Meet MetroHealth’s school teacher
For a family dealing with the profound worry that comes with a hospitalized child, anything that seems like a return to normal life can be a blessing.
It’s Jennifer Somrak’s job to provide that blessing when she shows up at the hospital-room door and says four words:
“It’s time for school.”
If you didn’t know that MetroHealth has a teacher – a full-time teacher – working with our hospitalized kids, you’re not alone.
“People have no idea,” says Jen (she wants everyone, parents and students, to call her Jen). “When I tell them what I do, they always say, ‘Who knew?’”
Her students – roughly 80-100 a year – do know, and so do their grateful parents, grandparents and guardians.
Jen has been teaching at Metrohealth for five years. She’s technically employed by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District through the district’s nontraditional education program, but she works here full time. And despite her affiliation with CMSD, she teaches school-aged patients from any school district or private school.
With two decades of experience, teaching students of all ages, Jen has developed an amazing range of expertise. One moment she could be helping a first-grader read his first words, the next, a high school senior with her calculus homework. She’s certified to teach kids from age 5 through 21.
Studies have shown that children who are hospitalized tend to fall behind in their studies, adding to the anxiety that already accompanies a serious illness or injury. Jen does what she can to keep them on track. She coordinates and communicates with her students’ schools and teachers, getting their lessons, helping them complete their work and then planning their return to the traditional classroom.
“I’m a teacher. I’m just trying to have an influence on these kiddoes. School is important. I feel like, if I can just be a piece of the puzzle, I can help make things come together for them.”
Sometimes she teaches bedside. If her students are at all mobile, she urges them to venture out, perhaps to the Treehouse on the fourth floor, even if they have to pull an IV pole with them.
She is adept at using the nontraditional surroundings to her students’ advantage. If a child is studying fractions, they might bake a batch of cookies, with Jen adjusting the recipe so the student has to calculate and measure the correct amount of ingredients.
Her work is done one-on-one, and usually for a relatively short time, so she doesn’t get the pleasure of watching her students grow and blossom over a nine-month school year like other teachers.
“Our time together is more intimate,” she says. “I have to make every minute count.”
In addition to keeping students on track with their studies, Jen’s work adds something crucial to a child’s recovery: the normalcy of a routine.
“The continuity of having the same teacher every day, the same familiar face, building that relationship is so powerful,” says Jessica Chupnick, Metrohealth’s Manager of Child Life and Education. “Kids thrive on routines and schedules. Jen keeps things as normal as possible in a very abnormal place."
“A lot of kids think they can get out of school when they come to the hospital. Jen won’t let them.”
Even if kids roll their eyes at the thought of school at the hospital, “they come,” says Jen, “and then they like it.”
She knows her role also benefits her students’ families. If they’re at the hospital, Jen’s arrival affords a welcome break from the bedside. If they have to leave the hospital for work or other commitments, “hospital school” provides some peace of mind.
Over her five years doing what she calls “the best job ever,” Jen has taught hundreds of students. She says she can remember something about each of them. Still, a few hold a special place in her heart.
There was the high school senior who suffered a serious accident and spent months in the PICU and then at Old Brooklyn in inpatient rehab.
“She needed one statistics class to graduate,” Jen remembers. “I’m like, oh boy, statistics. So I coordinated with her teacher in her district. We worked together for four months, and she was able to graduate.”
Then there was the young boy who was here for two months as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with him.
“He had the best smile, no matter how bad he was feeling,” Jen says. “Every single day, when I would walk in, he would be up and ready, because he wanted to go, and it was time for school.”
Jen shares a small office on the fourth floor. Its shelves are packed with textbooks, workbooks and school supplies for every level. She makes sure that all of her students leave the hospital with books and new school supplies: notebooks, pencils, glue sticks, maybe a backpack, too. (Donations are always welcome. In addition to school supplies, she says she can always use flashcards, board games and comic books.)
Although her students’ families would disagree, Jen insists she’s not a healer.
“I’m a teacher,” she says. “I’m just trying to have an influence on these kiddoes. School is important. I feel like, if I can just be a piece of the puzzle, I can help make things come together for them.”
Founded in 1837, MetroHealth is leading the way to a healthier you and a healthier community through service, teaching, discovery, and teamwork. Cuyahoga County’s public, safety-net hospital system, MetroHealth meets people where they are, providing care through four hospitals, four emergency departments, and more than 20 health centers and 40 additional sites. Each day, our 8,000 employees focus on providing our community with equitable health care–through patient-focused research, access to care, and support services–that seeks to eradicate health disparities rooted in systematic barriers. For more information, visit metrohealth.org.