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Sweet Little Agents of Infection

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

I'm a touchy-feely kind of person. As a middle school teacher, I used the hand-on-shoulder gesture to calm down angry boys, and gentle one-finger contact to indicate everything from "let's get moving, guys" to "cool shirt!" A principal once requested that I refrain from hugging students at the annual Awards Night, because it "embarrassed the other teachers" and made the program too long.

I know that being a motherly middle aged woman made me more trustworthy to parents and kids; I never worried about inappropriate contact. In fact, on the rare occasion when someone flinched at being touched, I wondered what was going on in that kid's life, and kept a special eye out for signs of depression or abuse.

After decades of teaching in secondary environments, I moved to a position teaching elementary music—a kind of touchy-feely banquet. Almost 500 children (with their attendant secretions and incubating viruses) passed through my classroom every week, and most of them wanted a hug, right now. The teacher I replaced had some words of wisdom for me as she was moving her stuff out and I was moving in: "Don't let the children touch you." As I helped put the last plastic crates in her trunk, she added that anti-bacterial hand gel would become my best friend.

I know the arguments against physical contact with kids: It can be misconstrued. It's wise to keep the focus on instructional activities, and a little distance makes for a more formal academic atmosphere. In my college music methods class, we were instructed never to touch a child's fingers when demonstrating a drumstick grip or clarinet fingering, but to use a pencil instead. I don't remember anyone ever telling me not to touch the kids because they were agents of infection, however.

Like most teachers, I actively try to maintain my health. I get enough sleep, exercise, take vitamins and get a flu shot religiously every fall. As a middle school band teacher, I knew that contact with saliva was inevitable and kept soap and bleach handy next to the sink. I've made it through entire school years with no illnesses, although I was very occasionally knocked down by a respiratory infection.

The year I went to elementary school was a different story altogether. By mid-year, I'd been sick enough to be out of school five times, sometimes for multiple-day stretches. Most teachers know that it's often easier to come to school even when you don't feel tiptop, but these were days where I simply could not tough it out. I had symptoms you wouldn't want to mention at a dinner party, the Bronchitis That Wouldn't Leave, and a full-blown asthma attack requiring emergency attention.

I'm still not certain what caused these illnesses. I was housed in a rundown portable classroom, with two dusty window units supplying heat (lots of heat) in the winter and air-conditioning when it was warm enough (which is almost never in Michigan). The "air flow system" comprised two features—the quarter-inch wall cracks between the two halves of the portable (which I covered up with posters) and a broken vent, through which snow drifted when the wind was right.

I spent most of my music budget on a large circular carpet (cut from a remnant) because the floor was disgusting—covered with duct tape and who knows what else. There was no water source (or phone or computer, either). Surprisingly, I liked this classroom. It had a funky, casual ambience that matched my improvisational teaching style and eccentric classroom d├ęcor (heavy on collected student artwork and goofy music stuff).

I don't think it was the room that caused me to become ill, however. I think it was the centerpiece of my work—the adorable children, who rocketed through the slush and up the splintery steps ready to sing, move and play instruments. Little kids want to sit next to the teacher, hold her hand in the circle dance, and breathe heavily and moistly in her immediate vicinity.

In my diary from that memorable year, I wrote this entry as the winter holidays approached:

"I find it impossible to resist the affectionate gestures—the hug from Dusty (who lost his dad in a terrible accident last fall), the squeeze from Ashlee (who desperately needs a friend), and even the quick around-the-middle from Harrison (who picks his nose, and gets a full pump of hand gel from me every time he enters the room). I know they're probably making me sick, but I haven't been able to draw the line my predecessor recommended and tell them to keep their hands to themselves."

"I'm hoping that I can open the windows, come spring, and we'll all be a little healthier. In the meantime, I'm doubling up the vitamins and buying hand gel in the large economy size."

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