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Ask Gemma: Advice for Teachers


As an educator who has taught every grade from kindergarten through twelfth, every subject from reading to algebra, emotional support, gifted support, regular education, in co-taught classrooms, pull-out classrooms, and traditional classrooms, I have experienced a lot of what the world of public education in the United States has to offer.  I’ve taught in urban, suburban, and rural schools and worked with students from all different walks of life.  I’ve also worked as a teacher trainer, helping other professional educators implement new initiatives in their classrooms.  Through it all, I’ve been consistently surprised by how often I am faced with situations that completely throw me for a loop; students who say or do things that leave me speechless, and problems that don’t have simple, clean solutions.  As teachers, we usually are able to fall back on our professionalism and experience to muddle through appropriately, but occasionally, situations arise that are a bit … trickier.  Conflicts with fellow teachers, parent problems without easy answers, and more can all cause stress and grief if we don’t have strategies in place to help us through.  Send me your trickiest dilemmas and let’s see if we can come up with some solutions!

Dear Gemma,

I teach first grade.  One of the worst problems I deal with is when my students discover that it feels great to explore their bodies during class.  Usually I can handle the situation by asking the students to keep their hands on their desks or distracting them by asking them to do a chore for me, like sharpening some pencils or taking something to the office.  Occasionally though, the situation gets so bad that I have to call home.  There is nothing more embarrassing than trying to explain to a parent what I’m dealing with at school and I know it embarrasses the parents too.  Any solutions for how to make this situation less awkward for everyone involved?

– Avoiding Awkwardness in Pittsburgh

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Dear Avoiding Awkwardness:  Talk about a phone call no teacher ever wants to make!  This issue was one that I had never even considered having to deal with when I decided to become a teacher.  Fortunately, I had a brilliant professor with an even more brilliant solution to this very problem.  Her advice was to address the issue in a way that allowed both teacher and parent to save face.  Call the parent and ask them if they recently changed laundry detergent or the soap their son or daughter uses.  Whether the parent says “yes” or “no” doesn’t matter, because either answer leads to them asking you why you asked.  At which point you can tactfully state that you’ve noticed that their child’s pants or underpants seem to have been bothering them lately as they’ve been pulling at/tugging at their pants and looking uncomfortable and itchy.  Chances are very good that if you’re seeing the behavior in question at school, it’s also happening at home.  The parent will pick up on what you are saying and be grateful for your tact and you’ll be spared the grief of having a truly awkward conversation.

Dear Gemma, 

This is a tough one.  I co-teach for three class periods a day with a very nice gentleman.  We work well together and I enjoy teaching with him.  What I don’t enjoy is his terrible breath.  It is truly awful!  When the students are working and he comes over to whisper something to me I have to hold my breath to deal with his and worse than that, the students mention it to me and I have no idea what to say to them.  I don’t want to hurt my colleague’s feelings, but I’m running out of ways to deal with this problem! – Holding my Breath in Minot


Dear Holding my Breath:  Yikes!  There are a lot of potential landmines in this situation; not wanting to hurt your co-teacher, worrying that one of your students will say something unkind, having to deal with stinky breath in your face on a daily basis – I can see why you are concerned.  While I almost always believe my mother, who was also a teacher, I think that in situations like this, honesty isn’t always the best policy.  There is never a nice enough way to tell someone they have consistently bad breath that will make up for the discomfort the conversation could cause your working relationship.  With that in mind, I’ve found that a bit of theater goes a long way.  Start carrying breath mints with you to class.  Offer one to your co-worker.  Take one yourself while making a comment that you always worry about having bad breath in front of the kids.  It might take a day or two, but most people will pick up the subtle hint.  If your co-teacher isn’t like most people, choose a day when you’ve seen him eat or talked to him about something specific he’s eaten – an Italian sub, leftovers from the night before, etc.  When he comes to talk to you about something, offer him a mint while laughingly saying that you can smell what he ate.  It’s a bit more direct than simply offering him a mint, but we’ve all eaten something that stays with us for a few hours if we didn’t have time to brush our teeth.  It’s much nicer to believe that this is the first time someone has noticed your breath, rather than finding out that it’s a chronic problem.

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