In the Spotlight

News & Features
Teaching with Cancer
By Gretchen Lehmann
November 7, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

A 3rd grade classroom in the central Minnesota town of Sauk Rapids has been getting a great deal of attention over the last few months. Three national TV crews and several newspaper reporters have visited the class to report on the life of teacher Dennis Frederick who's been battling cancer for the last two years. Doctor's predict he has only a month or two left to live. Dennis Frederick's decision to stay in the classroom and teach has effected more than just his class - it has touched his entire community.
(Nat- classroom noise)
The 3rd grade classroom at Pleasantview Elementary looks just as you'd expect: Coats and backpacks are jammed haphazardly on hooks along the side wall. Tiny desks, stuffed with notebooks and school supplies are spread in islands throughout the room. The only signs of the unique story unfolding in this classroom are an autographed photo of Tom Brokaw and a crayon-drawing by a young child named Ashley which says, "Smile, Mr. Frederick. Fight that cancer!"

Frederick's illness is not a secret. Even if he tried to hide it, his gaunt frame and frequent visits to the doctor are clues enough that he's sick.

They see me dealing with it; it's not scaring me, it's not effecting the way I teach. I'm not being overwhelmed with a sense of grief or anything. I think once they see me accepting it, it's much easier for them.
Frederick was out all of last year recovering from extensive chemotherapy. When he decided to come back this year, school officials say it was not a matter of "allowing" him to return, but of finding a way to make it easier for him and the students. They never thought it would be simple, and things actually got more difficult. When teachers met for training last August, Superintendent Greg Vandal had to tell them a second teacher and a school board member had also been diagnosed with cancer:
In these moments we define ourselves, we let the world know what we're made of. And there was no question in the minds of the people that were there that day that we are made of good stuff - we're good people who have kids at heart and have the well being of ALL of our family at stake.
Vandal says when the academic year began, the focus for his school "family" was the children. The district hired a co-teacher to share the teaching load with Dennis and arranged for counselors to be available for the students. The principal has also made a point of calling parents to see if they have any concerns or questions.
(Nat of Frederick talking to students in classroom)
Dennis Frederick is open and candid with his students and he's let them know any questions they might have about his health are okay. But, he says, the children haven't had many queries. In talking with students Laura Duran and Damus Long it's clear they know what's happening to their teacher but they're still trying to understand WHY.
(Laura) like when he was reading the book about Freddie, he'll start to cry or else he'll just sit down and take a little rest and then get up and start teaching again.

GL: Do any of you guys ever ask him any questions about how he's feeling?

Damus: I don't know he might get sad, or he might start crying because he has cancer. (pause) Sometimes I ask my Mom why he has to have cancer.

GL: And what does she say?

Damus: Um, she says people just get it.

While there are few explanations for these 3rd graders, they can relate to what they see happening to their teacher. On the few occasions Frederick's illness has come up in class, the children have had plenty of their own stories to share. Co-teacher Deb Kawlewski points to a discussion a few weeks ago, when Frederick told his class he'd have to go in for radiation treatment.
Some child talked about that his sister had her appendix out, my sister had her tonsils out, so they kind of talk about those things so they kind of relate it to that.
Kawlewski says she's not so worried about the children. They're resilient, she says, and are getting lots of support from their parents and from school staff. But she does worry about how Dennis' departure will effect her and her fellow teachers.
It's kind of hard for me, too, because it's been fun to get to know Dennis, and then to have him be gone, it's going to be really difficult for me as well, not only the children. I think it'll be a situation where we'll have to work together in this.
Counselors at Pleasantview Elementary say they've considered special training sessions for teachers so they can help each other cope with the possible loss of a colleague. But so far, problems for staff and students have been few. Superintendent Greg Vandal says, in fact, "death and dying" is rarely the subject of conversation at school except of late when Dennis Frederick's story has attracted state and national notice.
Perhaps the most disruptive element over the last month and a half has been the media attention.
In the past few weeks, Vandal has watched as newspaper reporters and TV crews from NBC News and "20/20" have descended on Dennis Frederick's classroom.
Some of the media attention has brought cameras to classrooms and phone calls that have taken place after the fact as people across the nation have been called in.
The national coverage of Frederick's story has brought a deluge of cards, flowers and gifts. One anonymous donor sent each child and staff member at Pleasantview a piece of french silk pie; another donated books for the school library. Vandal says it would be easy to criticize the media for disrupting life at Pleasantview, but their presence hasn't been all bad.
This has been very positive for the children because they've seen a compassionate community and frankly a compassionate nation reach out toward Dennis and that's also a important lesson for the kids to learn; to see that things are happening outside the classroom walls.

Dennis Frederick confesses he let the media into his life because he needed support from others dealing with cancer. But the main reason he continues to endure the probing questions and cameras is to set the record straight on living with cancer.

We're all not just sitting around waiting to die; I'm terminal and I have roughly a month to live - according to the doctors - and that may happen that may not. But I'm going to continue on and live each day of my life.
Last week, Frederick began the first in a series of 13 radiation treatments. Cancer has spread to his liver and it's causing him a great deal of pain. No matter what the results of the treatment, Dennis Frederick says he gets a lot of strength from his family and his students to keep him going:
I get inspiration from these kids, and I don't even think about my illness when I'm up here with them and when I'm out in the class doing stuff. It's what I've done the past 14 years, and I'm gonna continue to do it, and I'm not gonna worry about what's coming down the road. Who knows, God may heal me yet; miracles do happen.

(underneath this cut bring up classroom nat)

Since this story aired, Dennis Frederick's health has deteriorated, and he has stopped teaching to spend time with his family.