Tia Thompson has spent her life striving to be the best at everything she does. She’s been a professional cheerleader, a college soccer player, a fitness model and a model for Nike. She attended Texas A&M University on a soccer scholarship with a double major in math and science. Taking care of her health and fitness has always been second nature to her.
That’s why she wasn’t very alarmed when she started feeling weak and nauseous one day while she was teaching. She assumed it was just a mild case of the flu, and the doctors she went to agreed.
One week later, when she could barely see and had to use a cane to walk, Tia was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with neuromyelitis optima, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the eyes, nervous system and spinal cord.
Tia spent a month in the hospital. Within weeks, she lost all of her motor skills, and had a feeding tube because she couldn’t swallow and a breathing tube because her lungs couldn’t function. At one point, she weighed less than 80 pounds.
“I had never been sick a day in my life,” Tia says. “Suddenly I had to learn how to walk again.”
After spending weeks in the hospital, and recovering her eyesight and motor functions, Tia eventually was able to go back to what she loves: Teaching middle school students to love math.
Tia has been teaching for 14 years, and has been an 8th grade teacher at Turner Middle School in Berthoud for three years. Although she feels strong and healthy most of the time, a bout with the illness she now lives with is always possible.
“I’m either having a flare-up or I’m not,” she explains. Tia sees several doctors regularly for everything from check-ups to occupational therapy. She also has to get treatments every other month, similar to dialysis.
“I never know how I’m going to feel when I wake up every day,” she says. But she also explains that knowing the symptoms of NMO makes it easier to monitor. And, if she starts getting sick again, her sidekick Prince, her tiny Yorkie service dog, is there to help. Prince goes everywhere with Tia, including to her classroom every day.
“The kids can’t get enough of him. I have to put him up (in his enclosure in the classroom) because all they want to do is pet the dog. They’re feeling stressed? They pet the dog.”
Though NMO has come with many challenges, it hasn’t slowed Tia down. She is the head of the TMS Math Department, serves on the school’s social-emotional committee, and is the TMS Sources of Strength adviser. She also serves on the summer school committee and equity taskforce for Thompson School District. And those are just the things Tia does outside of her regular days of teaching.
Inside the classroom, Tia’s philosophy is based on her love of math, and her passion for helping her students love it too.
“I try to make it so they’re not scared of it,” she says. “You use it all of the time. Math is everywhere, so I have to get rid of their math phobia.”
But Tia has other lessons she hopes to teach her students as well.
“I’m the first teacher of color for content delivery for most of these kids. I bring with me my culture and background,” she says. “I’m just trying to blend the two together. I love my kids. I call them my babies.”
Tia also says that her illness has changed the way she sees some things about teaching.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it changed me, because I’m pretty gleeful, but the equity part is huge,” she explains. “I teach in different ways for different kids. I’m not taking for granted who will be able to see what.”
Tia will be the first to say that she has slowed down some with the chronic fatigue that is part of NMO, but that hasn’t changed her enthusiasm and energy for what she loves.
“I have a very exuberant personality, I think it’s a culture shock for them,” she says. “I just want so many kids to want to learn math. Who else is going to come and be excited about it as I am?”