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The Sights and Sounds of the Season…

Ah yes, everywhere you look the sights and sounds of the season are upon us. You know the ones I mean: bright unscuffed tennis shoes and blinding white saddle shoes, freshly sharpened pencils with uneroded pink erasers, ads filled with unbelievable prices from 25 cent crayons to 50 cent Sharpies (50 cents!! I bought 2 of every color!) School bells ring, diesel engines idle next to you at the red light, traffic seems to multiply exponentially…yes, it’s the week I affectionately refer to as simultaneously the best and worst week of the calendar year: Back to School.
See, I went right from a student desk to the teacher desk so I’ve literally never had a year of my life after age 5 which didn’t involve going “Back to School” in some way, shape, or form. As a kid, it was my favorite week for a lot of reasons: I LOVED school, I LOVED learning, I LOVED buying new crisp notebooks and picking out which Disney character would adorn my new hard plastic lunchbox for the year (not to mention who can forget those fantastic thermoses that were included in those lunch boxes! Whatever happened to those?? Apparently they sell on eBay these days for $30!) I loved how we would clandestinely double or triple bag our groceries in brown bags for the entire month of August in an effort to build up our family stockpile of brown bag book covers. 3 kids = a LOT of books and this whole stretchy BookSox craze had yet to take off back then. I loved strategically going to bed earlier and earlier for the last 3 weeks of August so we could get back into our school-year sleeping pattern (clearly you can see I took school VERY seriously…in fact I’m pretty sure this routine was entirely self-imposed from 4thgrade on). I loved our annual 1st Day of School photo routine (in fact I know for sure that was self-imposed in later years….and not at all appreciated by my younger brother) and that first walk back to the corner to wait for the school bus. In short, I LOVED Back to School Season.
You can tell those are the faces of people who LOVE the 1st Day of School. I’m pretty sure my level of excitement remained the same all year 🙂

Of course, there was also some anxiety associated with the Back to School season. Another new classroom to navigate, another new teacher to figure out, new classmates to meet, new routines to remember, and of course an endless pile of syllabi which made it seem as if we were going to cram a lifetime worth of learning into just 9 months. Not to mention fitting in Irish dance lessons and competitions, violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, church choir, field hockey, yearbook, school musicals, and the rest of the now-seemingly-endless list of activities to which my mom was my chauffeur…and that was just my activities. Add in my sister’s myriad athletic talents, my brother’s passion for baseball, a few years of Scouting, and a handful of part-time jobs into the mix and it’s STILL a wonder to me how my mom managed to get us all to the right places at the right times.

Yes, Back to School time is full of fun, adventure, excitement, trepidation, stress, exhaustion…and these days, paperwork. You would not believe the amount of paperwork. Parents will attest they’ve probably signed their name more times in the past week than they have cumulatively all year. In a world where the legal system is an ever-expanding force, there are forms for EVERYTHING. And of course every form has to be different and carefully worded in ways you can’t imagine. There are forms for cell phones, photo releases, Kindles, iPods, computer usage, acceptable movie ratings, combination locks, walking to the end of the block, who is allowed to be contacted in case of emergency/who is NOT allowed to be told anything, access to online grades/homework websites…I am not exaggerating, there must be at least 12 forms for each student. At least. And mostly for things which didn’t even exist when I was in school. I’m not kidding: a student handed me her milk money and form this week and I almost hugged her. Milk money!! Finally something which hasn’t changed in the decade since I was in K-12 school.

My fellow 90s kids remember these. I bought this same one 2 years in a row,

Now I must say in recent years there has been an increase in a lot of forms, but that has never been more true than in regards to medical forms. You teachers will understand. You arrive at school in August anxiously awaiting your class list. (I swear the teachers really are more anxious about this process than the kids and parents waiting for the same information) You get your list and a file of scores from the year before, information sheets about math, language arts, and everything in between. Those are all vitally important of course, and things you’ll return to multiple times during the year as you plan engaging lessons. But there is another file that comes with it which has become equally important: the health folder. The number of health issues, particularly allergies, that these kids deal with nowadays is simply staggering. I’ll admit, in years past I always opened that folder with a deep breath…knowing that this moment would determine the stress level of field trips: how many EpiPens would have to be on hand at a moment’s notice? Who would I have to remind to leave class at specific times each day to pay a visit to the nurse? Or worse, in my 1st school where we didn’t have a nurse…how many times a day would I remember to give essential medicines and tests to the little lives entrusted to my care? It always seems daunting, overwhelming, and some years downright scary. And yet somehow, a few weeks into the year, we had a routine and a system and I knew that I was fully capable of caring for even the most delicate of  my newest set of kids.

There may be a lot to digest in those files…but you’ll figure it out!

I have to say ever since my own allergy roller coaster began, there are several things I wish I could do.
1)   I wish I could find every child I’ve ever taught with an allergy and give them a hug. I had no idea what they were dealing with on a day-to-day basis. And they are just kids! I wish I could hug them and tell them I admire them far more than they’ll ever know.
2)   I wish I could call every parent of a child I’ve taught with allergies and invite them into my classroom for a 1-on-1 meeting. I would let them talk for as long as they want about the potential hazards and dangers of their child’s condition. I mean don’t get me wrong, this happened on several occasions, but there usually came a point where I was thinking “OK, I get it. I know what your child can and cannot have. I’ll take care of them, please stop worrying and let’s all go home”. I want to apologize to them now because I realize I could not have been more wrong. Stop worrying?? First of all, I know no parent ever stops worrying…I think it comes with hospital bracelet but never comes off. But now that I have my own food allergies, I can’t even fathom the constant worry and fear parents live with for their child. I now understand that you can spend years scrutinizing labels, avoiding potentially cross-contaminated items, and painstakingly choosing restaurants based solely on allergy ratings…only to have 1 innocent mistake (crumbs left on a table, an unknown ingredient mixed into a snack, etc) turn an ordinary day into a life-or-death trip to the ER. I now understand that although the allergy was something I dealt with as a teacher for 8 hours a day, 180 days a year…that that was nothing compared to the lifetime of hours and days that those parents will spend as the expert on the allergy and as an advocate for their child.
3)   I wish I could talk to the little 9-year-old girl to whom I once had to administer an Epi-Pen. In the midst of that chaotic moment, I still remember how calmly she looked into my eyes waiting for me to give her the medicine that could clear her airways. I remember how terrified I  was and I remember thinking that she must be so calm because this has happened before so she’s used to it. I now realize that wasn’t true. You never get used to a reaction. If nothing else, it almost gets worse as you become more familiar with it…because you know what’s happening and how it’s going to feel. I want to thank her for somehow managing to stay so calm and for having such strong faith in me. And I want to tell her that all these years later, I haven’t forgotten her….and that I never will.
4)   I wish I could gather every kid with food allergies before school starts and let them know that they are not alone. I wish I could tell them that they are my heroes because they understand that going Back to School is far more stressful than worrying about where your next class is or if your locker is going to open. It means trusting someone entirely new with your life. Literally. Day in and day out. Now  I suppose that goes for all students with a new teacher to some degree…but it’s much more tangible and immediate for a child with an allergy or health condition.
Now unfortunately most of those things I can’t do. But there is one thing that I can do: say a few words to my fellow teachers. I know we’re all drowning at the moment in paperwork, updating class lists, creating class websites, memorizing student names, learning the various emergency/evacuation procedures, familiarizing ourselves with Common Core, trying to plan lessons, building a supportive classroom community, and of course somewhere in there finding time to get to know and love our kids…BUT there are a few things I’d like you to keep in mind.
1)   READ THE HEALTH INFORMATION. I know how it goes during these crazy few weeks. You have to prioritize and things get pushed aside. That can’t be the case with health forms. I’m fortunate to work in a school with a phenomenal full-time nursing staff so I have wonderful, knowledgeable support…but still you are the one in the classroom. You are the first line of defense. Read the file and honestly, if you can, make time to call the parents of everyone in that file. I would never know that a gluten allergy means a child needs to beware of Elmer’s glue. Now that I have my own allergy I do, but take it from me, just the broad allergy listed doesn’t tell you much.
2)   MAKE SURE THE STUDENTS KNOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO: I will be the first to admit I was a high-anxiety child. And I had no real reason to be. I can still remember sitting in class wondering what would happen if I fainted or threw up (unfortunately I found that out in the hall one day!). Now imagine sitting in a classroom or a cafeteria and knowing that the 2 people you rely on as your lifesavers should something happen (AKA Mom and Dad) are nowhere close. They need to know that you are well-prepared, well-aware, and more than ready to come to their aid should the need arise. Granted, this will change as kids get older and take more responsibility for their own allergy…but still, I can say I still like knowing that someone is around who knows what to do if I fall ill so I’m sure even 18-year-old boys feel the same way.
3)   NEVER MAKE THEM FEEL SINGLED OUT:  I could literally write a novel about this. I know sometimes this is unavoidable if your school as a nut-free table or some other policy that you’re required to follow. Obviously you’re limited by what the school or the parents have deemed fit. However, what you can control are other things: holiday celebrations, class projects, even service projects. For example, Valentine’s Day. When I was a kid, it was simple: you decorated a shoebox and spent the afternoon stuffing tiny cards with princesses or sports figures into a cut-out slot. Well, Valentines have come a long way my friends. Every single one involves a tiny gummy, a chocolate treat, or some form of sticker, tattoo, or body art. I don’t know why…but what it does mean is that Feb. 14th has become a treacherous day for any of your students with allergies. No joke, last year on Feb. 13th I stopped at the local Safeway to stock up on allergen-free treats for my trade-in bin and I saw 2 other women scrutinizing packages, one remarking “Nope, this one has Red#40 that won’t work” while the other was lamenting, “Ugh, shared equipment with tree nuts…great. And then this one works but there are only 18 and I have 19 kids!”. I looked at them both with a smile and said “Teachers?” They nodded and we shared a laugh and shook our heads at the impossibility of finding a treat which is actually safe for every student in a classroom.

So what do you do? Cancel every celebration? I don’t know about you but those are some of my best memories from grade school! You can make the decree that no candy is to be consumed until they get home and thus place the responsibility of removing the questionable candy on their parents’ shoulders…but you and I both know the likelihood of that candy making it all the way home without someone sneaking a bite. I always get a giant bowl of allergen-friendly candy for each specific allergy in my class and give those kids a chance to exchange anything questionable for something in the bowl. This lets them keep the element of choice so they’re not forced to eat one specific thing because of their allergy and it usually gets them excited. Of course, this has to be done after school or at some point where it doesn’t evoke mass chaos in the classroom. Again, it all depends on the age that you teach and how outspoken the student is about his or her allergy. Also, many parents are great about sending in things that are safe themselves so be in contact with parents regarding any upcoming days which might involve treats.
4)   PLAN AHEAD: Just a few months ago, I was walking around a school during a service project and came across a group of kids standing by themselves in a hallway. I looked around but didn’t see an adult leader nearby. I wasn’t working at the school that day but you teachers know, that teacher part of you just never turns off. So I stopped and asked what they were doing. Immediately one of them answered, “We’re the peanut allergy group”. My surprise at the response must have been evident as one of the girls piped in, “Everyone is making sandwiches but we’re not allowed near the peanut butter”. As I stood there, my heart broke for these kids. Now, I know the organizers were putting safety first and keeping the kids safe. That is our first priority so kudos to you. But put yourself in their shoes for a minute. It’s hard enough to be 14 or 15 today to begin with and now you have to be in a group based on your allergy that sits in the hall with nothing to do while everyone else makes sandwiches?? Yeah, that’s what I thought…pretty miserable don’t you think? So plan ahead: have the group make different kinds of sandwiches. There are bound to be people with allergies consuming these sandwiches so vary the kinds you make so that these kids can still participate. Or if the organization you’re working with requires only peanut butter sandwich, these kids can still be involved! Let them put stickers on Ziploc bags or decorate brown bags (BEFORE the sandwiches go anywhere near them) so they’re still playing an active role in the project. Yes, it involves some extra work and foresight on your part but trust me, the payoff is well worth it.
5)   WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK!!: The parents of your students with allergies or health concerns should become your best friends. I mean, not literally, but it should feel that way sometimes. TALK to them. ASK them questions. Invite them in to meet with you. Ask them for reading material, checklists, etc. Anything that they used to learn what was OK and not OK.  Never make assumptions…always pick up the phone and check.
6)   LOVE THEM…JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER STUDENT:Yes, it seems scary and overwhelming at first…but just remember every student comes with his or her unique qualities that make you fall in love year after year. A food allergy is just a tiny fraction of a child. Don’t ever let yourself remember a student as “the insert allergy here girl/boy”. For the 1st week or 2 of school it may feel that way because it is the most important piece of information you learn that week. But in time you’ll see that there is so much more to that child. Focus on those things. Help him or her to see that a food allergy is not a defining characteristic, and that it never should be. Soon he or she will just be another one of your kids that you find yourself rambling on about at home or in social settings. I still love the confused looks I get every few weeks when I mention “my kids” around someone who immediately looks to my hand for a wedding ring and then make some kind of “you don’t look old enough to have kids” remark. Clearly not a teacher. Or a friend of teachers…they always understand 🙂

People with a lot of teacher friends always understand what “my kids” means. And they help you decorate your classroom to get ready for your new companions on the journey.

7)   HAVE A GREAT SCHOOL YEAR!!! I promise these crazy first few weeks will be over before we know it and life will finally settle down. You only get 180 days with your kids…make the most of every single one 🙂

The calm/organization doesn’t last long…they’re on their way!!

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