Earlier this week, I posted Useless Advice for Teachers. Since I try to be a positive person, I thought I’d share some advice that actually was useful in my career. Most of these involve the phrase, ‘Time is money, friend.’ from the goblins of World of Warcraft. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you only live once. Being a miserable is not worth it, and teaching is a job that can quickly cause burnout if you’re not careful. So here are my bits of helpful advice:
- Take care of yourself first. By now, you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the meme that says ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ This is definitely true for teachers, which is exhausting in a multitude of ways. Even a day where students are mostly self-directed requires a ton of multitasking and decision making on the part of the teacher. If you are tired, hungry, sick, or grumpy, it will affect your ability to teach well. Obviously, you can’t just skip work every time you don’t feel well, but it’s super important for us to be taking care of our physical and mental health. Get enough sleep. Eat decent food. See a doctor if you’re sick – yes, even if you have to take a day off and your students will probably not make a lot of progress on the day you’re gone. The students will learn a lot less if you have to take multiple days off to recover from a more severe illness! Martina Bex just had a fantastic post for those kinds of days where you literally can’t even – you can find it here. (While this post was sitting in draft-land, I also ran across this wonderful article called “When is it okay to say you’ve done ‘enough’ for a student?” which discusses the pressure put on teachers to give 110% to every student every day, regardless of the personal repercussions.)
- Grade only what you have to. In the same vein of taking care of yourself, one thing that keeps many teachers up late at night and working through their lunch break is grading. Some advice that I received in college that is part of my teaching mantra is to grade only what I have to. From the get-go, I have only put in 2-3 weekly formative assessment grades and a summative grade every few weeks. In fact, my biggest problem is forgetting to do summative assessments. I am constantly informally assessing students. With every question I ask, I am wondering, ‘Do you get it?’ If a student can’t answer, then I know we need to back up and try again. Even such minimal grading with only a pool of about 65 students still takes me hours each week. And I know it’s much worse for most other teachers. Grading is also something that can wait. Truly, your students will not suffer if you take another day to return daily classwork. (However, the caveat is that you need to return graded-for-accuracy or graded-for-content work within a reasonable amount of time so that students have adequate time to self-evaluate and improve before the summative assessment.) But if the choice is skipping lunch to grade papers, or to take a brain break and eat a legitimate meal? Eat the meal.
- Pick your battles. In any kind of situation where there is an inherent power imbalance, there are going to be power struggles. Let the small stuff go. Kids are going to sneak peeks at their cell phone. They’re going to eat candy even if they’re not supposed to. And then there are the students who will, intentionally or not, attempt to bait you into a fight for whatever reason. One of the most important skills to being a successful classroom manager is knowing when to push and when to back off. However, we all get it wrong from time to time. Don’t fight yourself over that, either.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. In most cases, you’ll need to adapt lessons to fit your particular class and their needs. However, there are plenty of materials available (for cheap or free) that are good enough, especially if you’re hurting for downtime. (See point #1!) Any lessons that I post on here are free for use or adaptation by others, and many other bloggers follow a similar policy. With the advent of the internet, you can spend your entire career looking for or building ‘the perfect plan’ without ever taking the time to teach it! So use what you can, adapt what you need, and keep some of your own sanity.
- You control the atmosphere of your classroom. Although we cannot control what our students choose to do, we are completely in control of what the atmosphere of our room is like. Is it going to be noisy or quiet? Are students going to be working individually or in groups? Is it going to be a safe space, or a place where students have to be on guard? I think the biggest point here is that we also control the overall tone of the room, which goes way back to point #1 of this post. If you lose your cool and let your room turn into a pit of despair, the students will take that and run. I make it a point to be annoyingly cheery, even if I don’t feel that way, because if I’m grouchy, then the students take it as a cue that they can be grouchy too. And then I get even grouchier because I have to deal with disrespectful behavior, and it’s a terrible cycle. As the adult in the room, it is our job to break that cycle. We are professionals. We are not perfect, for sure, but it is on us to do our best to ensure that our classes are positive centers for learning.
What about you? Any other advice that you would contribute as useful advice for the classroom? We could all use a mental pick-me-up right about now!