Late one afternoon last week, I found a student smiling a smile of sheer relief at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF). "Only 40 days left," she grinned. She was meticulously counting down the days to the end of the school year.
I smiled to myself. As much as I enjoyed the years I spent teaching in New York City, I have to admit that I, too, hit The Wall around this time of year. Sometimes it takes nothing less than sheer will and determination to make it through.
Here are some practical tips to help keep sane with 40 days left, and counting.
Tactic 1: Teachers Supporting Teachers
Let me start with self-care, because this is the key to a long and rewarding career as a classroom teacher. It's hard for folks to hear this, but most teachers don't leave the classroom because of the salaries. Some of our nation's best teachers have left the classroom because they are genuinely exhausted and professionally isolated. It's usually a question of morale, not money.
It's great to see so many young educators seeking opportunities in administration five years into the game and flexing their educational entrepreneurial muscles, but the reality is that we desperately need master teachers to stay directly connected to our students, and to offer practical coaching to newbies. No matter what your preparation for the classroom experience is like, something will happen to throw you for a loop and make you wonder how you ended up behind closed doors with a room full of other people's children.
So my self-care advice is two-fold. Start a weekly coffee house-like club with teacher colleagues to share ideas for keeping it fresh, to get feedback on challenges and wonderful things that are happening, and to get general support on how to handle everything from pressure around testing to administration politics. And make sure there's someone in the circle with more than ten years of classroom experience. I would never have survived as long as I did without Ms. George and Ms. Goodman. The reality is that teachers get better with time, but also that there is nothing new under the sun.
Don't go it alone.
Tactic 2: Me, Me, Me!
Another other pearl of self-care is to do something for yourself that reminds you of all the other things in life you're interested in and passionate about. Take an acting class, go to a spa, visit your favorite museum, or volunteer at a hospital or soup kitchen. Explore ways to leverage the things that interest you personally into new strategies that can reignite the spark for your students.
You'll discover two things. First, there is inspiration everywhere. Second, sometimes your greatest revelations come after you've given yourself permission to step away from the challenge. Real teachers don't get off of work at 3PM. They go home and correct papers, plan lessons, and spend their dinner hours making phone calls to parents. They remember funny classroom moments while they're vacationing. They are subjected to public policies that don't always make sense for their students and that don't necessarily have a positive impact on their ability to do this work more effectively. It's hard to leave your class behind at the chalkboard after hours. But, it's essential to take a break.
Don't forget to find balance. Your students will thank you for it.
Tactic 3: Use Your Curriculum to Allow Kids to Dig Deep
Depending on your school and their expectations of what instruction looks like, I say use your curriculum as a catalyst for engaging students more deeply. At HEAF, we've had students expand their critical thinking skills by rewriting the endings to well-known stories; publishing their writing on a student blog; conducting research as they learned to collect, analyze and report on data; engaging in civics and current events by running their own political campaigns during election time; and planning and producing their own films on class topics.
Mastery can be expressed in multiple ways -- writing, drama, film, visual arts, student-led lessons, etc. And, while the current trend is to test students as much and as often as possible, educators need to work hard to resist the temptation to use the last few months of school as test prep. English exams are looking to see how students are developing vocabulary, comprehension, inference, interpretation, etc.
You can develop these skills without two months of practice exams. Be thoughtful, be different.
Tactic 4: Field Trips
Who says learning can only happen in the classroom. No matter where you are, there are people, places and things that can help to expand learning for students. It's been a few years since I taught middle school in the Bronx. But, many of my former students say that can't pass by the City College campus without thinking about all the trips we took to the campus theater -- and the big hill we had to climb to get there!
Whether it's the local college, a city museum, or a historical scavenger hunt, getting everyone outside the schoolhouse might be the breath of fresh air you need. Are you in a rural or farming community? Have students conduct research on changes in the farming industry in your area, explore how changes in the industry have affected the average lifestyle over the last 30 years, collect oral histories from elders who have historical perspective, build a math lesson on supply and demand, check out the demographic statistics. Are you in a declining industrial city? How about a labor and economics unit that gets you out of the building and asking questions? The possibilities are endless. Get other teachers in your building or who are teaching the same grades in on the action. Host an after-school lesson swap - where colleagues share their best ideas and lessons with the whole school community.
Many years have passed since I stood at the front of a classroom trying to impart my enthusiasm for learning and the possibility I saw in my students. But, my respect for what it takes and my recognition of the persistence required to stay the course, at a time with teacher job satisfaction is at a 20 year low, hasn't diminished. Keep keeping on. And, if all else fails, start thinking about what you'll do with those sacred weeks off this summer.