On the first week of my first year of teaching, I learned how important birthdays are to young children. It was one of Tina’s first birthdays since being adopted, and her mom, who worked at my school, kindly asked if I could do a little something to make the day special for her. I remember her excitement at handing out cupcakes, and I remember her asking when we were going to sing.
Personally, I never want to sing happy birthday. I think it’s a cheesy, awkward song. But to children, it isn’t cheesy. It’s a moment where you’re showered with attention and allowed to enjoy it. A birthday is a day where everyone is supposed to be nice to you, and for young humans, it means a lot.
The software we used to take attendance would show a little candle next to someone’s name if their birthday was within a week. Whenever I saw the candle, I’d panic just a little, worrying again that I’d forget to stock the prize box with cool toys, or let them down by failing to set aside enough time in the day for a mini-celebration.
Eventually, I started making “birthday bags,” little gift bags with trinkets and candy that I could give to a student on their birthday as we sang before dismissal. I made a little tradition where the birthday kid could pick any game to play in class (usually Seven Up, or Simon Says) and even pick a Kidz Bop song to play on YouTube and dance with the class. I got that birthday thing down.
Then, last Friday, the first Friday of the 2021-2022 school year, happened.
As the class and I sat down to review the calendar and today’s schedule, I noticed that Casey’s birthday was this weekend, but she was absent today. She came in later, but her birthday totally slipped my mind. And surprisingly, she didn’t mention it.
Around 2:00, the school secretary came by with an envelope for me and didn’t say what it was. I assumed it was something related to the staff meeting we would have later, that I could look at after dismissal, and continued teaching and monitoring the students in their small groups. After all, It was a particularly hectic afternoon.
Several girls were crying for an unknown reason. One was on YouTube, instead of the math site we were supposed to be on. The school custodian came in to let me know he caught two girls throwing paper towels all over the restroom. On top of all that, dismissal time was forty-five minutes away.
Masterfully, I calmed the crying girls and helped them talk through their feelings. I directed the girls in the restroom to clean up their mess, and affirmed to the class that that kind of behavior is not acceptable. I clarified that avoiding your work by using unapproved websites like YouTube would result in a call home to your parents, and you would have to make up the work during one of our break times. I coordinated the last part of our school day, which involved picking new class jobs for the next week, celebrating the wonderful writing work we completed, and cleaning our desks.
The students were dismissed, and I walked them outside to wait to be picked up. That’s when Casey walked back over to me with her mom, who asked, “Did you get to hand out those birthday invitations?”
My stomach dropped. Of course. The envelope. But why didn’t Casey mention it was her birthday this morning, when we looked at the calendar, I wondered. Oh right. She came in late today. And it slipped my mind.
I did the only thing I could do: I apologized, ran back to get them, and helped Casey hand out the invitations to all the girls still waiting to be picked up. I promised Casey and her mom that we would sing Happy Birthday and give her the birthday bag on Monday.
But I felt like a failure. Even though we finished our writing projects for the week, had a wonderfully successful math lesson that morning, and lined up quickly after all of our outdoor break times, I had failed that day because I didn’t pass out those invitations. I let Casey down, on her special day.
It was a non-teacher friend who reassured me that the situation wasn’t my fault.
The parent didn’t send me an email. The student didn’t know she was supposed to hand them out. The invitations landed on my desk at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. And, birthdays are not academic. It’s not my job to celebrate your child’s birthday.
I’m still conflicted on this point. And I’d like to mention that the parents did not blame me (at least, not to my face). The student didn’t seem all that bothered. And, on Monday, when I was supposed to make it up to her, Casey was absent. When she finally came to school on Wednesday, she remembered to remind me to sing happy birthday for her several times throughout the school day. Even when I was teaching. Especially when she was supposed to be working on something.
What is a teacher’s job? Obviously, it is to teach Math, Reading, and Writing to young minds. By extension, it is to promote good learning habits and behavior, including taking turns, teamwork, organization, etc.
But where do we draw the line between teaching and parenting? I have several students who can’t tie their shoes. Should I set time aside to teach them?