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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Updated 01/2014

"With what are you struggling?" I ask.

"I think I need some more direction on the little decisions like what do you do when a student complains about a stomach ache right before a lesson," replies student teacher.

I wasn't expecting that answer, but it makes total sense. My student teacher says he feels like he makes 10,000 decisions a day, the decisions that are almost like breathing for me now. They are immediate and instinctual, but it took years of failure and trial and error on the so-called "soft skills" of elementary education to create a manageable atmosphere.

His question sent me back to when I had the same struggles. I had to go old-school, back to the experiences that trained my gut to make on-the-spot decisions without hesitation. It was like playing with my toys again. However, I really can't profess that my answers are the "right" ones because they are fluid, in constant flux from day to day, minute to minute, and student to student.

The Questions

"My head hurts, may I go to the nurse?"
"Can I sharpen my pencil?"
"May I go to the bathroom?"
"Can I get a drink?"
"What do I do when I'm done?"
"Can I have a Band-Aid?"

These questions might seem trivial to the onlooker, but the answers require premeditated thought, as well as "on-the-go" decisions that can easily stump the amateur teacher.

I'm seeing it firsthand as we speak. My student teacher is taking the reins on lesson plans, management, assessing, and he's slowly finding a nice little groove. However, when a student asks him for a Band-Aid, he hesitates. He's not so sure. He's sure about instruction. He's sure about routines. Band-Aid? Not so sure. Why? Well, I don't have all of the answers, but I've dug up a flexible list of techniques that I've used to counter those nagging questions without creating a blanket rule resembling prison life. Have fun.

To Nurse, or Not to Nurse

Making a decision to send a student to the nurse is tougher than it looks. You never want to deny a student the medical attention he or she deserves, and, at the same time, you want to toughen up your little cherubs. And, while you're trying to figure out who needs help and who thinks they need help, "The Faker" comes along and throws a monkey wrench into your thought process. So, what do you do? I've listed some ideas on how to distinguish between patients. I apologize for my humor and honesty in advance. Humor is almost unavoidable when discussing blood, vomit, and pain with kids.


  • Blood = A trip to the bathroom to clean the cut and a Band-Aid to cover it.
  • No blood or dried blood = No Band-Aid and a trip back to your seat.
  • Paper cuts = No Band-Aid (even though they are painful) and back to your seat.
  • Scab = Band-Aid. If you don't oblige, they will pick and jab at that thing until it's gushing. Just give em' a Band-Aid and swallow your pride.


  • Pale and stomach pains = Bucket and trip to the nurse with a buddy -- no questions asked.
  • Stomach hurts either before or after lunch = "You're hungry." Or, "You just ran around with a full belly. It will go away." Done.
  • Stomach pains not before or after lunch and face looks healthy = Bucket next to desk. In ten years, I've never had a student puke in a bucket parked next to a desk (knock on wood).


  • Neck pain = Immediate trip to the nurse. Neck pain could be a sign of meningitis or a concussion.
  • Headaches = Come back later. I'll usually wait until the student complains at least twice before sending them to the nurse.
  • Foot pain, leg pain, arm pain (without swelling) = "If it hurts, don't move it."

Stick a Fork in Me, I'm Done

What a dreaded question, especially for the new teacher who is occupied with teaching four to five subjects a day. If not prepared for this simple, yet so complex question, you're asking for chaos and unwanted behavior.

I know what you're thinking -- Just give em' another worksheet. Well, like the Lorax, I speak for the trees. I try to eliminate excess use of paper. I don't think I need to explain why, but it is a good idea to explain it to your kids. Right?

Along with minimizing the use of paper, I want my kids to have a choice: choice = ownership = effective. When the year is young or whenever that dreaded question buzzes your ear just a little too much, introduce "When I'm done options." I call it "The After After." It's a silent time. It's important that students know that this is not free time or recess. They are choosing a subject to explore during extra time. It's enrichment really. And it's on their terms. This is what it looks like.

The After After

  1. Finish Unfinished Work
  2. Options
    • Read (self-selected book)
    • Write (a continuation of writing workshop)
    • Sketch (each student receives a sketch book for the year)
    • Math Computer Games (I have six desktop computers in my class, so it's doable for me)

Voila! After about a month, the symptoms of What-do-I-do-when-I'm-done should dissipate.

Grinding Wood and Graphite

They do it when you're talking, teaching, or trying to read. They do it when they're supposed to be writing or when they feel like getting up. The pencil sharpener attracts chatty kids like a bug to a bug zapper. It calls their name and promises fresh points and camaraderie.

Teachers who attempt to micromanage pencil sharpening usually designate a time-span for the deed like: only in the morning, on odd number hours, before snack, etc... I've tried it and it's crazy hard to manage because, like the English language, there's always an exception. Kids fancy sharp pencils and love to grind wood and graphite to satisfy that hunger. You can't stop it. You need to become one with the pencil sharpening epidemic and be firm, fair, and consistent with the rules. Here are a few tips that ease (not stop) the sharpening craze in my classroom.

Scene: The first day of school.

Teacher: Students, I have a very exciting announcement that pertains to the sharpening of pencils. You are permitted to sharpen your pencils all day LONG!

Students: WOOT! YES! Holla'!

Teacher: BUT... and it's a big one--(giggle) don't even think about A) sharpening your pencil unless the point is broken. Not dull or chipped or looks weird. It's got to be trashed in order for you to visit the sharpener. And B) getting up when someone is teaching, speaking, or reading out loud. Capiche?

Students: Crickets. Maybe a gulp.

Teacher: Not that I can top that announcement, but (giggle) I have another one. You can use personal sharpeners and pens! Yes, I said pens!!!

Students: WOOT! YES! Holla'!

That's it. It doesn't eliminate the craze, but it keeps it to a minimum.

"Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it's enough." I read this quote on a bumper sticker. I'm not sure who said it, but it's a good motto to keep in your back pocket when the questions arise. Oh, and they will my friend.

So, let's help out the student teachers who are struggling with "soft skills" of education by sharing what we do in the classroom. What are your ideas?

Comments (94)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lesly's picture
1st grade teacher

I've been teaching for seven years and those issues never go away. I don't sharpen pencils anymore. They don't have a pencil well they better fnd a way to get one. It may sound strict or mean but that's what's going to show them how to be independent students. Many of the issues that you are encountering you will always will but you will learn to handle them better with time and towards the end you won't even see them as issues.

Millie's picture

Excellent idea! I keep the pencil sharpener at my desk and I only sharpen the pencils that need sharpening. Amazing how the need to sharpen pencils has deteriorated.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

This was a great post. They really don't teach you the nitty gritty of teaching in school. I loved your suggestions on how to deal with different medical issues that come up in the classroom on a near daily basis.

One thing I've started doing is encouraging my students to use pen, not pencil. It is working really well. I practice how to cross out mistakes, and my pencil sharpening problems are gone. I can see their mistakes. They don't spend 2 minutes erasing things. No more pencil sharpening in class!


KRobinson's picture
4th grade teacher, CA

That was always the toughest question for me. A couple of years ago a partner teacher and I set up our classrooms with a system that we named: "iLearn" - it stands for "Independent Learning Enrichment Activities Right Now" we set up a few book shelves in our classroom with a lot of the "bells and whistles" of our existing curriculum, extension ideas, games, independent re-teaching, etc. We introduced the activities as a very important part of our day and established clear guidelines for how the materials were to be used. We were sure to carefully teach each activity first, so that they could be done independently later on. Just like the iTunes-ish name suggests, we created an iLearn library (a small pocket chart - or just a list of possible activities that you can rotate periodically) and we gave each child an iLearn playlist on which they write down their choices (this gave us some proof for parents that their kids weren't sitting around "bored" and also provided accountability for the students in using their time wisely). It's worked well. Other teachers in our school have modified the same idea with iWork, iThink, iCan, etc.

Elizabeth Alvarez's picture

I'm working on becoming a bilingual teacher but I have been in a classroom were students are always asking the teacher to go here and go there. Most of the time the teacher just lets them go. I see that they miss lot of the lessons and it is not only the student but the buddy who goes with him. When I become a teacher I do plan to implement some of the ideas listed on your "To Nurse, or Not to Nurse". I love the examples you have used. We need to keep our student in the classroom to get the full curriculum for the day.

esmeralda's picture
Site Base Manager @ Head Start at the Y

Elizabeth I agree with you that sometimes teachers deal with classroom management issues by just getting the children out of the classroom. Since you brought this topic to my attention I will have to be mindful of this becoming an issue.

esmeralda's picture
Site Base Manager @ Head Start at the Y

Elizabeth I agree with you that sometimes teachers deal with classroom management issues by just getting the children out of the classroom. Since you brought this topic to my attention I will have to be mindful of this becoming an issue.

esmeralda's picture
Site Base Manager @ Head Start at the Y

Elizabeth I agree with you that sometimes teachers deal with classroom management issues by just getting the children out of the classroom. Since you brought this topic to my attention I will have to be mindful of this becoming an issue.

Ashley's picture

During my first year of teaching, sharpening pencils was a big problem. Many students would purposely break their points so that they could get out of their seats. I tried lead pencils, but then they were always out of lead. Finally, I required them to sharpen three pencils in the morning and I put a box over the sharpener before I started teaching for the day. Miraculously, they managed without sharpening their pencils the rest of the day. I like Nicholas' idea of giving students a short pencil without an eraser if they break all three pencils. I understand that accidents happen, but it would decrease the likelihood that they would break the points on purpose. Has anyone tried erasable pens?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

By far, erasable and pens and pens are the best to use for reading,writing, science, S.S. Math is always a pencil or erasable pen. Unless the skill is directly related to forming letters perfectly and spelling, I encourage kids to scratch out. It keeps their thoughts flowing and fresh. Motto: No Braking for Erasing.

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