So obvious, but absolutely critical. Lost students are not merely the topic of newspaper reports in distant cities. Kindergartners get upset and want to go home. Occasionally one of them does. While you are working with a reading group and everyone else is involved in learning centers, a child can easily slip out and head for home. It may be an hour before her tablemates mention that she is gone. Or a parent who has been volunteering in your classroom may take his son out for a picnic lunch but fail to notify you or the office. After all, it is his son. No one will have any idea where that boy has gone or if he is returning.
It happens all the time. A 5th grade boy who dislikes math asks to go to the bathroom, picks up a jacket from lost and found, and goes from classroom to classroom asking if it belongs to anyone in there. You haven’t realized how long he has been gone, but he has interrupted every room in the school. A 3rd grade boy gets really angry at recess, parks himself outside of the counselor’s door and waits, not realizing that there is no counselor on Fridays. A 2nd grade girl loses her necklace on the playground, panics because her mom told her not to take it to school, slips away from the line, and spends half an hour on the playground looking for it. A 4th grade boy sneaks off down the alley, steals a car, then drives that car back down the alley so his friends can all see him. A 7th grade girl runs across the parking lot and into the unused daycare playground to meet her boyfriend for sex. Two 8th grade girls pause on the way back from the bathroom to go through the shoe pile outside the wrestling room and throw selected pairs on the roof of the church next door. An 8th grade boy keeps looking out the window. When you join him, you notice a former student dropping off a bag of pot in the home team dugout.
When you start watching students, there is so much to see. Middle schools and high schools have mechanisms for tracking attendance every period. If a child doesn’t appear at the next class, the next teacher reports it, and the child is marked truant. Aside from attendance in the morning, elementary schools don’t have built-in structures for tracking children. You must make your own.
For the youngest children, I have seen teachers count them, in English and Spanish, at every door. Some playgrounds have numbered spots for the children to stand on. I also check for a child at every desk at regular times throughout the day, and do random checks from my class list when we are in the library or at assemblies. I often end up calling the nurse or the office for a child I can’t find at the end of recess. The hardest child for our principal to find was the one sitting outside the counselor’s door. That office is up some private stairs and hidden out of the way.
Once we’re in the room, I have a hard and fast rule. No one opens the door until I say so. Don’t lean against it, don’t push on the handle, don’t play with it. I don’t care if it is your day to go first in line. If you can’t follow this rule, give up your spot. I have one student assigned to open the door for guests. This way, I keep an ear out for that special sound and can react fast when I hear it out of place. It doesn’t take the students long to understand that this is for all of our safety, especially as I read the riot act to repeat offenders. (I do not like yelling at my students, but I am quick to go “command and control” whenever there is a safety issue.)
Counting kids has another meaning when you have yard duty and are responsible for all of the children. Ask your students where the kissing spots are. They will be surprised that a teacher cares and will happily tell you. Middle school students appreciate that you check these spots because sexual behavior upsets most of them. You can usually take care of it just by walking toward the bleachers, dugouts, field house, back side of the gym, shrubbery at the edge of the property, and over neighbors’ fences. You may have to go one step farther and remove the cardboard walls they sometimes set up for privacy. All of these places are also favorite places for drug drops from off campus so keep an eye out.
Elementary children as young as 2nd grade like to “go out” as well. I had to grill my 4th/5th combination class to find out specifically what that meant. I knew it wasn’t dinner and a movie. Finally, one of my more forthcoming students said, “You know, Ms. DeWilde, like sit next to each other and hug and kiss and stuff, the same thing grownups do.” Well, okay. We have a playground the size of a postage stamp. Exactly where do they do this? I got quite an education. Now I watch when children disappear under the slide, around the corner of the library, and behind the trailer.
The bottom line is that you can’t let yourself lose track of a child. Ever. Most children make this easy for you, but once in a while, you will have a child who has learned to run away when he gets upset or to leave the room when he feels like it. That will be the year you learn to count twenty times a day.