Teachers across America started returning to school this week and many more will follow over the next two. Some are still trying to recover from the mishaps and sleep deprivation of last year, but most return with optimism. They have charted their course for the new year and set sail with a calm, steady wind at their back. Let’s be realistic though. That calm, steady wind can easily turn into a typhoon by the end of September when the grading gets heavy, the students lose interest, and the meetings seem endless. Try not to panic. Take a deep breath and know that educators and parents around the world are rooting for you. I am going to recommend taking a proactive approach. Rather than being surprised when the unavoidable waves rock your boat, prepare for them now by focusing on the four key elements mentioned last week: integrity, accountability, respect, and support.
As teachers, many things are out of your control, so focus on the things you can manage. Set up a support system now, or even a variety of support systems. Most schools mandate that you attend common planning meetings. It took me a long time to learn to make the most of them. Sure, my team and I would discuss what curriculum we planned to cover in the next week or two, as well as ideas for projects, essays, or quizzes but more often than not, we were all teaching the curriculum our own way and frequently considered these meetings a waste of time. Often the conversations prompted some creative idea we might like to try, but how often do teachers find the time to implement these innovative new lessons once the school year is in full swing. My advice is to get with your team now, before the students arrive, and decide on some things that are standard that each of you can contribute on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean you have to teach the same things the same way all the time but use each other. Perhaps one team member wants to be responsible for finding a current supplemental reading related to the unit, another wants to find an introductory video, and someone else wants to put the notes students will take into a brief PowerPoint. You can each still do different activities with those materials; however, you don’t each have to create all you will need to teach the unit. Decide on responsibilities now, so you can get into a routine and make those mandatory meetings a little more productive.
Develop a support group among your colleagues to not talk about work. Meet after school once a week to walk the perimeter of the campus or go off campus for a bite to eat. Do something together to de-stress. If you really can’t make the time, then plan an occasional grading party. Grading is often silent and solitary. Why not grade with a friend to music and snacks? Eat lunch with your colleagues and don’t talk about students. Make that thirty minutes when you are trying to miraculously heat up your food, ingest it, and squeeze in a restroom break a complaining free zone. Trust me! You need that mental break or you will burn out. If you don’t put these things into place now, you will find excuses later and the stress will get to you. It is inevitable. Teaching is a stressful job. You support your students all the time; make sure you get support too.
Another easy way to gain support is to write notes. Write a few notes to yourself and post them places where you will see them when you really need them. For instance, in your desk drawer next to your pen place a note saying, “You can do this” or “You do get summers off for this”. Put a note on your stash of referrals that says, “Breathe”, “Don’t let them see you sweat”, or “Yes, this day is almost over”. Write what you know will bring a smile to your face. Periodically leave a note for a colleague. You never know when they might need the encouragement. Get the support of your students by leaving notes for them as well. And don’t just give them to the “good” students. Give that student whom you regularly write up a note that says, “Your behavior sometimes makes me crazy, but I love you anyway” and it just might make him/her straighten up for a few days. Now I know you only have so much time in your day, but set a goal to write notes to five students a month, whatever you think you can stick to, and then do it. They don’t have to be long; one sentence is enough. I’ve seen students slip those notes into the front of their binder and keep them there all year; that is how much it means to them that you gave them something you didn’t have to give.
Hold yourself and your colleagues accountable. It is unrealistic to think that we can do it all; know your limitations, set goals you absolutely have to accomplish, and then follow thru. Administrators and district leaders expect teachers to do a million things that are next to impossible to complete in a near to normal work schedule. Don’t kill yourself working eighty hours a week because even when you do, someone is bound to be disappointed and you will definitely be disgruntled. Try to anticipate as much as possible the expectations of those in charge and make a commitment now. What things absolutely need to be accomplished and what things can take a backseat? Now hold yourself accountable for getting those items you know are mandatory done. Set a limit on how many hours you plan to commit to work each week or how late you will allow yourself to stay at school each day. You won’t always be able to stick to your guns, but try. Set a timer so you don’t look up from your desk and suddenly realize it’s 6pm, you’ve been grading for three hours, your stomach is growling, and your family is probably getting ready to send out a search party. Set up a partnership with a coworker in a nearby classroom to shoo each other out of the building by a certain time each day. If you are always the last teacher to leave (like I always was), then make friends with the custodians and get them to politely kick you out. Unless it is the end of the grading period, leave work at work. Don’t take things home with you, at least not on a regular basis. You do want to hold onto your sanity until the end of the year, don’t you?
Finally, show respect, earn respect, and maintain your integrity as much as possible. Do what you can to develop a positive and open relationship with your administration. Respect your administrators enough to be honest about how things are going in your classroom, whether you do it in person or on the yearly school climate survey. Politely, let them know when you feel their expectations are unrealistic. You don’t have to be rude or go on the offensive. Let them know you are trying to be the best teacher possible, but you are struggling to meet all of their expectations. Ask for clarification on how to complete a task or the reasoning behind a certain task. Ask for support but also be prepared to offer support. Earn the respect of fellow teachers by pulling your weight, keeping to the schedule, and being positive. I’m as guilty as they come in regards to being pessimistic when stressed and yes, everyone needs to vent sometimes, but try not to be negative all the time. Be respectful to your students, even when they pluck your last nerve. Remember that though you might have behavior problems in your classroom, other students are also struggling to learn and maintain their positivity during the distractions. Don’t lose their respect by arguing and making the disruption worse. Handle it calmly and move on. Respect your students by making lessons meaningful. That doesn’t mean your class needs to be fun and games all the time but don’t just give worksheets and busy work.
I am quite sure that none of this is new information. However, I also know from experience that these things are often pushed to the side and forgotten once the school year gets under way when time is limited and stress is high. Remember that you are a superhero and though I am no longer in your club, I will pray for you each and every day. May this be your best year teaching yet!