Teaching Third Graders About Diabetes
On the first day of school every year, I ask my third graders to write something about themselves on an index card. After collecting the cards to read aloud, I always start with mine: "I am a diabetic." When I read it, I love to watch my students' expressions as they take it in. Inevitably, a hand will go up and a young voice will say something like, "My grandma has diabetes. She has to get lots of shots." This is where my lesson begins.
I ask my kids what they already know about diabetes. Usually, there are multiple misconceptions to straighten out. Many children think that only older, overweight people have diabetes. They don't realize that anyone, even kids, can get the disease. I try to describe diabetes simply. I explain the difference between type 1 and type 2. And to the kids who worry that they can catch it like the common cold—and I usually have at least one student every year who thinks so—I reassure them that that's not possible. After answering their questions, I show them my insulin pump and my "blood sugar machine." The students love to watch me check my glucose. It's funny how this tool that some people with diabetes try to hide can be so fascinating to kids.
Even though I have never had a student with diabetes, I feel that taking the time to raise awareness is a necessity—not just for my benefit, but also for the benefit of my kids. About 24 million people in the United States live with diabetes. There is a good chance that at some point in my students' lives they will know someone who has diabetes or they will develop it themselves.
I have always tried to surround myself with people who know about my disease. As a teacher, that means I have to be open with my colleagues and even more so with my students. After all, I am around students most of my day. I try to foster a sense of community in my classroom—and what better way to do so than by trusting them with my diabetes? I often have to check my glucose and treat highs and lows in front of my kids. If my students notice me slowing down, or acting more puzzled than usual, they ask me how I am feeling and if I need to check my blood sugar. I love that they have become a part of it.
I was brought up in a family that has accepted and talked about my diabetes since I was diagnosed 20 years ago. Together, we educated other people in our lives, a tradition I'm glad to carry on in my classroom. My students will not remember every lesson I teach or every book I read to them. However, I do believe that they will leave my classroom with a greater awareness of a disease that affects millions of people every day.
And I'm sure that their knowledge of diabetes will help them look after others in their lives, the way they've looked after me. I don't just look at my students as young third graders; I look at them as potential lifesavers.
Margaret Elfelt Byrd lives in Amarillo, Texas, with her husband, Robbie, and her dog, Gunner. Byrd, 28, teaches third grade at Bivins Elementary School.