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!
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 🙂 **