The Message Every Teacher Needs To Start This School Year

by | Aug 13, 2018

We stand on the cusp of a new school year.
Many of you are in your classrooms – organizing, unpacking, and planning away – some of you with students already. Those who haven’t entered their classrooms and begun the laundry list of “to do’s” that are before them are relishing their last days of break or scrambling to complete all they had planned for the summer. Whatever state this article finds you, please take a moment, because this message is for you.

Remember This Moment

Right now, in this moment, you are refreshed, you are optimistic, and you have energy. You have time between you and last school year and the feelings of stress and overwhelm are a distant dulling memory.

I know that summers aren’t all relaxation and roses, especially for the teachers attending conferences and professional development, working on higher degrees, taking care of children, working extra jobs like summer school… But, even with all of the extra responsibilities taken on during the summer, there is still a disconnect from the classroom that occurs that allows us to reset ourselves and mentally (and sometimes physically) prepare for the next year.

The trick is to stay in the moment.

To remember what this moment feels like in say, October when the mountains of work pile up on your desk, in February when the day-to-day repetition takes hold, or in March when you feel like you have to start all over with setting expectations. It’s not that you don’t know that teaching is tough or that there may be trying times ahead. You know this. But you see, right now you are focused on the good. All the smiling faces, the “A-ha’s”, the growth, and discovery that awaits both your students and yourself.

Here’s how:

  • Make a mental note of this anticipation and hopefulness.
  • Better yet, write an actual note to yourself for this year’s intentions.
  • Or even better still, make a beginning of the school year activity out of it and share your intentions with your class and have them do the same for you.

Also, Look Past This Moment

I know I just stated that you have to remember this feeling of hopefulness. However, like most things in life, there are two sides to this story. Yes, you are full of anticipation and hope and yes – remembering this feeling will serve you well when the school year hustle is in full swing, but it can also cause some trouble for you down the road.

The beginning of the school year is not only a time for renewed optimism, it is also the time to sign up for all the extra responsibilities that we willingly take on (often unpaid) on top of the already enormous amount of responsibilities we already have. Those committees, clubs, extracurriculars, and “extra special projects” that are announced up for the taking at that first staff meeting are not mandatory, they don’t affect your evaluation, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to sign up.

You don’t have to say “no”, but you don’t have to say “yes” either.

I am not saying you shouldn’t be a part of your school community (you should – you often spend more of your waking hours there than at home), I am not saying you shouldn’t head a new initiative that you believe in, that aligns with your background, or that you have a special skill set to lead – sometimes things come up that you know deep down are clearly meant for you – listen to that inner voice. But it’s important to go into the school year with the mindset that you don’t HAVE TO say “yes”. You are a professional. You put in the extra hours and believe in what you do. You have a degree (maybe multiple) and should be compensated for your work.

No one goes into teaching for the money, but that doesn’t mean your time should be free.

Here’s how:

  • Don’t automatically sign up for the same committees, clubs, and extracurriculars you’ve done in the past just because you are expected to – if they aren’t in your contract you have room to re-weigh your involvement
  • Say “no” to new committees unless you feel in your gut that they are meant for you
  • Weigh out each opportunity and reflect on it as a professional – take into account the value of your time and involvement and make a decision out of passion, not guilt.

Avoid the  Comparison Game

I saw Karen’s room across the hall with the Pinterest-perfect bulletin boards, thoughtful color scheme, and individualized welcome baskets for each of her students. Good for Karen. You are not Karen. You are you – and you know what works for you. You know how your classroom will run best and if it’s not Instagrammable (even with a filter) that’s okay. Really, it’s okay.

Teaching is not in the decor and you know it. Teaching is in the connections, the relationships, the stories, and the interactions – it’s in the learning, the doing, and the most important piece of that is showing up each day with the mindset to make a difference. For some, that is enhanced with a well-planned room scheme and for some, it’s other preparations that get them ready and excited. And, yes many students love to enter a fanciful classroom filled with rainbow poufs and motivational posters – but you know first hand that many other students need a break from Karen’s sensory onslaught.

This school year beware the facade.

Playing the comparison game is dangerous – especially when it comes to appearances (whether it be personal or classroom). There is often more than meets the eye when viewing these well-decorated classrooms. When you start down the rabbit hole that is Pinterest or Instagram at the start of this school year, consider this: Do you know this teacher’s budget? Are they making money from posting their pictures (perhaps they are a blogger drawing in traffic)? Do you know the time or help that their projects required? Will their design impact their students’ learning? And for Karen across the hall? Well, what she is doing is her business, you don’t know how many hours, how many helpers, how much time she has spent planning that motif. What is worth the work for one teacher may not be for another. Who knows she might be looking across the hall at your well-prepared presentations wishing she hadn’t spent so much time with her crepe paper. Do not get caught up in the comparison game.

Of course, if you are inclined to do so, decorate until your heart is content. If it’s going to make you more joyful when you enter your room, connect with your mission, or inspire your students – by all means, get out your glue gun out and go to town. My point is that you don’t have to. That your students will learn without the farmhouse-inspired windmill in the middle of your classroom. They will feel supported and heard without the double-laminated interactive mural on the wall. At the start of the school year, spend your time, money, and energy on what makes the most sense to you and don’t worry about what Karen across the hall is doing – that’s her business.

Here’s how:

  • Stop playing the comparison game (in person or on social media).
  • Choose endeavors that make sense to you and what you see as best serving your students.
  • Use your time wisely.

Learn From Your Own Discomfort

You are moments away from the start of the school year. Perhaps your beginning of the year professional development has already begun. If so, then you are most likely all too familiar with the discomfort of icebreakers. Those mandatory games intended to get the whole staff loose and talking – to build relationships and boost morale. The ones that make you want to disappear into your uncomfortable plastic chair or run screaming to your classroom so that you can get your room ready and lessons prepared. 

I have never heard of a faculty making meaningful connections while rotating around in 3-minute intervals sharing what they did over the summer. No strong bonds have ever been forged by wandering around trying to coerce others to fill in a Bingo worksheet. I have a hard time believing that many administrators believe that these games make a real difference and yet the tradition continues.

I have talked to many people in other professional careers about this and have yet to find a profession that can relate to the strange icebreakers that take place in teacher staff meetings. Programmers and data scientists, nurses and actuaries, literally everyone I have asked balk at the idea of such unnatural and coerced social interaction. Us, as teachers, break into a cold sweat when they are introduced, and yet we continue to turn around and force them on our students.

If you wouldn’t want to do it, why put your students through it?

When introduced to an icebreaker your students feel the EXACT SAME WAY YOU DO. Just because they are younger doesn’t mean that they won’t be embarrassed, shy, awkward, unnerved, and all those other feelings that merge together when you have to read aloud Karen’s (yes, that Karen’s) post-it about her RV trip to Mount Rushmore with her cat.

These activities accomplish the opposite of their intention. A safe and supportive community is not built by making student uncomfortable from the start. Authentic interaction buildings meaningful connections.

So, unless you have a point your building to or a connection your making, forgo the icebreakers in favor of real connection-building activities. Perhaps create a storytelling/visual storytelling exercise, a practice in collaboration and teambuilding that sets the stage for future group work, or a meaningful family-style discussion that develops organically and that creates an authentic foundation of safety and trust

Here’s how:

  • Choose meaningful activities to start the year off and build a strong foundation.
  • Take note of how you feel during staff meeting activities. What engages you and what makes you want run for the nearest exit?
  • Take your time. You have 180+ days to foster authentic connections with your students.

Don’t Lose Sight of Yourself

Right now this might even seem silly. Lose yourself? How could that happen?

But the school year can do funny things to a teacher’s sense of self. We see ourselves as helpers, hope-givers, peacemakers, and kindness police. We take pride in how much of ourselves we give to our students. The identity of a teacher has become synonymous with selflessness. There are teachers who have opened their homes to their students, paid the way for their students, taken a bullet for their students. When you think about it, it’s not hard to see how a teacher could lose sight of themselves.

You can’t be the best teacher you can be if you lose sight of who you are.

You know when you are at your best, when you can give the most, and it’s not when you are also feeling depleted and stressed. Taking on too much and always taking your work home with you (physically and mentally) is a recipe for burnout and you are no good to your students if you let yourself burnout.

Self-care is not selfish and burnout is real. Self-care doesn’t have to mean pedicures and brunches, it can mean allowing yourself to leave on time and leave your school bag at school and saying no to students eating lunch in your room or hanging out during your planning time each and every day. Self-care can just be allowing yourself time to decompress, listening to a podcast, or going for a walk. It means that you are making time for yourself with intention and putting effort into your own resilence so you can return to the classroom with enough energy and a positive mindset.

Here’s how:

Have a great start to the school year!

From Joy in Teaching to you – have a wonderful start to your school year. Take in the moments of joy, embrace the smiles and laughter, and stay connected with us for more on teacher support and resilience.

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