I live a life surrounded by teachers.
My mom, my aunt, several of my cousins, and my husband — all teachers. So aside from the fact that I have a handy phone-a-friend-for-math-help, I’ve also been privy to all the very real struggles and issues that teachers face.
Teachers, to me, are heroes. They don’t make a lot of money, they genuinely care about other people’s kids, and the level of stress that they face on a daily basis would be enough to send anyone home crying. The workload that teachers deal with is a lot, and when you add in IEPs, special needs, and other accommodations, it can be hard to keep it all straight.
Which is why I wondered how teachers really feel about dealing with allergies — a potentially life-threatening stressor — in the classroom. So I asked ten teachers to share their honest feelings about what they think about handling students’ allergies — and their answers may surprise you. (Note: some of the teachers asked to remain anonymous.)
1. They want more education.
“I think students in the classroom should receive education on allergy triggers, how to keep the classroom safe and free of allergens, and mild to severe allergy reactions. I wish our school provided more in-depth staff and student education of severe allergies to foods such as peanuts,” says Camilla Cook, a Medical Paraprofessional and Substitute Teacher at Rolland-Warner 6/7 campus in Lapeer, Michigan.
2. They know that allergies are not convenient.
No one goes into parenthood thinking, “Man, I wish my kids will have allergies!” And although parents may feel overwhelmed with the accommodations necessary, teachers aren’t expecting Easy Street when it comes to allergies, either.
“No one will say it’s convenient to [stay on top of allergies],” one teacher told me. “It takes a lot of writing letters, cleaning, communicating with parents, checking kids’ lunches, arranging seating charts, reminding, etc., but it’s part of our job [to keep] our students safe.”
3. They consider allergies just another accommodation.
Teachers are used to accommodating students on an hourly basis; to these everyday heroes, allergies = just another accommodation.
“As a teacher, your job is to teach each kid according to their needs,” says one teacher matter-of-factly. “Allergy-proofing your room is another way you accommodate the learning environment for your students who have specific needs to be able to learn.”
4. They feel you on “those” parents.
Unfortunately, not all parents understand the importance of keeping allergens out of the classroom, but teachers are on your side.
“As far as parents who are not on board, I would say that having open communication with them about the allergies present in the classroom (without singling out certain students or using their names) and the magnitude of the allergies can help them to understand that we are all just trying our best to keep all our students safe,” says one teacher.
5. They consider it just another part of the job.
“I really do think it’s part of your job as a teacher to make your classroom as allergy-proof as possible (and I’m not saying that just to be politically correct) … it’s worth the trouble it takes if you have a healthy class all year. A healthy class is a productive class!” states Mandy Lange, an elementary teacher in Lansing, MI.
6. They want you to address allergies at the appropriate time.
It may be convenient for you to wait until you see your child’s teacher in person or at school pick-up to start discussing their allergies, but it’s actually far more helpful to put your child’s allergy plan in writing, says one middle-school teacher and college professor.
“Bombarding teachers and swooping in during a curriculum night or back-to-school open house might seem like an appropriate time, but it’s very difficult for teachers to remember later what was discussed,” she explains.
7. They go out of their way to ensure your child feels comfortable.
“In middle school, I don’t necessarily address allergies with other students for a couple of different reasons,” notes one 6th-grade teacher. “The student who has the allergy may not be comfortable with others knowing. It’s better coming from them, especially at this age. They’ve been managing it, and chances are they are more informed about how to handle it than the teachers.”
8. They go out of their way to make your child feel included.
Almost every single teacher I talked to noted that they kept an extra stash of non-allergen snacks in their desk, just in case.
“Often when we have field trips or special events, I try to plan ahead so everyone can participate,” says one teacher. “For instance, a couple of years ago I had a student with a severe food allergy who couldn’t have pizza or candy, so I just made sure that I had something on hand that he could have.”
Other teachers keep in constant communication with parents before special events to give them plenty of time to prepare. “I send a note home a few days before the celebration, making parents aware of what is being served,” said one thoughtful teacher. “That way, if a parent wants to send their kid in with an alternate snack that’s safe for them to enjoy, it helps them to plan a little easier. I hate when kids are left out because of an allergy.”
9. The kids don’t miss food.
Contrary to popular belief that allergy kids are ruining everyone’s day by having food banned from school premises, teachers recognize that “it is easier to celebrate in high school without food,” explains English teacher Ruth Lang Stover from North Branch High School. “For example, extra points on a quiz or a free space on a BINGO, a two-minute cell phone use, or a one-minute down time at the end of the hour.”
“Food is a part of life and our culture,” says Tonya Redmon-Sherman, who is both an educator and a parent of a child with severe food allergies. “But I do not condone food in the class. Celebration can come in many forms; it does not have to be food. If everyone cannot eat the food, then it should not be served. Cross-contact, especially when every other child has eaten it, is a very serious problem.”
10. They are scared.
Even if teachers are given an overview of allergic reactions and trained on how to use an epinephrine auto-injector, let’s face it: they aren’t medical professionals.
“My number-one priority is to help keep my students healthy and safe,” says one teacher. “But it is nerve-wracking to be responsible for their medical well-being if something should happen to go wrong.”
It cannot be an easy task to be responsible for a child’s education and their health. And it’s not just about what they can do — it also comes down to the fact that they are required to keep track of what the other students are exposing to your children as well. “I really worry when it is a peanut allergy and if it is severe as I then have to monitor what others have and bring into the room,” confessed one teacher.
11. They know that allergies are more than skin-deep.
Although it never even occurred to me to think about it, your child’s teacher wants to know if your child had a bad reaction as a result of an allergy — because it could affect his or her learning.
“Something parents could do that would be helpful is to contact their child’s teacher to give a heads-up that something changed at home,” explained one teacher. “Many people don’t realize how external factors, that might not seem that major, often have an impact on student learning. So, if a student had a bad allergy flare-up over the weekend, it’s always nice to know that. We don’t need all of the details, but a simple ‘there was an issue, he/she should be fine, but if he/she seems off, this happened.'”
12. They want you to be very clear about the severity of the allergy.
One thing that several teachers mentioned is their desire to know the exact severity of your child’s allergy, so they know precisely what they are dealing with, especially considering teachers are already carrying a massive workload. For example, my 7-year-old loves to claim that she is “allergic” to oatmeal, and we’ve had to have several talks about how she can’t say that to people when she merely dislikes oatmeal.
13. They have more faith in your kids than you do.
No offense, mom and dad, but teachers have to put faith in their students to be mindful of classmates with allergies — with sometimes surprising results.
“When other students understand the potential outcomes of a bad allergic reaction, children are much more careful than you think,” explains Sarah*, a 26-year-old teacher from New York City. “One year, I had another student who was allergic to strawberries. I discussed it with my 2nd graders. Whenever a student had a strawberry in their lunchbox, they would move away from the student who was allergic just for the day. Sometimes kids are much more mindful to these serious situations than many adults make them out to be.”
14. They are frustrated with the lack of options.
“I wish that my school/district had a wider lunch menu for students who are allergic to certain foods,” said another teacher. “When we go on class trips, any student who receives free lunch from the cafeteria will get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk. Students with specific food allergies (such as peanuts or dairy), will need to pack their own lunch for the trip instead of getting a free one from the lunchroom.”
15. They wish they knew.
The top concern that the teachers shared regarding your child and allergies was shockingly simple: they don’t always know that your child has allergies. One teacher noted that some parents simply forget to tell teachers, others assume they know, and still another talked about how hard it is remember each individual allergy when the only place they really see those allergies is in the student’s grade book.
“It actually happened today,” my mom, Nora, a high school math teacher, told me when I mentioned this topic. “My student ate a fruit snack and she is allergic to fruit. She said she thought she would be ok. She wasn’t. She started breaking out with a rash. I didn’t even know she had allergies.”