It's a classroom like no other. It may look like most, with its shelves of books, tables and chairs, pens and pencils, students and teachers, and even a view of the playground outside the window.
But the brand-new classroom of teachers Andra Thorstad and Marty Hoehn is out-of-the-ordinary for more than just its location on the second floor of the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital. As home base for the hospital and homebound school program provided by Saskatoon Public Schools, it offers a unique learning experience for students receiving medical care.
The classroom, which was relocated to the new hospital from its previous home at Royal University Hospital, is a bright, open space for teachers to work with students from kindergarten to Grade 12.
For Thorstad, a teacher in the program for six years, the completion of the long-awaited hospital and a new home for the school program was welcome.
"It was a little bit surreal to actually be in here, especially that first week, because it had been years in the works. It always seemed so far away. To actually move in was a very exciting time," she said. "There are so many families we see regularly over the years and it's been exciting to watch with them. We watched the grand opening with one of our regular students and his mom because they are very invested and excited. It was great to see."
Hoehn and Thorstad spent several days setting up their classroom before patients were transferred over to the new hospital on Sept. 29. For their students, the first official day in the new classroom was a milestone.
"They were excited to be part of that group that was actually the first students in the classroom," Thorstad said. "It's been very positive. We have had some former students who have come up to check it out and they have been impressed."
"Their eyes were huge," Hoehn added. "Especially those that were in (RUH) before the move and saw the old space and then were in the new space — there is no comparison with how nice it is here."
Creating a welcoming space for learning was a cooperative endeavour. The teachers provided input during the planning process and the school division's information services staff worked with health officials to coordinate technology requirements. The large window that looks out on the playground area is a welcome change from the previous windowless classroom at RUH.
The new classroom was outfitted thanks to a $1-million donation from Grant McGrath and family to the hospital's foundation.
Hoehn, who has been part of the hospital/homebound program for more than a decade, said the biggest benefit is the classroom's accessibility for students, families and medical personnel.
"The pediatric patients on this floor now have much better access to it," he said. "In the previous space, we had to take them on an elevator ride to a spot they hadn't seen before. There was really no connection between where we were (the classroom) and the patient. We have that now."
The classroom's location within the facility and the opportunity for regular contact with medical staff has strengthened lines of communication and made the teachers feel more connected and part of an overall team responding to the needs of the children and their families.
"We are much more accessible now to the health-care professionals here and the whole team," Hoehn said. "If they just need to communicate quickly about one of the patients they can pop in or we can go to them. It's much easier than it was before."
The school division's homebound program is designed to support students who miss extended periods of school for medical reasons. That program, which is available only to Saskatoon Public Schools students, sees teachers visit the student at their home or alternate location. About 30 per cent of the teachers' time is targeted to the program.
The hospital program, meanwhile, is available to all students who are admitted as patients, no matter where their home school is located. The teachers work with the home school to keep the student engaged in their education and classes. The presence of teachers within the hospital often comes as a surprise, and a relief, to parents.
"It takes a stressor off them because without the school program they are responsible to be contacting the school and trying to get homework for their kids" Hoehn said. "They may not know how to do that and it may not be high on their list of priorities — and understandably so. When we explain who we are and what we do, it's almost always positive."
The number of students in the program fluctuates, but on average the teachers will have contact with between 12 and 14 students daily, whether in the classroom or in the student's hospital room.
Hoehn teaches mostly senior elementary and high school students. He is gratified that his efforts have helped high school students save course credits, or even entire semesters of classes, as many students are admitted for extended periods or are in and out of hospital over weeks or months.
His work with students at the Dubé Centre for Mental Health has also created connections with medical staff there. That expertise has helped students while they are receiving treatment and has also prepared them for discharge.
"There are a lot of partnerships with the mental health team," he said. "We are able to better communicate with the schools these students are coming from and help the schools and mental health team work together to provide better transitions for these kids to get back to school once they are out of the hospital."
Thorstad, who works mostly with students in kindergarten to Grade 6, says the hospital school program offers a respite to parents who may otherwise be with their child around the clock. While parents are welcome to stay when teachers are working with the student, it's often a time when they can briefly step away for a coffee, or even a shower.
Hoehn and Thorstad acknowledge the unique challenges of being a teacher in a hospital setting, but they appreciate the opportunity to play a role in the lives of children during a difficult time.
"I love working with the families, getting to know the parents and that whole aspect. It feels like you are doing something kind of special and, for many kids, being a bright spot in their day and taking a bit of stress off," Thorstad said.
"There are some hard times, too. There are some sad times, sensitive times. There is a lot of learning around the medical piece, which I find fascinating coming into this position. I have learned so much about what the medical team does. That is one of the challenges of this job as well, dealing with families who are going through a huge change, whether it be a trauma or a sudden illness, and trying to be sensitive around that."