Back-to-school advice for veteran teachers.
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
This year marks my thirty-third year as an educator. I spent nineteen years as an elementary school counselor in three different school districts before taking an early retirement. After a year off teaching only community education, I dove right back in, this time at the college level, where I teach psychology and a first-year seminar.
One of the best – and most challenging – things about teaching is that no two groups of students and no two years are ever quite the same. Whether it’s the combination of students in front of us, the curriculum we’re handed or the “something new” (new grade level, new administrator, new building) that inevitably lands in our laps, teaching is never boring.
Still, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and forget how things might look from the other side of the desk. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you dig back into a school year that is both familiar and new.
Remember this is their first rodeo. This might all be old hat to you, but your students are experiencing this grade for the first – and only (we hope) – time. Sure, it can be tough to get excited about teaching the planets for the 27th time, but this isn’t their 27th time. Your enthusiasm (or the lack thereof) is contagious and sets the tone for their responsiveness and and their enjoyment of the subject matter.
Remember that they haven’t yet fully reached your grade. Whatever grade you teach, your students are actually just one step beyond last year’s grade. Those first few weeks of school require infinite patience, as you begin to mold this year’s group into the grade they currently occupy. They’ll get there (just like last year’s class and the ones before that) and before you know it, they’ll have mastered the skills that are such a challenge during those first few weeks.
Give each of them a fresh start. In small schools in particular, it can be hard not to listen to the faculty room scuttlebutt that tells the story that official records don’t. In addition, we often have run-ins – both positive and negative – with kiddos before they even cross the threshold of our particular classroom. Every day of every year should be a fresh start with the mistakes of the past left in the past. It’s the only way our kids can grow past who they were to become who they will be.
Build in breaks. And not just recess. Physical breaks (brain breaks) allow kids to expend their excess energy, while mindfulness breaks help them to calm down and listen to their bodies and moments of prayer can bring peace, answers, and connection to God. All of these breaks can teach kids how to manage the ebb and flow of energy that’s a natural part of childhood, as well as preparing them for the learning that follows the break. And breaks aren’t just for kids. They can energize us, too, and help us facilitate the transitions from one part of the day into the next.
Embrace new opportunities. When we stop learning, we get stale. Whether it’s mentoring a new teacher, taking a class, or just taking a chance by teaching something a new way, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. You may not become an expert, but you’re likely to enrich your life and, by extension, your students’ lives as well. And, if you’re really lucky, you might develop a new hobby – one you can use when you close the classroom door for the last time.
Know your limits. If taking one class or one chance is good, taking ten is better, right? Um, no. Building the new on the foundation of the old and taking on new things at a reasonable pace help keep things manageable and help to prevent that terrifying feeling of being overwhelmed by all new stuff. Determine your “new stuff” limit at the beginning of the year so you won’t be tempted to “yes” yourself into exhaustion.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. As experienced educators, we can easily fall into the fixed mindset mentality — that misinformed little voice that tells us that we’re supposed know all there is to know and, if we don’t, we’d certainly better not let on. But that little voice is wrong. When we admit what we don’t know, or make a mistake, we create a teachable moment wherein we show our students that learning is a lifelong pursuit. Even better, if we own up to our mistakes, we give our students permission to make mistakes of their own, which makes our classroom feel like a safe place to explore and learn.
Help where you can, but don’t expect to be a miracle worker. Most of us have learned this on a cognitive level, but still struggle to come to terms with it on an emotional level. There are myriad factors at work in our students’ lives and, while we can impact many of them, some are beyond our control. Do what you can, then give the rest to God.
Don’t put yourself last. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish; it’s an important part of your job. Teaching requires us to be at the top of our game every day. When we don’t take care of the temple that is our body by listening to it and honoring its needs, we’re not only selling ourselves short, we’re failing to nurture the Holy Spirit within us so it can do its work. Eat well, sleep well, and avoid the temptation to bring work home every night.
Pray for them and with them. Praying for our students and nurturing their connections with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit helps them build both a spiritual foundation and a relationship that lasts long beyond the time they spend in our classroom. Then again, you knew that. That’s why you do what you do – and, perhaps, why some days, you need prayer even more than others. Teach your students the prayers they need to know, as well as a few that you love so that they can build a prayer arsenal that sustains them in times of praise and times of need.
As wonderful as each of my first years was, I’m so glad they’re behind me. I might have been wild with enthusiasm and extremely well-prepared, but I was also nervous and uncertain and spent a lot of time simply gaining my footing. As an experienced teacher, I know who I am, I know what my students need (despite their protests to the contrary), and I know what works. I also know what’s grown stale, what needs to be tweaked, and what needs to be completely overhauled. Finding that balance keeps things interesting; meeting a new group of students and forging new connections is the icing on the classroom cake.
Wishing you and your students a blessed school year.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.
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