It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

#A2TImperfectTeacherClick the STAR to like this post and comment below with what you stress the most over as you start the school year.

August 4, 2021

For most teachers, summer is drawing to a close very soon, if not already. Classroom plans and projects are starting. Boxes are being unpacked. Meetings are beginning to appear on your schedule. Your email inbox is starting to fill up. And those mixed feelings of not wanting summer to be over, but ready to start fresh and execute all those visions and ideas are consuming you and you are ready to make them happen!

But, somewhere along the way in our school year, we lose this refreshed feeling, that excitement. How does that happen?

In short, we tried too hard to make everything perfect, putting too much on our plate and spreading ourselves too thin, and lost the most important thing we have to offer–ourselves.

When you work 14-16 hours a day, six or even seven days a week, you lose yourself. You are trying to fit in family and responsibility around work and you just burn out. Sound familiar?

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to have everything perfect, or even done on that first day they come back. There are two keys to successfully keeping that burnout at bay: keeping it simple and setting boundaries.

KISS Strategies–Keeping It Super Simple Strategies

Most of us have all had to calm a stressed out student that was overthinking a task or a question, yet we do this to ourselves on the regular. We put in crazy long hours to get our room ready for orientation or the first day of school, and by the time we get there, we already need a vacation. How do we let that happen?! Here’s a few things I have learned over the years to simplify and still be ready.

  • Two bulletin boards: one as an information posting area–calendars, lunch menus, due dates, resources, monthly tidbits–and the other for posting student work, pace or success tracking, tickets out the door, a parking lot for questions or ideas, whichever best suits your style of teaching. Both only need a basic background and a simple border. I have done the same border all year, or the quick change every month to rotate way. Bonus, I usually had a student, parent or a para/intern that wanted to do this for me, so I only had to choose which one.
  • Procedures. Every room has procedures for how to do things, so have them posted. Littles can’t remember them all and older students have multiple classes and different teachers with different procedures–compliance is easier when they know where to look. If you can work this in on your informational bulletin board, even better!
  • Supply and Work station: a turn in bin, an absent bin, and a place to finds needed supplies (borrow pencils, paper, handouts, student files or binders, etc.)
  • A clock. Realistically speaking, a digital is best, modern society doesn’t really use an analog clock, so why hang one that will cause a student to be distracted from your lesson or their work while they try to figure out the time for a hall pass or how long until class ends or lunch?
  • A place for students to work. Versatile seating can be great, depending on content area. Single seats, pairs, groups, floor seating, standing seats. Students work best in a variety of ways, so providing options can be great. Do you really need a seating chart? That is time you could save, especially at the beginning. Pro tip: if you must have a seating chart, seat them the first day and take a picture, then print this out as your seating chart. Faces will be way more helpful for a substitute than a name will be!
  • A place for YOU to work. I rarely sat, but needed a place for my computer and for grading and planning. Some years, it was a cart I could move around the room, but mostly it was a desk with everything needed.
  • A health station. Even pre-Covid, I needed a healthy classroom for myself and for my kids. I kept tissues, hand sanitizer, soap and towels (if I had a sink that year), alcohol pads for technology, wipes or spray and cloths for sanitizing desks (and a bucket for the cloths so I could take them home for washing–old t-shirts are great for this!). I also kept a broom and dustpan in the corner by my trash and recycling.
  • School/District Requirements. Some schools and districts have things they want posted in your room at all times. These can make it feel pretty cluttered. I met the requirements and reduced the overstimulation by creating a PowerPoint show that continuously looped and had all the things on the slides. I even included our agenda for the week. Then I set it up on the overhead to scroll unless I was using it for a lesson. I had a fellow teacher use this strategy, but had a spare computer and had it loop and it hung by the information wall.
  • Things to avoid: cluttered rooms, too much stuff, too much on the walls, Fire Marshall hazards (you don’t always know they are coming, so why play the “I’ll hide it when they get here” game). And of course avoid assigning too much work and additional work. You, and they, don’t need MORE, but rather, MORE MEANINGFUL. So get creative and cut that workload!

I use the “could I move and reset a room in an afternoon” mentality of setting up my room. Because changes happen, and I did not like giving up my weekend or evenings to have to get it done. I also try to use the “I should be able to grade the day’s work in one class period approach” as a means of measuring workload, although when I was an ELA teacher, that was harder. Pro tip-we wrote essays in chunks as “drafts” and I scored the draft each day, then it was turned in with the final so a quick read for corrections and technical elements made it possible.

But I digress…

Setting Boundaries

I have blogged about different strategies for making this happen, so I won’t revisit all of these again. But I will stress the importance of not letting your job consume your entire life–even if this is your passion, even if you feel like you have no life outside of teaching. Even Jesus took time off from his purpose on Earth to replenish himself, so there is nothing wrong with you doing the same. Learning how to get the desired outcome with less effort on your part is key to finding that balance of being an amazing teacher and getting that time you need to rejuvenate. There are many topics covered in my blogs, but here’s a compiled list and links for some of those areas to tackle:

Your students come through that door needing two things from you, an education on content areas and someone who truly cares about them. Focus on creating a space that facilitates those two areas. Be the teacher that has time to talk to the students. The place they can come eat lunch, do homework or get help before or after school, the safe space for the student that has a stressful life. In ten years, they may or may not remember that theme or poster you spent so much time stressing over, but they will remember the conversations, the time spent with them, the lunches in your room where they could relax, the place to get homework done since home wasn’t an option. Be that teacher.

When your teacher work days have come and gone in a blink and you didn’t get everything done, don’t worry. It is better to have an undecorated classroom that can come together over the first few weeks, than a burnt out teacher on day one. Remember your WHY-why you became a teacher, why you stay a teacher. Write it down and put it in your planner or as your background on your phone if you need to, just remind yourself regularly. You’ve got this!

Be sure to click the STAR to like this post and comment below with what you stress the most over each year. Also, be sure to share this blog with other teachers, and subscribe so future blogs come straight to your inbox! I blog about teaching, but also food, family, travel and other inspirations! You can also find me on Twitter (@addictedtoteac1), Facebook (Addicted2Teaching) or even on YouTube to check out some videos before I just focused on blogging (Sonya Barnes – Addicted to Teaching) and join the conversation, get more ideas, share your story or just interact with me.

How You Start Your Year Matters

Sonya Barnes                      July 25, 2019

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that is especially true for teachers and how they run their first day, or first week, in their classrooms.  We have a ton of curriculum to do and, if we have been teaching for more than a few years, we have covered the expectations every year, so it can seem quite tempting to rush through it and get down to business.  But I don’t believe you should do that.  It may impact your entire year, at least, that has been my experience when I gave in and rushed through.  Yes, I know that many districts, schools and administrators push to start getting into the curriculum ASAP, and I don’t disagree that you should, but that doesn’t mean it should be the focus.  Shift the amount or type you do each day.  The first day is, as a former supervisor taught me, is all about “getting them in, getting them fed, and getting them out”.  That’s all you are going to accomplish while they learn the new routine and work out any logistical issues, no matter what grade level.

I suggest to have something quick, fun and related to your subject area to do that first day, and, if it’s a get to know you activity, make sure it’s not something that another teacher they will have them do that day—they can only do so many line up by birthday or two truths and a lie activities in a day. I teach multiple subjects, so I see some of the same kids twice. If you also have multiple preps, that is something else to keep in mind when planning.  I like to do a few different things that allow me to get to know them, see how they work with others and what their foundation and interest in the subject area is, and their learning/working styles without them even realizing I’m assessing them. 

For example, in my Intensive Reading classes, I will ask them to write down a book that something about it stuck with them, changed their life, etc. and why as I circulate and interact with them, then they share that with their table and, if they want to, with the class.  Then I share that my book was Harold and the Purple Crayon because it showed me that I don’t have to try and fit into the world but that I can help make the world fit for me since I think and learn differently.  We then spend time making a poster as though we are Harold and draw a world that we would fit into that aligns with our goals and write a quick blurb about it and we hang these up as a reminder. This takes us several days. In my ELA classes, I have them write a postcard they will get on the last day of school, they draw a picture of what they did over the summer on one side and write a note about their goals on the other, then I hold these for them until the last day.  On another day, I will have several quotes cut out on the table and have them choose the one that best fits them (they can share one) and share why with their tables and with the class, if they want.  The rest of the week I will have them do a round robin writing activity on various genres and topics (a humorous bad day of school, a scary holiday experience) and each writes one section (beginning middle end, or use the plot elements) but they must add onto what another group started.  In both subject areas this is worked around teaching and practicing school and classroom procedures, setting up computer programs or access that we use, and creating and organizing their portfolios. The end of the week I have a “quiz” on it and do something like go on a scavenger hunt to find the question and their answer leads to the next one and if they aren’t in order when we review, we reteach.  I also make a classroom tour video of all these things and post it to my Google Classroom so that they, or their parents, can see where everything is (this is also helpful if a new student comes in and needs a crash course). I give out tons of sincere praise and compliments, bragging about what their former teachers said, positive observations I’ve made, and entertain them with my terrible memory of names.

There are so many ways to start your year off right so that you can teach your students about rules, expectations, procedures, rewards and consequences.  And it will take excessive repetition since some will not have had positive classroom experiences previously so won’t pick it up as quickly.  There are many games and activities that have been handed to me over the years that I have an entire file folder and computer file filled.  I have so many that most I never even use, like get to know you ice breakers—I teach at a K-8 school so they know each other so well that they are counting down their last year to get away from each other and meet new people instead of the same 90 kids they’ve grown up with.

If you teach with a team, look at ways that you can make life easier and parallel what you do to make it easier for your kids.  I remember one year we were expecting a group of kids that we were warned would be a behavior challenge.  Our team sat down and looked at our classroom management processes to see if we were confusing them and creating challenges.  We compromised and aligned what we did as much as we could so that we all had as many things the same as we could.  We then made a PowerPoint Slideshow for our team and we all used it to guide our procedure instruction for the week.  We were able to nip a lot of issues in the bud from the start just by simplifying their lives and giving them less to remember because that repetition reinforced the learning.  It was personally rewarding to find that I worked with a team of professionals as dedicated as I was to student success and willing to find compromise from practices we’d all held for years to help them succeed. 

I encourage you to truly reflect on your teaching and leadership style to see if there are things that you could modify or adapt to activities, and plan for, then it is easier to work in those activities.  For example, do you give a quiz on terms, places or dates for your subject area regularly throughout the year? Instead of a paper-based assessment, turn it into an activity with dry erase boards, relay runs to the board, or telephone game to the teacher.  Talk to other teachers at your school, in your social circles or in an online community (may I suggest the Facebook group Addicted to Teaching? 😉 ) and brainstorm ideas.  Go to teacher sale sites and find things you can print and use again for several years or rotate through.  Take those worn out icebreaker worksheets you’ve used for years and turn them into an activity to get them up and moving and allow you to see them in action—that visual data can tell you so many things about your learners in just a few minutes.  Whatever you choose to do the first week, let me stress this part—make sure it aligns with things you will do in your class all year.  Nothing is harder on a group of kids than having a teacher do “fun” team-based things the first week, then nothing but independent book work for the rest of the year (this is a bit of hyperbole to make my point, or so I hope).  It can really jeopardize the rapport you build with the kids that first week and those relationships you have with your kids are key to having a successful or stressful year.  A good rapport can decrease behavior issues and increase support from them when you have evaluations or those not feeling so hot days that we all have.  Keep in mind the idea that if it isn’t fun or interesting to plan, teach or grade, it probably isn’t a fun or interesting way to learn.  As kids change, we may have to compromise things we have always done for the sake of a stronger classroom environment that supports a new generation of learners.  In education we are blessed with a fresh start each year, so make the most of it and you will benefit from it all year long.