As a June birthday, I use to envy kids that had birthdays during the school year. I could sense their excitement as they walked into the classroom on their “special” day. A construction paper “crown” placed ever so carefully on their desk announced their new age. I would watch as those wonderfully, nurturing primary teachers would give a gentle hug and wish them a “Happy Birthday”. As I progressed through my elementary school years, bright paper crowns were replaced with construction paper chair back covers, creatively decorated with the birthday student’s name and age, and signed by everyone in the class. Often times, the birthday boy or girl would take over the special duties for the day, like walking the attendance and lunch count down to the office or being the ever so popular line leader. Faint memories of singing Happy Birthday come to mind as well. One thing that I don’t remember? Birthday treats.
I have taught at the elementary school level for 13 years. And birthdays have become a very big deal since I was a kid. Or maybe they have always been a big deal, but I have just developed a different attitude toward them. At times they overtake the whole educational process, and this has me thinking, “What is the best way to handle birthdays in my classroom?”
Now before I begin, I don’t want you to think that I am a party pooper. I totally understand and can appreciate the importance of such milestones. I do. I am also a parent to 3 children of my own, all “graduates” of elementary school and each having a “during the school year” birthday (I would say I planned it that way, so they could avoid the feelings of envy that I experienced, but that would be a lie). I feel at this point in my life I have perspective. And the point I hope to make concerns the controversial birthday treat.
The school district in which I work has guidelines set for birthday treats. They recommend treats like 100% frozen juice pops, frozen yogurt, or smoothies. This of course, is in addition to the “everyday” snack guidelines, which include items like pretzels, fresh fruit, and nuts. They have come a long way since the days when any birthday treat was fair game. Unfortunately, the guidelines are not always followed, so as a teacher, I need to decide between breaking the policy, or offending the family who brought in the “illegal” treat. It’s a tough call to say the least.
When a teacher takes option #1 (not following the policy), it can potentially cause a rift between the teacher and parents who do follow the guidelines. How could it possibly be fair that little Johnny’s mom had to knock herself out searching and searching for a muffin recipe that was low on processed sugar and full of healthy fats while Susie’s mom just picked up cupcakes she pre-ordered from the bakery? I’m thinking little Johnny’s mom might be upset with both Susie’s mom and ME.
The decision also creates friction between teachers. Depending on the parents’ opinion of the policy, some teachers are criticized for following the rules and some are condemned for not. Therefore, some teachers become “much loved” while others become “not so loved”. I have been questioned by parents due to the fact that a previous year’s teacher allowed them to bring in a treat that was “not school approved”, and I wouldn’t allow it. It’s a tough position to be in, causing some resentment toward the teacher who didn’t abide by the rules. It’s very disheartening to know these feelings of “love” or “not being loved” have anything to do with the my teaching ability.
And what about the discrepancy between treats. How does Michael feel when his treat is a box of animal crackers, when Abby supplied pizza and a cookie cake for the entire 3rd grade just the week before? Or how about the student who is not financially able to bring in a treat? Or how about the parents who just don’t care?
The thought of an upcoming birthday treat can throw an entire classroom off kilter, especially in the primary grades. It’s all they can think about. Once the word is out that there is a birthday, the kids think of nothing else. Adding 3 + 5, or learning the “at” chunk is the furthest things from their minds until the treat is finally delivered!
So why not have the treat first thing in the morning? Well, sometimes the schedule does not allow for it. The art teacher frowns upon a class coming to class late, when she has planned a lesson that will take the entire class period. And if a treat is nice and sugary, like in the case of a 100% fruit pop? Kids have this way of reacting to sugar that doesn’t exactly encourage a mentality for learning. What’s worse than one student jacked up on sugar? 25 kids jacked up on sugar!
Birthday treats also take time out of the school day. While parents mean well, (and I was guilty of this) they don’t always think about cutting up that pan of brownies. Just try to find a knife in the elementary school. And how about the cleanup? 25 dripping popsicles create a sticky mess. So do crumbly muffins. Even popcorn isn’t so innocent. Then of course, the “extra treats” need to be delivered to the principal, the secretary, and any previous teacher the student may have had. It all takes time. And it’s not just on one day of the school year. Potentially, it could be 25 days of the school year. That is a lot of lost academic time.
Birthdays are special and they should be recognized! But as memory serves me, it’s not necessarily the food that creates the memories. It’s the recognition and the feeling of being special. I’ll continue to greet my birthday student with a “Happy Birthday” and give them a hug (or a handshake or a high 5…whatever the case may be). I’ll let them be the line leader. I’ll even make them a birthday poster. I’ll give them a Happy Birthday pencil. Because that’s what I’m hoping they will remember. And I’ll encourage my parents to save the treats for the birthday party. That would take the pressure off of us all.