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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

Lisa Gonzalez's picture

This was a fantastic post. The nurse issue does seem trivial to the average person but to an educator that thought process and nurse outline is exactly the kind of thoughts that enter our heads when we hear that question, "Can I go to the nurse?" There are a lot of things that come into play when simple questions like these are asked. Just think at that same time while Sally is at the nurse, Joe is in the bathroom and Mikey went to drop a book off at the library and then the fire alarm sounds and you have to recall those mental notes you made about where each student is.

There are many decisions to make as an educator and leader. Just keeping in mind that we are to do the best we can and always have the best of intentions. It is nice to know that there are many other educators out there that have the same thoughts and concerns as I do.

Saritza Concepcion's picture

I tell students that they have to bring their own pencils ready everyday. They are not allowed to sharpen pencils in the classroom. They get use to it and so far it has worked. There is always someone, once in a while that forgets, but when that happens they are resposible to look for something to write with. Usually they ask another student. I have set times to go to drink water after lunch and after a gym class after that, don't even ask. To go to the restroom since I have one in my room they are allow to go at anytime as long as we are not in a class disussion or the teacher is talking. They have to write their names and write the time they went to the restroom in a piece of paper. They are responsible to maintain the restroom clean. And I send students to the nurse if they vommit, have fever and have complain twice otherwise sit down it will pass. I didn't know about the neck pain so it is good to know that one. For the early finishers, I do the same as in the post, they can write, finish other work, read independently and take a comprehension test in the computer. And if it sounds like my classroom is very organize and neat, it is not, sometimes is messy and sometimes some students forget rules and routines, but you have to be consistent and students will understand the expectations.

Cosmasmary Njoku's picture
Cosmasmary Njoku
Seventh grade math teacher

Thank you Gaetan. You are on it! Classroom management to me is always a question of what works for you in a particular classroom. As a teacher climbs the ladder of teaching profession, classroom management is one of the criterion that determines maturity in this business. Sometimes we guess, choose, and test routines, and rules. We also drop some that did not work and borrow from one another. We sometimes create new strategies that work for us. Learning the hard way is another obvious option. These kids are smart by thinking that they are smart. I have learned something from you. The health issues. A million trips to the nurse, but the neck pain is a very new insight to me.

Ashley's picture
4th grade teacher from Georgia

I find that 3rd and 4th graders often need the nurse right before a big assessment. I tell my frequent fliers it has to be one of the 4 "Bs"..please forgive me for being a little crude:
1. Barfing
2. Burning
3. Broken
4. Bleeding (profusely)
Eventually, most students won't ask..they know their classmates will say, "You don't have one of the Bs"
I enjoyed your post!

Loree's picture


Denise Littman's picture
Denise Littman
Student in master's degree program

Thank you for the tips. This should really be included in teacher training -- at least as a seminar. Tons of time is spend on different classroom management strategies, curriculum, lesson plans, etc., but I remember the deer-in-the-headlights look I got during my first student teaching experience. It seems to be an epidemic as well (with the younger kids anyway). Once one kid has to go to the bathroom, sharpen a pencil, go to the nurse, then many more seem to follow. Thank you for the tips!

Erica Bland's picture
Erica Bland
1st grade teacher from Georgia

I teach 1st grade students Science and Social Studies in 45 min. segments. The students are constantly trying to go to nurse or restroom during my class, even if their homeroom teacher has sent them prior to entering my room. Great suggestions!! I use many of the strategies that you have mentioned when deciding whether students should go to nurse or not. I have identified some "fakers" by determining their pattern of when they want to go to the nurse. For example, I have students that go to enrichment classes (guidance, music, p.e., etc.)after they leave my class. I have determined that when students do not want to go to their enrichment class, they try to pretend they are sick. I like the "bucket idea". However, Flu season has allowed more students to go to nurse than I am used to sending.
Pencil sharpening has been another issue. I keep pencils in my room for the students to use while they are in my class. I try to sharpen several extra pencils each morning, with hope that the pencils will last all day or at least until I have my planning period.
As far as students finishing work early, I plan on keeping books related to content of lesson for students to read. You have also given me the idea to let students sketch something that they have learned from the lesson presented that day. Thanks again!!!

Sam's picture
Intervention Specialist

I find this information very useful and humoring! I have learned the hard way that pencil sharpeners cannot be available to my students. Not only individual sharpeners, electronic ones as well. I keep the electronic one in my desk and if a pencil needs sharpened I sharpen it! This has cut down so much of the wasted time of sharpening pencils! I really like the 4B's idea someone posted as well! Bathroom use is not a big problem for my students mainly because they are with me after breaks taken with their entire class. So, usually when students need to use the restroom it is an emergency.

great blog!

Cris's picture
5th grade teacher from Pennsylvania

For the students that are always finished before everyone else; I have an "I'm through what can I do?" box. In this box are many activities that really get the student to think and solve problems. They are fun and keep them focused. It has worked wonders!

Rachel H.'s picture
Rachel H.
3rd Grade Teacher

Thanks for the ideas. I have been looking for some new ideas to help in the classroom. I have students that always ask me what to do when they are finished with their work. I tell them that they can always read their chapter book if they finish early. I guess they forget that they always have something to do because they should always have a book in their desk. I think I will make a poster with options that you listed.

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