If you ask elementary school teachers to explain their everyday duties to the uninitiated, you will get a fairly long list of responsibilities residing outside the realm of reading, writing and arithmetic. There exists an unwritten—yet expected—job description that simultaneously demands we assume the role of parent, social worker and medical provider.
One example: Many teachers are accustomed to putting on plastic gloves and maneuvering pencil erasers to check small heads for nits (louse eggs) and head lice. It is an “Eek!”-inducing affair that causes most of us to scratch at imaginary bugs for hours afterward. Yet, we brave the creepy crawlies in the best interest of the child. If we find nits, a letter is sent home informing the parents and providing instructions for how to get rid of them. If active lice are found amongst the hair follicles, the school nurse takes over and the child is sent home for treatment.
The cycle of screening and treatment usually continues for several weeks as the critters enjoy the hospitality of their young hosts and outbreaks remain a daily occurrence. The added concern of bedbugs permeates our diligent search for tiny insects.
It is no surprise, then, that this becomes a topic of discussion amongst teachers. It freaks us out. It makes us uncomfortable. It also provides a showcase for some of our implicit biases when we try to figure out how it all began.
Implicit bias, as described by Zaretta Hammond in “Is Implicit Bias Racist?,” are “the unconscious attitudes and beliefs that shape our behavior toward someone perceived as inferior or as a threatening outsider.” Teachers operate within unquestioned assumptions every day. We all do. In cases of lice and bedbugs, I started to notice how we perceived some students as “more likely” to introduce them into the classroom environment based on things like socio-economic status. In one instance, everyone figured it was the boy whose illiterate parents lived with him in a shelter, but we were surprised to learn that, no, it was the boy with educated parents living in a middle-class home. Digging deeper, I began to notice how these assumptions trickled down into other aspects of the day, from who got hugs to speculations about which parents read with their children.
Hammond offers tips to bring implicit bias to consciousness. These begin with checking our assumptions and looking for patterns of inequality, which have relevance in terms of lice. Our biases can influence our behavior in subtle ways, yet children perceive our unspoken attitudes even if we are not quite clear about them ourselves.
Thankfully, we can test ourselves for hidden biases surrounding stereotypes and prejudices. A little self-knowledge coupled with a smidge of education about the actual repercussions of nits, lice and bedbugs can help assuage potentially hurtful interactions stemming from unintended discrimination.
After doing a check for critters, if I find any, I always initiate a class discussion to gauge reaction and promote understanding. These talks not only help the students but also serve to reinforce an empathic, educated response from any adults in the room.
Next, a read aloud of David Shannon’s book Bugs in My Hair! allows us to approach the topic with humor. Never underestimate the value of an amusing illustration or characters whose over-the-top reactions allow readers to laugh and learn simultaneously.
Finally, we share some facts:
- Anyone is susceptible.
- Lice are annoying but ultimately harmless.
- If an outbreak occurs, keep long hair pulled back, refrain from daily washing (lice do not like dirty hair or hair with product in it).
- Treatment can be found with over-the-counter delousing shampoos and nit combs.
- Wash clothing and bedding in hot water, vacuum rugs and place what you cannot wash or vacuum in plastic bags for two weeks to kill lice.
Most of all, lice are not a commentary on cleanliness, education or socio-economic status. They are simply a result of close interactions amongst children and an unfortunate reality in elementary school classrooms. We may not be able to change that, but we can certainly change how we respond.
Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.