Focus on routines while you can.
By Rachel Wilser
Congratulations! You made it through another back to school season, and you’re probably trucking through the first chunk of the school year. You’re likely still in that lovely honeymoon stage, where students are showing their best selves, and you’re still on the high of a new school year.
But let’s talk about some necessary, but not glamorous, parts of teaching today. There are necessary parts of teaching that all teachers hate. Maybe it’s taking attendance, monitoring lunch duty, or dealing with broken pencils. Let’s talk about how to manage your pain points, so that they don’t make your overall outlook on the school year negative.
Identify your 1-3 biggest pain points.
Different things bother different teachers. I, personally, hate managing pencils. I hate sharpening them; I hate collecting them; I hate when kids break the tip and ask for a new one. I just want to give them all mechanical pencils, but I know that’s not really appropriate in first grade. It’s easy to let this devolve into a larger list of things you hate, but that’s not the goal.
The goal is to manage the things that are driving you craziest. For me, it’s pencils, stuff on the ground, and crinkly papers. To be honest, crinkly papers is something I just have to kind of breathe and let go of in first grade. If I taught an upper grade, I would focus more on that pet peeve, but it’s not a good use of anyone’s time in first. So just take a few minutes, and think of what problems you urgently need to solve.
Now that you have your list, think of what you can do to solve or manage these pain points. This is also a great time to ask co-workers how they manage the things that are driving you crazy. I’d also encourage you to consider how you might be able to delegate some of these processes to your students. Revisiting my list, I have to just let go of the crinkly papers. Then I think about the pencils and stuff on the ground. I’d love to tell you that I have a really great pencil solution, but that’s not the case. I’ve tried several routines that feel okay, but I don’t totally love any of them. For me, the best one has been a mix of delegation and ignorance. The best system I used was giving each students a few pencils with their number. If they broke, or needed to be sharpened they could bring them (at set times) to the dull pencil cup. The pencils all got sharpened once per day, and then returned to students.
Keeping things off the ground was totally a student job that we did throughout the day. One student at each table would be responsible for looking under the table during each transition and picking up what they found there, and putting it where it belongs — crayons back in the bin, scraps of paper in the trash, and so on. Stuff on the floor might not be your pain point, and that’s fine. Whatever your problem is, you want to think about how you can minimize your level of annoyance during the school day. Calm teachers are always better than annoyed teachers.
After you brainstorm solutions to your problems, consider routines you could implement to take action. Now let me say this: the first time you implement this routine, ESPECIALLY if you’re delegating it to kids, it will not completely fix the problem. You’ll need to stick with it for a few weeks to truly see if the routine you created is effective. If it’s not helpful, STOP (after a few weeks). There’s no reason to beat a dead horse. If your first try isn’t helpful, talk to your co-workers, check the internet (Instagram and Pinterest have SO MANY teacher ideas), and try out a second idea. There’s no reason to spend the entire year hating something that you can change and control.
Spend some time during September brainstorming solutions to your solvable problems so that you can be ready for the major lifting of teaching that comes in October. By the time October rolls around, you’re over six weeks into the school year and you need to start focusing on instruction, supporting all your learners, and managing data. Focus on routines while you can.
Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.
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