5 Ways to be a Happier Teacher This Year

Target already has their back to school stuff out in stores. Early back to school sales should be considered criminal for the trauma it gives teachers who feel like they just started summer. But as we near August, even I have to admit, we’re getting closer to the start of school. As my schedule starts to fill up with meetings and school prep, I want to also spend some time prepping for how I can support my own mental health this year.

This school year will be year nine of teaching for me. I find that super strange. It still feels like I’m only a couple years in, but turns out I’m knocking on the door of a decade. I definitely don’t have things all figured out yet (spoiler, I never will) and even if I thought I did, COVID taught educators everywhere that there is always more to learn. However, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, imparted by teachers much wiser than I. So here are five things that I will be striving to do this year in order to be a happier teacher–hope they help you too!

  1. Build routines for you-time

I’ll be honest with this one, if I go to one more PD that makes reference to “mindfulness” or “take time from you” I might roll my eyes and stop listening. Because yes, that advice is great, but I for some reason cannot hear that advice from someone who is not actively teaching. I agree that making time for yourself is important, but I’ll go a step further and say you need to build a routine of time for yourself. This looks different for everyone so I can’t completely prescribe it, but whatever your thing is, make sure you schedule a time to do it every day. Things that have worked for me in the past include:

  1. Reading my Bible each morning. I was probably the most effective teacher I have ever been when I committed to reading a Psalm each morning while my coffee was brewing. Just one Psalm was all it took to recenter my mind on why I was dedicating so much energy into loving students. This is something I really got away from but want to reincorporate this year. I think a tool that I might use is an app called Lectio 365. Each day, they have two devotionals (one for the morning and one for the night) that include scripture reading and a guided prayer. The coolest part? You can just push play and it’ll read it to you with some background spa-like music. It’s super calming and very relaxing. Even if you just push play as you start your commute, starting each day in the Word is a great way to recenter yourself. If you aren’t really religious, maybe find a meditation app that works for you. Something about quieting your mind (aka not running through your daily to-dos and lesson plans) is a great way to get the morning going.
  2. Working out. I have gone through phases of doing this well and also phases of not doing this at all. But when I have a routine that involves some movement, I am a happier person. If you’ve got some coworkers who also like working out, why not play a youtube yoga workout in your classroom after school? A few of my friends and I did Insanity workouts in my classroom a couple days a week and it was amazing! A couple years ago, I actually joined a gym, and I found that if I took my workout clothes to school and changed into them at the end of the day, it almost forced me to stop at the gym on the way home. Otherwise, on the drive home, I would convince myself that I could just head home and take a nap. In What Happened to You by Oprah, I learned that for humans, rhythm is regulating. That’s why a workout makes us feel so much better. The repeated movements help us regulate after hard days. Highly recommend it.
  3. Reading for pleasure. This is one that I wish I had started in my first year of teaching. I was so swamped trying to preview and read books before teaching them, that I totally neglected my own reading. I learned from my dear friend Gloria (my ultimate teaching role model) that she read a little bit of a book each night. If she could, she would try to get a whole chapter in, but even when she couldn’t, she’d at least get a couple pages. I can’t count the number of teachers who wish they had a chance to read more for pleasure and not just for work. So make it a priority. Read just a little bit every night. Make it part of the routine.

Those are a few that worked for me. I’ve done well with them and also really fallen away from them at other times. But the more fun things for me that were built into my routine, the better I felt. So find the things that bring you joy and add a little bit of them to each day.

  1. Set Yourself Time Boundaries

This one is something all first year teachers need to hear. But this is also something that all teachers need a reminder of each and every year. There has to be a point during your day when you turn off school. I read a joke somewhere about how Teaching is one of those weird professions where you have to do work at night so that you have work to do during work. And then you do that work at work so that you can go home to finish the work. The thing is, there is always more that could get done. So as teachers, we have to figure out where to set our boundaries. During the first few years as a teacher, this is harder because you don’t have materials already made. But I learned when I was drowning those first years, that if I could get “enough” ready so that I had an idea of mostly what was on the lesson plan for the next day, then that was good enough. If I had things for students and could make it through the next 24 hours, then that would be fine. We need time to have families and friends and invest our time in them too. 

A related point on this one is about grading. I used to dread grading essays because they would take forever. I also used to get a ton of quizzes all at once and hated how long it took–until I learned some tricks. First, when it comes to essays, limit your feedback. A fantastic colleague of mine, challenged me to rethink the amount of feedback I gave to students. I used to take an essay and a pen and mark up grammar mistakes, unexplained details, poorly cited quotes–you name it. My coworker asked me to ask my class how many students actually read the feedback I left them, and how many students just flipped to the back for the grade and called it good. I had about two kids per class who sometimes glanced at my notes. So I changed my approach. I now dedicate more time to giving feedback in the writing process (we all know that feedback is important, but it is way more important during the process rather than just at the end). This is where conferencing with students works great. Or, if you use Google classroom and assign a blank google doc for students’ essays, you can make a copy for each kid which then allows you to see how far each student has gotten. Giving feedback during the process gives students an opportunity to correct mistakes before they even turn it in. When they do turn it in, you direct students to put a star at the top of theirs if they are looking for feedback. When grading, you just use your rubric and grade the essays, only leaving feedback on a couple essays and you save SO MUCH TIME.

When it comes to quizzes or grammar tests, use Google forms! It takes some practice to get used to them if you’ve never used them, but under settings, you can make it a quiz. This allows you to assign point values and give an answer key. The computer will grade the quiz for you (except for free response or extended response answers, but if you only have to hand grade a couple questions instead of all of them, you save so much time). This is an amazing tool. It even allows you to make it so students can’t have multiple tabs open–yay for stopping cheaters!

  1. Build Relationships with Your Coworkers

This one will get you through anything. Misery loves company, and when you are a teacher, you are guaranteed to have some miserable days. Hopefully not many! But a nasty parent email or a trouble maker you had high hopes for but ends up flopping, might get you down. Your coworkers get it. They’ve been there too. Become friends with the people you work with.  My coworkers have gotten me through my toughest days. Sometimes you just need to be able to send a vent text to the teacher group chat, and on a Friday after a long week, it is always nice to grab a beer with someone who totally understands. Build connections and relationships with your coworkers. Being friends with the people you work with will 100% make you a happier teacher.

  1. Know When to Avoid the Lunch Room

This one is important and totally depends on your school and also depends on the day. I’m also pretty sure that this idea gets brought up in most teacher prep courses. The lunch room can be a great place to build friendships and relax (see point three), but it can also be a spinning vortex of nasty, negative, not-niceness. Be aware of the dynamic in your lunch room and be selective about when or whether you go. You don’t need to be there every day (for some of us, that 20 minutes of alone time is recharging and wonderful) or even at all. Don’t feel pressured to be at lunch. Spend your lunch doing what is best for you. I know of many teachers (myself included) who might eat lunch in a classroom with just a friend or two. I know a couple teachers who open their classrooms to students during lunch because those moments of relationship building are fueling for them. And I also know of teachers who prefer to eat lunch on their own. It’s tricky to navigate and figure all that out, but sometimes, avoiding the lunch room can help you be a much happier teacher. 

  1. Leave Perfectionism Behind and Embrace Improvementism 

This was one of my favorite things that Dave Stuart Jr. published during COVID. I literally printed his statement and taped it to my wall (if you’re a teacher looking for some great practices and advice from an actual teacher, definitely look into his blog). As teachers we want our lessons to be perfect. So perfect that every single student completely understands, learns, and remembers our activities and assignments. During the beginning of COVID, when we were all still unsure of what the school year looked like, Dave Stuart Jr. told his blog followers to leave all that perfectionism behind and embrace improvementism (not a word, but a great concept). I loved it when it came to the last couple years, but I still love it now and wish that I had heard this my first few years of teaching. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just work toward improving a little each day.

So those are the five big tips I have for you. Again, I gained these from some stellar colleagues and teachers. And I don’t do these perfectly at all. But they are great goals for me and hopefully they can help you too!

**Sidenote, if you’d like to support my classroom and students. This is my Amazon wishlist for this year. Every year, a handful of my high-interest books, all of my fidget toys, and many of my decorations get lost or broken. The love and support of family and friends is the only way I could keep my classroom funded. Thanks in advance if you’re willing to help out 🙂 **

How to Help Students Learn to Write with the Power Paragraph

A couple years ago (before COVID smashed in and destroyed all our plans for our classrooms) I attended a conference on Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs if you’re familiar with the concept. It was a great conference about how to become better teachers, but one of the most important ideas that I took from this conference was about teaching and learning. As teachers, we can point to our curriculum maps, and lesson plans, and explain all of the wonderful standards-aligned things that we’ve taught throughout the year. That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t mean anything if our students haven’t learned what we taught them. We need to shift our focus away from what we are teaching to what students are learning.

Mind blowing difference right? And that’s where I think the power paragraph really helps us when we’re teaching our students to write. This is a concept that could literally be introduced in upper elementary classes, but also can be such a game changer for a student in high school. So I’ll explain what the power paragraph is, and then share some of the implementation/success stories. I’ll add links to documents that I use with students as well, feel free to use them!

A power paragraph is the name that I (and many other educators) give to a well-structured, organized paragraph. I tell students that I am looking for a paragraph that follows a 1-*2-3*2-3*1 structure. Each number represents a different type of sentence. A 1-sentence is a topic or summary sentence. A 2-sentence is a supporting detail. And a 3-sentence is an explanation sentence. The asterisks that I add into the structure? Transition words! Students are notorious for leaving out transitions and they are so important. I will also sometimes add in a 4-sentence, the 4 being a quote. In that case, I’ll ask students for a 1-*2-4-3-*2-3-*1 sentence (because a quote should be introduced in the supporting detail and then explained afterwards.

This structure can be really expanded upon, just with some guidelines. The 1-*2-3*2-3*1 is what I call the basic structure that any paragraph needs. But you could write a 1-*2-4-3-3-*2-3-3*2-4-3-*1 paragraph. Honestly, the possibilities are endless. The basic structure is just a great starting point.

When I introduce this to students, I keep the form written out on the board behind me. I also have laminated transition word lists scattered throughout the room and available on Google Classroom. I’ll write an example paragraph with students on the board so they can see how it works. When it comes to the topic sentence, I emphasize how whatever we put in the topic sentence is all we are going to write about. If my topic sentence talks about my favorite color, nowhere in that paragraph are we going to see details about my favorite food. For supporting details, I point out how the supporting detail supports the statement in my topic sentence and then the explanation sentence explains my supporting detail. At the end of the paragraph, I make sure they know to include a summary sentence in which they restate their topic sentence. It all builds together very nicely.

So for example, I might have my seniors working on their career unit write a power paragraph response to “Why would you be a good fit for this job?”. I tell them that their topic sentence should be a complete sentence answer to the question. Their supporting details will give reasons to support their topic. And then they’ll explain more in depth. On the board, I might give the example:

(1)I would be a great fit as a plumber for a number of reasons. (2) To start, I am a very hard working person. (3) When I was in high school, I worked part-time at my uncle’s car repair shop while also attending tech and maintaining a 3.0 GPA. It took a lot of hard work, but I was determined to complete all of my work well. (2) I also am very reliable and punctual. (3) Throughout my entire high school career, I was only absent a couple times when I was sick, and I was never tardy. (1) These are a couple reasons that I would be a great fit as a plumber.

While doing this, I definitely underline the transition words. High school students need all the reminders they can get to include those transitions. Eventually we’ll talk about incorporating and imbedding our transitions into our sentences instead of always starting sentences with them, but this is a great start.

Yes ,that example was simplistic, but it’s a great starting place.The reason I love teaching with this structure is because I get so many students in their junior and senior years who say that they hate English class. They claim that they suck at writing and they’ll never need to use English class in the real world. I always respectfully agree that they won’t need to explain metaphors or the plot of The Great Gatsby in many jobs; but they will need to be able to communicate in organized and clear ways. The power paragraph is honestly the most real-world applicable thing I teach.

Think about it. Anytime you write an email, a report, or a cover letter, you need to be writing clear, organized paragraphs.

I find that by giving a clear structure to students who have struggled with writing in the past really helps. So often, we English teachers get so excited about our content that we ask our students to write about it! And we forget that they might not know how to write about it or where they should start. The numbered sentences also really help my students who think more logically and prefer math or science to English. They can follow the steps and check each sentence off, knowing when they’ve completed the task.

Using the power paragraph is a great way to differentiate or build in scaffolds for struggling students, those with IEPs, or those who just don’t like English. But I honestly use it with all of my students. I even think back to my essays that I wrote for my grad classes (often an hour or two before they were due) and I was actually just using an expanded version of the power paragraphs to keep my essays organized! This is good for students of all abilities.

Interestingly, when I was at my first school, my data team was made of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. The power paragraph was an ideal common assessment. It can be used to write narratively, informatively, analytically–any writing task we set before students. It’s versatile and beneficial. And it actually turns out that ALL content areas should be teaching writing. Obviously, us English teachers should be teaching it more in depth. But it’s important for us to have students using language in all of their courses. This could be a little tricky in math, but in Social Studies and Science and Foreign Language and Fine Arts and PE courses, using the power paragraph would be super easy. Getting students to be doing more of the talking and the writing during a class means that more students are actually doing the learning (this is especially SUPER important for our ELs). Everyone should be teaching writing, and this is a super easy way for anyone to explain it.

One of my favorite teacher wins during my first year teaching was when I was talking to students about the SAT essay they would need to write. One of my students raised her hand and asked, “Can we use power paragraphs to write the essay?” I could have punched the air in excitement. YES! These paragraphs should be the body paragraph in any essay you ever write! Starting by teaching the paragraph helps students who are often overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire essay. If they can break it into an introduction paragraph, three body power paragraphs, and then a quick conclusion, it becomes more manageable.

Also, important note: this type of paragraph has a bunch of different names. I call it the Power Paragraph, someone else might call it the Basic Paragraph. There are plenty of names out there for the same thing. Can you imagine how much we could help students if we all used common language? Some of us say ‘topic sentence’, some of us say ‘introductory sentence’, some of us say ‘claim’–can you imagine how confusing that would be for kids? If teachers in your district could all get on the same page with the language you use when talking about writing, kids would really benefit. Call it the Power Paragraph, call it something else, but just get everyone to call it the same thing.

I’ve noticed throughout my years that the more structure I give students for their writing, the better the essays are that get turned in. Students then internalize those structures and use them in the following years/colleges/careers. 

The real positive of this is that kids do the learning. And when they turn in those essays, the essays are written much better, making them much easier to grade.

Hopefully this helps you in your classroom!

And if you missed them, here are the links to my Power Paragraph outline, my Transition Word Lists, and my Paragraph Guidelines. Make a copy and edit/adjust however you want.

Starting to Thrive During my First Year of Teaching

Welcome back to the insanity that is the story of my first three years as a teacher. In case you missed it, here is how my career began.

And now, on we go! During that first week of teaching, I met my students and realized that they hated me. Ok, a better way to describe it was that they did not trust me yet. Later, they would tell me that they took one look at me in my pencil skirt and decided I wasn’t going to make it at that school. They thought I’d be gone within a couple months. As I came to understand their stories throughout the next couple years, it makes perfect sense that they wouldn’t trust a new person like me. 

I also realized how much the previous teacher (and/or teachers as many of our students came from various other schools) had failed them academically. When I started to ask my juniors and seniors to write a paragraph for me, the response was immediate and nearly violent. I thought they just didn’t want to write, but I came to learn that they just didn’t know how to write a paragraph. And since I did not expect to need to teach them those basics, I hadn’t built in the appropriate support. So I butted heads right off the bat with a number of students because I seemed too demanding–in reality, I was just clueless. I started to learn that there would be strange gaps in knowledge that I would need to find and address. 

One day for example, I was working with my AP class–students who had been hand selected by the school counselor to take a challenging course. We all had packets of Hamlet that I had copied and stapled together one morning at 7:00am since my books hadn’t arrived yet. We were reading through the “To be or not to be” soliloquy and I asked my class if anyone could see a metaphor in it. The class stared at me blankly. I tried to kind of lead them toward an example by directing them to a specific group of lines in the text, but still, nothing. After a couple of minutes, one of the bolder students asked, “Miss, what’s a metaphor?” When the rest of the class looked at me expectantly, ready to take notes, I realized that previous English teachers hadn’t taught them some very basic literary devices.

These were the brightest and best students, who really were brilliant, they’d just never been taught what a metaphor was. I realized I needed to throw out my plans for the week and change directions. I needed to lay a stronger foundation in literary terms before I asked them to analyze literature–while simultaneously trying to plan daily lessons for four other classes and write down a curriculum map that I thought my principal was demanding I have done (turns out very few other teachers even had solid curriculum maps. So I really didn’t need to have prioritized those, but in the end, I guess it was good that I knocked those out early).

The behaviors were another thing altogether. We had an RTC at the school, a responsible thinking center, where we could send students who were being too disruptive or disrespectful. Unfortunately, I had the mistaken understanding that sending a student to RTC was admitting defeat. I wanted to be able to be that teacher who could reach each and every kid and manage each and every behavior. Now that I understand the effects of trauma on the brain more, I understand how wrong I was. Sometimes students just need a break from the classroom. They need to take a walk to calm down. They need to focus their attention elsewhere and step away from stressors. At the time though, I didn’t want to send students out of my classroom because it felt punitive and as though I was admitting I couldn’t teach them. Therefore, I kept some wild kids in my class as they were misbehaving. There was disrespect, yelling, bullying, swearing, throwing stuff across the room–there was no end to the misbehavior.

I specifically and vividly remember my freshmen class that year. I have no idea whose idea it was to give 31 energetic freshmen an English class as their last hour of the day, but I would love to explain to them just how wrong they were. These kids were literally bouncing off the walls. Besides the chatter, the cell phones, the yelling, the graffiti, and the pushing and shoving; this class also broke my sink and opened up a fire extinguisher. I once shooed a crowd of them away from lining up at my door at the end of the day, and one little 14 year old boy tried to tell me I couldn’t tell them what to do because three of them “got records”–luckily by that point I wasn’t intimidated and didn’t care. But these kids were wild, and my class room management was basically non-existent. 

Oddly enough, the things that finally won those freshmen students over to my side was Romeo and Juliet and the power paragraph. More on the power paragraph later, but I was shocked at how much they loved Shakespeare. Something about how he starts Romeo and Juliet off with a bunch of innuendos about male genitalia, and inappropriate jokes managed to finally convince my freshmen to pay attention to English. This was also during our second semester, so by then I think they trusted that I was at least going to stick around for a while longer.

Those first couple months though, were miserable. I would get to work between 6:30 and 6:45 each morning. And I would leave work sometime after 4:30 each day. I’d get home and take a break to make myself some dinner (honestly some nights dinner was a bowl of cereal), and then I would work on my computer making assignments and writing tests and quizzes until around 8:00 or so. Everything I was using I was making from scratch. I checked out TeachersPayTeachers, but honestly, I couldn’t afford to pay for assignments that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to use. I was so grateful to the random teacher blogs who had full lessons and assignments that I could download and modify. But a lot of what I used I made. If I could head to bed with a plan for what I was doing for just the next day in each of my classes, I would be good. I was drowning.

There was one day in particular that I remember. It must have been early October. I legitimately did not think I could keep going. I didn’t really know how to quit, but I was wondering if I should maybe figure it out. I had met with my principal that day for an observation or something, and I had tried to explain the strain I was under. He’d been pretty unhelpful, something along the lines of “you can’t burn out if you’ve never been on fire”. I’m not sure what constituted being “on fire”, but I was pretty sure I had passed that point long ago. Taking deep breaths, I had to concentrate so hard to make sure I wouldn’t start crying (it was only my plan period and there was no way I was heading back to teach kids with a blotchy face from crying. I was convinced I couldn’t show weakness). I powered through the day, feeling a little like I had nowhere to turn for help.

I had also scheduled a dinner that evening with a friend who was in the area from out of town. This was the first time I had scheduled anything for a school night and I was already feeling overwhelmed and guilty that I was taking time away from my evening prep time. Before heading to dinner, I was venting to one of my roommates explaining that I didn’t think I could do it. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of a kinder way of saying, “Suck it up. You can figure this out.” I found myself again blinking back tears, but I am super grateful for those words.

At dinner, my friend asked me how I was doing. She encouraged me, knowing that I was capable of doing the work, but also suggesting that I consider looking for a different position. Overall, she made it clear that I had her love and support. After dinner, I got home a little late and was feeling guilty and overwhelmed, and like I finally had to give up. I remember sitting on our staircase and calling my mom. I don’t remember all of the conversation but I remember telling her how hard everything was. She told me that it was up to me what I did, but that if I needed to, I could come home and figure it out. She reminded me that I always had a place to live with them and that my parents always had my back. This was the first (and only) time I cried during my first year of teaching.

It was that day that I realized the admin at my school really had no clue what I was doing in high school English. I realized that professionally, I was on my own. But I also realized that I had roommates who were there to remind me that I could take on anything. I realized I had friends who maybe didn’t live around me, but who loved me and were only a phone call away. And maybe most importantly, I realized that I had parents who would do whatever they could to support me. Later on, I found out that my mom was actually so worried after that phone call that she had her Bible study friends start praying for me. I’m super grateful because I’m pretty sure those prayers kept me going.

That was my turning point. Moving forward, I kept the same ridiculous workload. But in my mind something shifted. Quitting was no longer an option. I was going to at least finish out the year. So I dove in and got super invested. 

I started by helping chaperone homecoming. Then, I learned that we had literally no extra curriculars to offer kids for their resumes and college applications, so I applied for an NHS charter and held our first inductions. Students began to trust me and their behaviors changed–well, a little bit. My lessons got better; I started building more appropriate scaffolds for my lessons. I even took a group of kids to a leadership conference. Let me tell you, when you are only 23 years old and suddenly the sole chaperon responsible for taking 15 teenagers on a bus 20 minutes away from school for a conference, you are absolutely terrified! I was looking around for the adult in charge and realized I was the adult. I was the only adult in charge of my group, some of them not even five years younger than me. I just put on my game face and pretended I wasn’t constantly counting my kids making sure I didn’t lose anyone–I didn’t, we returned safe and sound. Later on that year, I was able to even organize a field trip for the entire junior class to Detroit to visit the Holocaust museum.

By the end of the year, I loved my kids. I was definitely still overworking, but I realized how much need there was in my school and I wanted to meet those needs. I had also learned so much about my students, about teaching, and about myself. I ended up helping plan and chaperone prom, and then since the counselor had a vacation with his family planned, I was asked to plan graduation–that’s a lot of trust placed on a first year teacher to not mess anything up. I was honored, a little intimidated, and super determined to make it happen.

It was actually while I was picking up flowers, cake, and lemonade for graduation for the Class of 2015 that I received a phone call from my alma mater. The local high school in Hillsdale was looking for an English teacher, and I would be interested in the position? Eight months earlier, I would have jumped at the chance. But at that moment, when I was about to celebrate a group of my students with their families and friends looking on, I could confidently tell my previous Dean that, “thanks anyways, but I loved my students and I was invested in my school.”

Years two and three were much better for me. And leaving that school is probably still one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. More on that in my next post because this one has already gotten a little long. 

Until next time!