Wil Loesel was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in March, just six months into his first year of teaching

By Joelle Goldstein
May 08, 2020 08:19 PM
Wil Loesel
Wil Loesel in the hospital
| Credit: Wil Loesel

Wil Loesel never expected that his first year of teaching would be disrupted by a global pandemic and a cancer diagnosis.

But unfortunately, that was the situation in which the eighth-grade Charlotte math teacher found himself. Still, with every reason to put his focus on teaching aside, Loesel, 42, has never been more dedicated to his profession and serving as a role model for his students.

"I could sit down and I could cry all day that I have cancer, but it doesn't change anything," he exclusively tells PEOPLE. "I have a responsibility. Some of these kids have had these really terrible upbringings and I'm hoping that maybe this is a message that we all go through things, and either we let it stop us or we use it as fuel and motivation."

In March, Loesel's world was flipped upside-down when he was diagnosed with stage IV Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, right as the coronavirus was rapidly spreading through the U.S. and causing school closures.

At the time, the Albemarle Road Middle School math teacher — who has two sons, Sean, 10, and Aidan, 7 — was just six months into his new gig after deciding to leave his job of 15 years in Corporate America for something more fulfilling.

"I guess it was maybe turning 40 that made me just kind of think about, 'What am I doing every day that is meaningful, that helps people, or does something?'" Loesel explains. "Because I looked back and I had a great career, but didn't accomplish anything [purposeful] other than set my family up [financially]."

Wil Loesel
Wil Loesel with his sons Sean and Aidan
| Credit: Wil Loesel

After researching careers in social work for about a year, Loesel came across Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that places teachers in low-income schools for at least two years as they help underserved students and expand educational equity.

"It checked off so many boxes," the father of two explains of the organization. "Not only are they working with children, [but] it's also working in Title I schools. It was teaching in communities that needed and don't have the resources. ... I immediately knew that's what I wanted to do."

Following a background check and training, Loesel officially started his teaching job in North Carolina in August. Though it was "overwhelming at first," the math teacher says he eventually got the hang of things and started to develop relationships with all 117 students.

But by January, Loesel was experiencing worsening discomfort in his throat. A series of doctor appointments and MRIs later confirmed that he had cancer, forcing him to be admitted to a hospital in March and undergo immediate chemotherapy.

There alone, with only his iPad — his sons unable to visit due to COVID-19 restrictions — Loesel didn't sit and wallow, nor did he step away from immersing himself in the class and their lessons.

Wil Loesel
Wil Loesel
| Credit: Wil Loesel

Instead, he became even more involved in his students' lives on his device, scheduling Zoom check-in calls, posting weekly assignments and grading. When his eighth-graders send an email with a question or concern, Loesel is quick to respond in an effort to "provide a little stability [and] a little comfort" to his soon-to-be high schoolers.

While it has been personally beneficial in helping him stay busy during treatment, Loesel says abandoning his students was never a consideration in his mind.

"People keep asking, 'How can you still teach from the hospital?' And I'm like, 'That's me,' " he explains. "I spent so long building trust with these kids over the past six months and they're all freaking out now because they don't know what happens ... and imagine me just disappearing during those last six weeks. That'd be crazy."

"My first thought when I became sick was my kids, my two sons. And my next thought was the 117 kids that have come to rely on me. That's just what teaching is to me," Loesel adds. "From the teachers that I've been around, in my experience, I think every single teacher would've done the exact same thing. None of us would have abandoned the kids."

The students have come to appreciate Loesel's dedication, but he says it's their support that has kept him going through the difficult times.

Wil Loesel
Wil Loesel with teachers from Albemarle Road Middle School
| Credit: Wil Loesel

"Every day, they make me smile and cry because they all react differently," he explains. "Some of the kids who give me the hardest time in class, with behavioral issues or this and that, are one of the first ones to reach out to me and tell me that they're praying for me or they love me and they want me to get better."

"Hopefully, I'm providing them with good educational help and emotional support and stability, but they provide me so much," Loesel continues. "They're awesome. I love them."

Their support is also part of the reason why Loesel feels "lucky" in his current circumstances and has chosen to focus on the positives.

"We experience life and all we could do is choose how to experience it. I have cancer now. Nothing can change that other than the medicine and the science," he explains. "I'm in as good of a position to fight this and to beat it as I possibly could be."

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"Especially now, with COVID, so many people lost their livelihood, lost their income, lost their health care," Loesel continues. "My job is stable, I have health care, I have great medical professionals around me, and I have amazing support. ... I have so much going for me so I choose to experience it in as positive a way as possible because why not? What's the alternative?"

"It chose me and that's fine," he adds. "Now I fight it with everything I have, and I have great resources. I am very lucky for that."

To help Loesel in his fight against cancer, a GoFundMe page has been set up by his cousins. So far, it has raised over $7,700, which will go toward offsetting the cost of his medical bills.

With his first cycle of chemo complete and at least five more to go, Loesel says he looks forward to the day he can return to the classroom and look back on his first year teaching as nothing but a "crazy" memory.

"I fully expect to recover," he shares. "Hopefully it'll just be something I talk about that happened — that crazy year, my first year teaching, and there was a global pandemic, and everybody taught from home, and I had cancer, and that was crazy, [but] my second year was way better!"

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