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Back-to-school advice: Put a to-don’t list on your to-do list

By September 17, 2021No Comments

As my colleagues have been visiting school districts lately, it’s been clear that educators’ back-to-school stress is at a whole new level. It’s bound to be emotionally taxing when ramping up a new school year while we’re also still dealing with past and present ramifications of the pandemic.

Is there a way to help ourselves bounce back a bit, to regain our energy, focus, and confidence? I asked my colleague Dr. Karen Baptiste, a former teacher and school leader who also has experience in social services, for some counsel to share with teachers. Her advice? Know when to say no.

Before anyone nails this post to their principal’s door, I’m not talking about doing less work, but rather about distinguishing your genuine work from wheel-spinning that feels like work but exhausts you while doing nothing to support student achievement. Here are a few areas where “Dr. K” sees teachers being vulnerable to taking on too much this year. Think of it as a to-don’t list:

Holding parents to expectations that may or may not be realistic. Students do better with support at home, no question. But some parents may have had negative experiences with school and are reluctant to be involved, or they may be pushing themselves to provide financially and don’t have time to attend school meetings, or there may be an illness in the family—we can’t control any of that. What we can influence is our relationships with students, by providing them with consistent, safe, and welcoming learning structures. Parents will notice. Building trust and positive relationships takes time and we have to start somewhere. Clearly, the right place to start is with the classroom environment.

Over-critiquing the curriculum. You may have your quibbles with school board or central office decisions about curriculum, but as a teacher, you’ve got to leave ’em at the door. Instead of getting steamed about a curricular choice you would have handled differently, your time and energy are better spent thinking about translating your curriculum into meaningful and engaging learning experiences for students and focusing on how to meet every student’s needs during the time you have with them. Curriculum is important for student success, but teacher quality is even more so. So become the highest-quality teacher you can be!

Stressing about mental health access. With a documented rise in student mental health needs this year, teachers may be anxious about a lack of school counselors. There’s plenty you can do in your classroom to improve the situation merely by being a sympathetic grownup, like “weather checks.” Have students use emojis or numbers to let you know “I’m feeling happy” or “I’m upset and I need someone to talk to.” Consider adding morning meetings and peer mediation to give students an outlet to share experiences and learn about their peers.

In The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, we talk about ensuring the classroom is “an oasis of safety and respect.” Even the way a teacher handles classroom activities and assessments can help create such an atmosphere. Incorporating choice, collaboration, and opportunities to design interest-driven projects shows students you care about them and their interests. With so much that’s happening in students’ lives feeling chaotic and out of control right now, providing a place that feels safe, supportive, and consistent may be the best way teachers can support students’ sense of well-being.

And probably the biggest item on any teacher’s to-don’t list: worrying about the academic impact of the school closures. There is simply no benefit to bemoaning what might have been last year. What matters now is doing your best to help students do their best this school year—just like always.

To borrow a colloquialism, all you can do is all you can do. Identify your locus of control (journaling and getting familiar with the Seven Simple Shifts should help) and try to avoid getting drawn into situations and subjects that you have little or no ability to change. We know this is easier said than done, but we also think it can make you happier, more effective, and likelier to thrive in education for the long haul.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, the author or co-author of many titles on teaching and learning, and a popular conference presenter.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.