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Five Secret Strategies for Back to School Success

No matter whether you’re a brand-new teacher or 30-year veteran, every teacher hopes to begin the school year on track to have success. In teacher education programs and schools around the country, there is no shortage of advice for back to school because having a positive start sets the tone for a favorable school year.

However, advice varies and can be confusing. Some educators recommend that teachers refrain from smiling for months while others suggest letting your students sit wherever they want on the first day. In fact, it’s taken me 20 years of teaching to feel confident about my return to school, and I’ve acquired a few strategies to share with you. 

1. Empower yourself by learning student names.

Being called by one’s name immediately develops a positive rapport; students feel recognized and respected as individuals. It’s also an excellent management tool because when students realize you know their names, they’re often less likely to misbehave. If you know a student’s name, it’s easier for you to call his or her parent or identify the student for an administrator.

When learning names, ask the students if they use nicknames and how to pronounce their names correctly. And to make remembering their names easier, make a commitment to learning the students’ names within 2- 3 days. Greet them at the door by their names. Repeat their names throughout class and admit when you make a mistake. Teachers are only human, after all! It may also help to use this free icebreaker or these team builders to learn student names.

2. Minimize chaos by making a seating chart.

Earlier in my teaching career, I took another teacher’s advice and let my students choose their own seats for the first week of school. The philosophy behind this was sound. I’d see who gravitated to whom and know who to separate or allow to be seated together.

However, I found that it didn’t work for me because students immediately sat with their friends and formed cliques. I didn’t want this for my classroom atmosphere. Rather, I try to develop a strong community of learners who can all work together. In addition to the formation of cliques, I also imagine that it was intimidating for any students new to the school or who didn’t have friends in the class.

Furthermore, it let the kids who wanted to pay less attention sit in the back of the classroom when they really should have been up front. Now I organize my seating chart in alphabetical order for the first week of school. This helps me learn their names quickly (see #1) and makes it clear that I’m the class authority. After about a week, I have a better sense of the students’ personalities, group dynamics, and learning needs so that I can rearrange my seating chart in order for students to have academic success.

3. Don’t do all of the talking.

Remember the economics teacher played by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? In one classic scene, he calls out “Anyone? Anyone?” as he drones on to comatose students. Besides boring your students, it will exhaust you, and likely lead you to getting laryngitis.

It may seem hard not to talk at your students during the first days of school (there are so many things to explain, right?) but save everyone’s sanity by encouraging your students to do the talking. In fact, I do an activity called “chunking”  where students explain the syllabus to me!

If you’re still not sure about who should do the talking, think about a recent professional development meeting when the presenter talked for hours on end (maybe with a Power Point) and reflect on how unengaged you and your colleagues felt. Do you want to be that person?

4. Create a calm and peaceful classroom with routines.

Imagine all of the questions your students will have on the first days of school:
  • Will there be homework? 
  • Where will they turn in their papers? 
  • What should they do if they have to go to the bathroom or nurse? 
  • What should they do if they’re absent? 
Some mystery in life may be exciting but not when it comes to attentive students who achieve good grades. Many students are nervous (especially freshman in high school) and they need you to give them tools to accomplish the learning goals. If you don’t already have some of these procedures mapped out, take time before school starts to plan your responses to the innumerable questions your students will have. Once you know the answers, you may want to implement activities that will help them understand your expectations and procedures.

high school, middle school, rules, teaching, educaiton
It's also important to revisit your rules, procedures, and expectations after the first week of school.  Like anything else you teach, true mastery of learning takes review.  That's why I like to use my Back to School Trashketball Game after a couple of weeks have passed.  I usually prefer a fun activity for class on Fridays and this game is helpful when everyone is tired from returning to the hectic school routine.  It brings energy to the room and builds community.

5. Use a flexible teaching approach.

Of course, prepared teachers have plans for their lessons, units, and on-going curriculum, but effective teachers also know that it’s imperative to be able to change and adapt quickly. Life (and people) are unpredictable, and we can’t always foresee the events and discussions that may occur on any given day. For instance, I’ve often found that impromptu class meetings, assemblies, and fire drills will interrupt the sequencing of my lessons, and I’ve learned to not only accept these interruptions, but even relish them at times. (Who doesn’t enjoy a fire drill on a beautifully sunny day?)

I even keep this philosophy in mind throughout my daily teaching. Now that I have many years of teaching experience, I’m likely to change my lessons as the school day proceeds. If something doesn’t work in an earlier class, I may tweak it to work better for the following class. I also consider the different needs and dynamics of each class as I teach throughout the day.

Of course, I still get butterflies in my stomach the night before the school year begins, but they’re not nearly as bad as they were in the past. Implementing these strategies makes the transition from summer to school year go smoother. What helps you at the beginning of the year? I’m always interested in getting new ideas and insights. Add yours in the comments below.

Back to School Stress? 5 Ways to Take Care of Yourself!

self-care, bts, back to school, stress

It’s that time of year again.

After enjoying a relaxing summer, stress levels skyrocket with the return to a busy school schedule. If you’re like me, you may have enjoyed waking up without an alarm clock, drinking your morning coffee or tea at a leisurely pace, and spending quality time with family and friends. But now that you’re back to work, time is limited for those activities.

It can be difficult to transition to the hectic pace of the school year, so it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself as you return to school. Of course, that’s easier said than done. So, here are a few suggestions for self-care that are reminders as you try to shift back to your school routine.

Stay Active

1. I don’t know about you but because my summer schedule is calmer, I am much better at getting exercise and going to the gym than during the school year. I’ve been taking spin and yoga classes throughout the summer, but once the school year starts and I can’t exercise in the morning, it’s much harder for me to get to the gym. (I’m not a person who can wake up and go to the gym before school.) Although I may miss my workouts at the gym when September returns, I can still get outdoors after school and take long walks. Though they’re not as demanding as my spin classes, these walks refresh me and still burn calories.

If I have a little more time, I may kayak or ride my bike. These activities help improve my energy and provide the added benefit of boosting my vitamin D from the sunshine. Hopefully, you can also find time to stay active. Like me, it can be as simple as an afternoon walk. Consider what activities you can do to stay active that aren’t time-consuming.

Say No

2. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in
new teachers, back to school, self-care strategies
over 20+ years of teaching. “No” is such a little word, but sometimes it’s tough to say. Administrators, students, parents, and other teachers always make innumerable requests during the school year. Whether it’s attending a school talent show, chaperoning a dance, or teaching an after-school program, people always ask me to do more! No doubt, I enjoy attending some of these events, but I have to limit extra activities to one or two a week. If I don’t say “no,” I won’t have any time left over to take care of myself.

New teachers should especially heed this advice. If you’re a new teacher, you already have too much to handle, and you need to protect your time so you can effectively manage lesson planning, grading, communicating with parents, etc. (The list never ends). You may be inundated with requests for help because the demand for club advisors, coaches, and committee participants is always high. Please set boundaries and empower yourself! Really, it’s only two letters…N-O

Get Sleep

3. When switching from my summer schedule back to a school routine, it’s important to make sure I get enough sleep. In the summer when the days are longer, I go to bed later at night. In fact, I do everything later, including waking up, socializing, and eating dinner. But with the early mornings of the school year, I have to make sure I go to bed earlier, so I start winding down right after dinner. This means that I need to turn off my cell phone and walk away from the television. Without those distractions, I can often get to sleep by ten on a school night and get my full eight hours of sleep.

You should try to do the same. Don’t grade papers in bed and don’t bring your laptop into the bedroom. Find relaxing

activities that will help you quiet your brain. Include time before you go to bed to listen to soothing music, take a bath, enjoy a glass of wine, or read a pleasurable book. If those strategies don’t work, and you find yourself struggling to sleep, try deep breathing or meditation. I’ve found an app called Calm that helps me on those nights when I have insomnia.

Continue Summer Hobbies

4. In the summer, I cultivate and tend a small garden of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. I make sure to water and prune the plants, and I enjoy the reward of fresh vegetables. I also spend more time with my dog, taking him for drives to the beach or park. Unfortunately, with my busy school schedule, I frequently forget to care for the garden, or I neglect my pup. Ultimately, work’s interference with these activities makes me resentful.

To keep from getting irritable and to improve my mood, I consciously devote time to continuing summer activities. Furthermore, maintaining my garden reminds me to cook and eat healthy. And when it’s too cold or dark to keep up with these hobbies, I add new ones that fit the season. (My husband and I compete in Fantasy Football league with friends.) If you have summer hobbies, schedule time to enjoy them even when summer break ends.

Pamper Yourself

5. When I meet my new students and start teaching after summer vacation, it’s easy for me to get consumed with work. I have long work days followed by evening activities such as back-to-school night during the first months back. Work and home responsibilities feel overwhelming. In the past, I’ve neglected to honor my self-worth. A few small indulgences like getting a manicure or massage make me feel better and cheer me up when I’m sad that summer is over. Don’t feel guilty and make sure you pamper yourself, too! In fact, research shows that taking care of your emotional well-being improves your ability to be there for others.

Occasionally, during extra busy weeks, I struggle to practice self-care more than usual weeks. Sometimes, I’m in a bind to find an engaging lesson for a new concept I’m teaching, or I need a good substitute lesson plan for when I don’t feel well.

At these times, I search for teaching resources that I can download for a few dollars. I know that teacher authors have worked hours to make excellent teaching materials so I can take care of myself. It’s not selfish to prioritize our health over work responsibilities.

The truth is that teachers are so generous with their time that they may be inattentive to their own physical and mental health. Overtired and burnt-out teachers are short-tempered, lethargic, and frequently ill. But by sacrificing their health, they end up being able to give less of themselves. If you’re one of those teachers, remember that by helping yourself, you’re also helping your students, colleagues, and others in your community!

I’ve shared ways that I purposefully care for myself. What do you do for yourself? I’m always looking for new ways to live a more balanced life, so please share in the comments below.

How to Keep High School Students Focused When They're Distracted

high school life

High school life is busy...last week our school celebrated homecoming, and as usual, everyone was distracted by “dress-up” days, evening activities (class competitions, a talent show, a teacher-student volleyball game), voting for the homecoming court, and of course, the dance. To say the least, it made teaching challenging!

New Teacher Mistakes

When I was a new teacher, I never paid attention to special times of the school year- whether they were traditional holidays, special field trips, popular dances, or important sports competitions. I took myself and my job too seriously- expecting that nothing would interfere with my students’ learning. Unfortunately, I had the mindset that students were in school to learn, and they needed to manage themselves better if life distracted them. 

Of course, this didn’t make me a very successful teacher during these times, but fortunately I’ve learned from my mistakes! Over the years, I’ve realized that teachers need to be flexible. I was a student once, too, and even though it was a long time ago (a really long time ago), I remember how exciting these special times of the school year were, so I shouldn’t fault my students for being distracted. Instead, now I try to help them manage their enthusiasm for these activities while they also continue to learn.

Tips for Managing Distractions

spirit weeks, holidays, school distractions
Here are a few strategies that I use to help make these weeks manageable:

1. Acknowledge there is a distraction and plan ahead! It’s not the wisest decision to make the Monday after homecoming weekend (or Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or prom, etc.) the due date for a major assignment or project. The reality is that many students will not complete the assignment. Then you will have to decide if you’ll let students submit it as a late assignment or fail the project. If they fail, are they learning? Ultimately, adding a day or two to the deadline and making the due date on the Tuesday or Wednesday after a special weekend gives them a weeknight or two to finish homework and will result in less stress and hassle for you and the students.

Parents will also appreciate this forward-thinking. For instance, at holidays, many parents struggle to balance travel plans with school schedules. They will thank you for making it so their children don’t have to stay up late into the night after arriving home from a delayed flight at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday.

prom, special events in school2. However, it's still important to keep students accountable during these weeks. (Yes, I know that I just said I loosen up due dates but it's still important to set the expectation for learning). Although it’s important to recognize the holiday or event taking place, and maybe even incorporate a few fun activities, it’s important to continue with lessons from the regular curriculum. In my classes, students have vocabulary assignments every day, and I make sure to collect them. We also continue our weekly grammar and reading lessons.  I often choose an interesting story such as "The Story of an Hour" or "The Lottery" that requires critical thinking to help them stay focused.

With my high school students, I also talk with them about planning ahead. (In fact, at the beginning of the school year, I use problem-solving writing prompts to help them prepare for upcoming challenges.) For example, I tell them that they may want to complete their upcoming vocabulary index cards during the weekend before a spirit week or holiday. (I give them this advice when they will have a busy week at after-school jobs or in sports, too.) This way they can enjoy the evening activities that take place during our homecoming week. No doubt, this is a helpful life lesson for the many events that will distract them in their futures at college and in work.

3. Participate in some of the fun. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I honestly don’t feel that excited about homecoming anymore. (Between being a high school student and teacher, I’ve participated in 20 homecoming weeks and numerous dances.)  However, I still want to connect with the students and show my school spirit. 

Therefore, I choose a few days to dress-up for during the week. My students notice that I’m taking part in activities that happen outside of English class, and it opens conversations with them about their interests, hobbies, and life outside of school. Even though I think my English class should be the center of everyone’s attention (haha), lots of my students, parents, and other staff members won’t agree. They have their own interests and priorities, and it's important to accept that.   As you can see, my colleague and I dressed up for "Twins Day."

4. Maintain regular routines. I believe that structure and routines are beneficial to my students’ learning. They know they can expect certain warm ups, lessons, and activities on specific days of the week. For example, they know that I always start with journal writing on Mondays and that we begin class with silent sustained reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This helps me plan my semester and provides consistency. 

As much as possible, I maintain these routines during special weeks during the school year. Sometimes those weeks and events make them anxious. (They may be worried about who they'll go to the dance with or what they will wear to Homecoming.)  When students know there are daily routines and expectations, it actually helps calm their nerves.  Structure at school also helps me meet some of their emotional needs.

I hope by sharing some of my previous challenges and how I've learned to deal with them, you can avoid some of the pitfalls I've had in past years.  What advice do you have for keeping students focused during the holiday season or other eventful times during the school year? I’m always interested in new ideas so please share in the comments below!

Why You Should Show These TED Talks for Back to School

classroom management, speaking, listening, classroom-culture

Oh, no! It’s back to school, and time for teachers to greet their new students, create routines, complete team builders, and make their classrooms welcoming. But with the pressure to cover extensive curriculum in a short amount of time, secondary teachers may feel tempted to skip the process of creating a positive classroom culture and delve straight into their content. It’s a mistake, however, to ignore the importance of building safe and inclusive classrooms which encourage students to participate actively in their learning.

beginning of the year, high school EnglishThat’s why you should show some of the TED Talks noted
below at the beginning of the school year. Even though you may not think you have the time, these TED Talks from diverse speakers are great filler activities for those days when a lesson finishes early or when you need an activity to get all of your classes on the same schedule. Best of all, they’re a meaningful way for students to practice their listening and speaking skills. Furthermore, they develop students multimedia literacy skills and they spark student interest.
These talks teach important lessons for the beginning of the school year, communicating life lessons such as overcoming obstacles, having gratitude, and being productive.

Megan Washington - Fear of Public Speaking (12:58)
Lots of people, including students in all of our classes, are afraid to speak in public – even if that’s just in the classroom. This talk by Australian singer Megan Washington may inspire more willingness in your students to speak up. In the talk, Washington shows how she converted her speech disability into her passion and success in life. Students will love hearing her sing, also!

Olivia Remes - How to Cope With Anxiety (15:15)

With student anxiety increasing at alarming rates, this recent TED talk will be helpful for many kids in your classrooms. Olivia Remes, from the University of Cambridge, explains the science behind anxiety and discusses the importance of gaining coping skills. She also describes several ways students can take charge of their anxiety.

Mac Burnett - Why a Good Book is a Secret Door (16:59)

Motivate your students to seek out “wonder” in the reading of books with this funny, entertaining talk by children’s author Mac Burnett. He reminds us that reading provides avenues for imagination, art, fiction, and reality. His talk is perfect for motivating students in English class right before they visit the school library for selecting novels during choice reading units.

Julian Treasure - 5 Ways to Listen Better (7:43)

How much of what you say do your students remember? In a world that often assaults our senses and distracts our attentions, Julian Treasure argues that we are losing our ability to listen to one another. In this talk, he offers strategies to improve our listening skills, and most importantly, the listening skills of our students.

Shonda Rhimes - My Year of Saying Yes to Everything (17:25)

Shonda Rhimes, producer of hit television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, calls herself a “titan” and brags about her impressive success in this talk. She also shares how she confronted burn-out and learned a valuable lesson while saying “yes” to everything she was asked. Her daughters unwittingly taught her to seek out joy in life. This talk helps students keep perspective and is especially
beneficial for high achievers.

Jarrett Krosoczka - Why Lunch Ladies are Heroes (5:14)

This children’s author who wrote books about superhero lunch ladies tells his audience about the importance of validating everyone – even those who don’t usually get recognized. It would make an effective video at the beginning of a kindness activity, and students may want to thank a variety of school staff members – custodians, school nurses, library staff, etc.

Jia Jang - What I learned from 100 days of Rejection (15:31)

Using humor and personal anecdotes, Jang talks about how he remembered experiences from his youth and, thus, decided to take chances that led to 100 days of rejection. He learned to be a stronger, more courageous person in the process, and acquired valuable lessons such as turning a “no” into a “yes.” This talk will teach students the power of perseverance and to embrace rejection. 

Amy Cuddy - Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are (20:48)

Teach students to use “power poses” to build their confidence with this authentic talk from Amy Cuddy. In this talk, Cuddy, a social psychologist, uses scientific research to show that both humans and animals demonstrate power and dominance through their body language. She explains that physiology affects psychology, so she teaches people the importance of the mantra, “fake it till you make it.” She also supports her claim by sharing her personal experience of overcoming a brain injury after being in a horrible car accident. At the end of the talk, get your students to practice their poses!

Of course, it’s important to preview these talks to ensure that they will be appropriate for your students. Most should appeal to secondary students in any content area.

Now that I’ve shared some of my favorites, do you have TED talks or other videos that you recommend for BTS? Please share about them in the comments below.

End of the Year Survival - Choose Your Battles

discipline, end-of-year

As the school year comes closer to an end, teachers and students are tired. The end of the year is in sight but there are still things to accomplish- a unit, a test, a graduation ceremony…and on and on. Unfortunately, when people are tired, they may not be on their best behavior. If we acknowledge this fact, it makes getting through the last months and weeks a little easier.

When I was a younger teacher, I wish I had considered this reality more. I was idealistic, enthusiastic, and wanted perfection. Well-meaning family, friends, and colleagues suggested to me that not all battles were worth fighting (or at least, not all battles were worth fighting all of the time). Although they shared their wisdom with me, I didn’t hear it until I became a more experienced teacher. I’m passing this advice along to others in case they can do a better job at listening than me.

Don’t argue about a missing pencil or pen.

Yes, it’s annoying that one of the only tasks your students may have is to bring their supplies to class. You may think: Why can’t they just do this one little thing? It may make you feel offended, even, that they don’t care enough to come to your class prepared.

But it’s not worth the battle. Too many of the students are going to forget pencils and pens, and most of the time they haven’t done it on purpose. Maybe they left them in their last class, or maybe they couldn’t afford to buy new ones…who knows? Save your energy for more important problems and give them a pencil or pen.

At the end of most classes, I usually have a couple of pens and pencils that have been left behind. Often, I pick them up and put them in a cup, and students can grab one when they need one. Not only does it help students, but it also helps the environment by reusing them.

Sometimes, I ask my stepfather to bring me pencils from the

golf course where he works. It’s funny how students will suddenly remember their pencils when they have to use mini-golf pencils in class. Ultimately, it’s better that they can get their work and learning accomplished (and they’re less of a disruption in my class).

Let them make up their missing assignments.

If students haven’t completed assignments but demonstrate a willingness to get them completed, I let them do the work and just don’t give them full credit. The point is that they will hopefully learn the concepts and pass my class, moving on to the next grade level.

There may be reasons that I’m unaware of which are impacting the student. I try to find out why they lack motivation.

  • Is there something going on at home? 
  • Do they need to work at night to help support the family?  
Frequently, I seek out the guidance counselor or other staff to provide assistance if a student is overwhelmed.

And if it’s just a matter of laziness, it’s probably better for them to pass my class. Frankly, if a student receives the lowest passing grade, how much better is that than a failing grade? Colleges know the difference between a well-earned “A” or a low “D”. By requiring lethargic students to continually retake classes, they take up the time and resources that I could use to help other students who may need my time more.

Don’t punish every tardy.

Have you ever been late to a meeting or appointment? Is it always because you’re a rude and selfish person? Most likely not, and that’s the same for many of our students.

Lateness to class is a battle that I fight diligently earlier in the

school year because I don’t want to send the message that it’s okay for them to be tardy to class. If a student has more than two tardies, I expect them to make up the missed time after school with me. That’s a logical consequence, and I can help them with material they missed when they were tardy.

However, by the end of the school year, I often allow a student a couple more tardies before I ask them for detention. Truthfully, I’ve talked with former students and found out that sometimes it’s their parents’ fault for bringing their them late to school anyway. Is that really the student’s fault?

Give them a couple of minutes on their cell phones at the end of class.

I hate cell phones in class. Now that our students have computers, I don’t see any reason for them to be on cell phones. They’re a major distraction and often lead to cyber bullying. Consequently, I have a hanging shoe organizer in my classroom, and I ask students to put their phones in an assigned pocket at the beginning of every class.

To make my policy less confrontational, I tell them that if they

agree to do this and don’t argue with me about putting their phones away, I’ll give them two – three minutes at the end of class to check their phones.

Do I lose instructional time? Yes, but to me it’s worth minimizing the battles with cell phones, which also end up disrupting instruction. By creating this policy, students are more engaged throughout most of class when they could have been sneaking looks on their phones instead.

Let them go to the bathroom.

No matter how much time students have in between classes, there are always students who tell me that they can’t get to the bathroom in the minutes between our class bells. Do I believe them? Sometimes, but most often not. They’re likely chatting with friends instead of using that time for the restroom.

But if a student really can’t get to the bathroom, I’d hate to be the one teacher to prevent them from using it. It’s the truth that sometimes there are long lines to the bathroom in between classes. And sometimes students have personal health reasons to use the bathroom frequently.

I know that I would be frustrated if I was told that I couldn’t’ use the restroom during a professional meeting. This being said, I do try to limit students’ use of the bathroom.

First, I ask if it’s it an emergency. Usually they will say “no.” Or, I might ask them to finish part of their classwork before they go to the restroom. I also require a signed pass so that I can keep track of their departures. If it’s continually an issue with a student, it may even be worth talking to a school nurse.

It’s not a free-for-all.

Of course, choosing your battles doesn’t mean letting your classroom become chaotic and unmanaged. It doesn’t mean lowering expectations. I still expect students to bring their silent sustained reading books every day, and they’re required to make up assignments when they’re absent. They are also expected to be attentive during class. Furthermore, I keep lessons academically focused through the last day of school.

I know some of you won’t agree with my advice. In fact, my younger self may not have agreed with my older self, but now I know better. I hope my wisdom helps you, too!

Of course, I’m always interested in new ideas and strategies. Feel free to add your tips in the comments below to help make the end of the school year go smoothly.

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