Elementary teachers should wear a stethoscope, carry an abundant supply of bandages, and it would probably be beneficial to have access to a prescription pad too. Sometimes I wonder exactly what happens in that nurse’s office. It is a popular request by many elementary students, “Can I go see the nurse?” I have taught reading K-2, all day kindergarten, and first and fourth grades. Give me an elementary classroom and I can show you a room full of students in medical need. Their ailments are many, their concerns are great, and their imagination is limitless.
One fall a student came to school after an absence. He was in great spirits and had a report for me when he returned. The conversation went like this:
“I got to go to the doctor yesterday. So, do you know what they said about my stomach?” Matt asked sullenly.
“No, what?” I inquired.
“Well, they did a scan and said in 4 months I am going to have an appendicitis. I might have to have it out,” Matt reported.
“Wow!” I said holding back my slight chuckle. “An appendicitis, they told you you might have one?”
“Yeah, so in 4 months I might have to have it out,” Matt said looking sad.
“OK. Is there anything else I need to know?”
“Well, or they said it could just be gas!” And without batting an eye Matt returned to his desk and got out his pencil box and crayons.
If you are just beginning your path as a teacher in an elementary classroom, take time to jot down and record stories and events from your class. The years blur together and you will see it all as a haze nine months from now. If you don’t set up a plan, you will spend more time fielding medical questions and concerns than teaching. So as you get started, here are a few things you can do to prepare for this crazy adventure we call elementary teaching.
Be prepared—it only takes a few supplies to be ready for most elementary classroom medical “emergencies.” To get a nurse’s pass out of my room you need one of three things: gushing blood, puke, or fever. Most everything else can be covered with a Band-Aid, non-scented lotion, or Vaseline and a Q-tip. In my fourth grade classroom we have a red pencil box with the nurse’s slips and Band-Aids. Students can get these whenever they feel the need. I don’t need to see the reason, there does not need to be proof of need, I know many of the Band-Aids are used for nonexistent scrapes and scratches, but having access to Band-Aids seems to provide a sense of relief and cuts down on nurse requests tremendously. This increases my teaching time, which is the goal.
Be clear—set up your expectations and routines early. You need to explain and practice these for the first month of the school year. Repetition, repetition, repetition. It is also important to re-explain and practice again after any extended breaks such as winter break and spring break. State for students the importance of being a community and taking care of themselves and others. Explain procedures you have for handling emergencies (and what constitutes an emergency), nurse requests, bathroom requests (which is often the problem when a nurse request is made), and the Band-Aid box. When students know what is expected then can handle many interruptions on their own. Again, class learning time has been protected.
Be firm—follow through with your stated expectations and routines. If a student asks to see the nurse and it does not appear to be necessary, ask them to let you know in 15 minutes if they are feeling the same, better, or worse. Don’t ignore a situation, talk to parents if you have a frequent flyer, but stay with your stated expectations so students understand you are true to your word.
Go with your gut—as the year wears on you will get to know your students. You will come to know the frequent flyers and those who never complain. If you think a student needs to see the nurse, send them. If you think something else is going on, find time during students’ work time to have a quiet chat. Do they miss mom or dad? Is something happening at home? Has something changed at home? Did they eat or miss breakfast? (I keep a stash of saltines crackers for this emergency.) Did they go to bed late? Is someone in the classroom or school bothering them? Nurse requests can be code for I need someone to talk to, something is going on at home that is different or new, this work is too hard, this work is too easy, or I need a snack. Try to get to the bottom of the problem if you think the student is asking for other reasons than physical health.
When I was in kindergarten I thought I wanted to be a nurse. I had this childlike, romanticized vision of my white dress, white hat and helping people. I soon realized nurses had to see blood, give shots, and deal with puke. I was out! It is my goal to have all students engaged in learning activities in my classroom. There are times, however, I get to use my teacher powers to determine if they have medical needs (no blood or puke involved) that I can take care of in my classroom, or if they should make the trip to the nurse. It is a fine line, but a loving ear, the right questions, and a few necessities like Band-Aids will help keep kids in your room and interruptions to a minimum. The nurse will appreciate the control of traffic too!