were others on the journey — my parents, my friends, my faith family, my colleagues and my students. I wrote about this in what eventually became a book, Anchored in the Storm, as a way not just to share my story, but to encourage and inspire those who go through any type of suffering in life. It’s been an incredible blessing for me to see and hear how one journey and experience can help others. My journey continues to this day.

One of the lines from the book is: “There are people who have literally poured so much into others, there is nothing left for the history books; they have given themselves away.” Teachers do this on a daily basis, and I am proud to serve among so many wonderful educators. I am now so proud to be among the many cancer warriors out there.


Adam Holland on how surviving cancer changed the way he teaches:

  • I tell students that challenges are not always bad. I teach AP European History. During the year, so many kids wonder why they took such a difficult course, but at the end of the school year or even years later, it all clicks, and they see that the challenging times were worth it. When we’re going through those hard times, I tell them that I had cancer, and it was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. I truly mean that!
  • I want all students to know that I’m on their side and want them to have the best education I can give them. To do well, they need to know they are supported and cared for. I teach students history; I don’t teach history to students. It might be a subtle shift of words, but it’s enormous when it comes to teaching. Students always come first in education.
  • I tell them that life doesn’t always go as expected. They’re looking ahead, and the future looks so bright. They want to take on the world, and I love that passion in them. But I also want them to have realistic expectations. Like climbing a mountain, you don’t jump from valley to peak at once. You take it a step at a time, and eventually with persistence and fortitude you get to the top.
  • I tell students they need to do something they love and they’ll never work a day in their life. That’s a big part of my own story. I wake up tired, but it is a joy to come to work each day, work hard with and for my students and staff, and go home tired. I am much happier than so many who have so much more than I ever will. I love teaching.

Adam Holland teaches social studies at West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch. A member of the Hart District Teachers Association, he is a National Board Certified Teacher and author of Anchored in the Storm (2016).

In 2016, former students of Holland created a short video about his story and book:

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