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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Saying Goodbye to Students: How to Set up for a Leave of Absence

Last week was my final week of teaching for this school year as I take a leave of absence to have my second son in January. This is an interesting predicament for a teacher, in that for the time you are with your students, your heart is closely tied to their daily challenges, victories, and failures.

So to help both my students and myself move on, I worked to leave them as prepared as possible and help prepare the sub that takes my place. In fact, I've spent a lot of time this last semester prepping for my academic goodbye.

I've given great thought to culling my lessons this semester, picking the best of the best in order to leave the students as rich in necessary knowledge as possible, trying to balance what I know will be tested (identifying parts of speech) with what I know is my duty to teach despite not appearing on the tests (Internet literacy). Ultimately, I think I've made what I hope to be wise decisions based on the following:

  • What lessons embed the information most quickly?
  • What lessons dive deeper and more targeted rather than more shallow and jam-packed?
  • What lessons could a sub cover no matter the quality of substitute, and what concepts would prove more difficult for someone to teach jumping in mid-year?

In addition, I've set up some routines for the substitute teacher, should the person choose to use them, to help make their own transition into the classroom hopefully easier.

Here are some of the things I've set up for the person taking over:

1. Table of contents in the writing portfolios. Based on the artifacts in our writing portfolio, I had the students organize and create a table of contents that can be revisited and revised for additional assignments. This too, creates a cumulative folder of work for the sub to use to familiarize herself with a student's level very quickly. Any of the pieces of writing can be used as a rough draft so the sub doesn't have to start with zero if she doesn't want to, and the students can use their folders as models or references for their own process.

2. Reflective Word Splat. During this last week, we reviewed everything we've done this semester through a class competition called the Reflective Word Splat. This is something I generally do at the end of the year, but it fits in now to help the students appreciate how far we've come, and it creates a resource for them to refer to later this year during test prep. Basically, each class creates a long list of detailed concepts that we've covered, and the class who comes up with the most concepts is declared the winner. They yell out things like, "word choice!" "transitions!" "reading genres!" and "semi-colons!" Sometimes one of these will lead to a list of words, like how reading genres then leads to kids yelling out the specific genres we've discussed.

3. Leaving kids in charge. Using one of those elementary school job charts, you know, the ones where you indicate which student will turn out the lights or who will be the line leader, I've assigned jobs that might help the classroom run more smoothly and maintain my supplies and classroom library.

4. Test prep folder. Each year we start a test prep folder of our cold read district assessments, test taking hints -- a list that we continuously add to, reading test reflections on what we got right and wrong and why, and word lists from the podcast, The Princeton Review Vocabulary Minute. I've left instructions on how to continue this accumulating folder so that the students actually have something to study before our state tests in the spring, but even if it does not continue to grow, just having it as is will be useful come April.

Saying Goodbye

As I enter into my own new chapter, it is hard to leave this one behind. I will miss Selena, because even though she never stopped talking, she always added something new to the conversation. I will miss Eugene who couldn't seem to get the whole formal essay together, but whose poetry could make me cry. I will miss Jason who didn't manage to memorize his speech in time for competition, but when it came time for tournament, he had bought his first tie and wore it proudly. I will miss Andrea who entered my room bitter about her ability gap, having spent the prior year in a remedial writing class, only to have discovered a passion for Shakespeare and an unparalleled ability to translate literary themes into her own life.

These kids are all a work in progress, and while it saddens me to not be able to see what they become by the end of the year, it's time to say goodbye. It helps that due to my kind of credential, we were actually able to interview for the long-term position rather than being forced to take a random sub from a district seniority list.

And as awful as this sounds, we benefited from someone else's budget cuts this year, hiring a gifted, curious, and talented teacher who was a victim of a mid-year budget slash in November. Her excitement, clear love of middle schoolers, and willingness to reach out for help from other colleagues means that I can leave knowing the kids are in capable hands, and I thank her for it.

So, if you were taking a leave of absence, what would you set in place? How would you academically say goodbye?

Happy holidays to everyone in the Edutopia community, and may you come back rejuvenated for the New Year. See you all in 2011.

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