7 teacher tips for surviving the week before holiday break

We’re heading into the home stretch here in 2014, and it can be one of the hardest times in which to maintain order in the classroom. Fortunately, there are ways to make the last few days count and maintain your sanity:

1. Don’t build anticipation.

Assemblies, presentations, and other holiday events are unavoidable in December, but you can prevent your class from getting over-excited by staying focused on daily routines instead of special activities. I list my schedule changes in a prominent place for the type of children who need to have a plan, but I don’t mention the special events at all unless we need to prepare. If a student asks when the holiday party is, I point to the schedule, then change the subject.

Right before an event, I explain what’s happening in a calm voice: “We’re going down to the cafeteria now for the chorus performance. That will take up part of our math time. When we get back, we will complete our math warm-ups just like we usually do, and then continue with our graphing activity.”

2. Resist the urge to ease up on your behavioral expectations.

Believe me when I say that easing up will backfire completely. When the teacher is lackadaisical, it just adds to the environment of chaos that the students are slowly creating and makes it harder to get the class back on track. If the kids run to line up, shake your head and nonchalantly tell the whole class to sit back down and try again. “I know you’re excited about the chorus performance. But we need to line up in a quiet and orderly way, just like we always do. Let’s see which table is ready to try again. Watch Team Three as they walk at aappropriate pace over towards the door. Notice how they pushed their chairs in. Do you see how they are facing forward and not talking? Excellent. Team Four, your turn to try.”

Yes, it’s December. And yes, you still have to do this.

3. Review your procedures and expectations.

It’s probably been a few weeks or months since you’ve articulated and modeled some of your classroom procedures for the entire class. (Just because you tell the same four kids over and over that NO, they cannot get a drink in the middle of a lesson, does not mean the rest of the class was paying attention when you reiterated your expectations.)

A fun way to reinforce the rules is with my Class Rules Review Games: Fun paper-based & PowerPoint activities. There’s one PPT slide for each category of expectations (Papers, Homework, Moving Around Campus, Working Cooperatively, etc.), and each slide has questions about related classroom routines. The slides don’t include the answers so that the kids can supply them (bonus: you can modify your rules without redoing the PowerPoint).

This can be used as a teaching tool and to spark discussion, or can be played as a competition between teams (who knows our classroom routines the best?). I always liked to do a few slides each week during December and again when we returned in January, and it made a remarkable difference in how smoothly my classroom ran.

7 teacher tips for surviving the week before holiday or winter break

4. Integrate high-interest projects and group work into your regular routines.

I like to finish the majority of my content instruction early in the month so that students can spend most of the last week before break just practicing and applying skills. On the last few days of December, they typically published their narrative essays in writing, completed main idea partner activities in reading, created multiplication fact houses in math, and made land form changes pop-up books in science.

These activities are interesting enough to keep the kids focused on their work, and don’t require them to be sitting still and following along with me. We did, however, continue with regular routines for morning work, reading groups, math and writing warm-up assignments, and so on, to send the message that this is a regular school day with regular expectations.

The idea is that the kids don’t notice a change in the way the day is run; only you as the teacher are aware of the subtle differences in the way content is presented and activities assigned.

5. Don’t feel pressure to do all of the elaborate holiday stuff that other teachers do.

So what if the teacher across the hall covers her room in tinsel and lights and creates extensive holiday-themed centers which culminate in a life-size replica of the first North Pole expedition? Don’t compare yourself, and don’t wear yourself out trying to keep up. New teachers, especially, need to resist the urge to take on more than they can handle. Figure out some simple festive things you can do that won’t create a lot of stress, and stick with those. You can always add a little more next year.

This advice goes double for buying students presents. Your teammate may choose to spend $50 on trinkets, and that’s fine. But you’re not a bad teacher if you don’t.

6. Keep the last day before break low-key.

Three hours before you pack up your whole family and make an eight hour trip to grandma’s house is NOT the time to plan an elaborate fraction-review-gingerbread-house-decorating activity. You’ll be distracted by your own holiday plans, the kids who actually show up to school will be too excited to follow directions, and you’ll be running around like crazy to clean up so you can leave on time.

Instead, give meaningful work assignments that the kids will enjoy completing, and enjoy the last day together. This will also help you…

7. Get prepared for January before you leave.

Try to use the day before break to take down any seasonal decorations you have up, change the calendar, finalize your lesson plans and materials for the first day back, etc. There’s nothing worse than coming back to work after a week off to discover silver glitter and unwritten thank you cards all over your desk. A new year is coming. Give yourself a new start!

January is the perfect time to create new routines and habits. If you are struggling to make time for what matters most in your life and feel like you can’t possibly have enough time for being a great teacher AND taking care of yourself and things at home, I hope you’ll consider joining The 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club in the new year.

40HTW gift membership

What are your tips for surviving the week before holiday or winter break? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kathi Ratcliffe December 14, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Yay for normal! I use normal as often as possible, along with boundaries!
Do what she says, people! She speaks truth.

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2 Angela Watson December 19, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Hah, thanks, Kathi, I appreciate that!

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3 Christin December 14, 2014 at 7:59 pm

These are great reminders! I especially appreciate you posting #5 – the feeling of competing and keeping up with other teachers is one I struggle with.

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4 Angela Watson December 19, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Yes, that’s a tough one, isn’t it? I tend to look around at others who enjoy dressing up and doing these elaborate holiday projects and feel like I am not as good of a teacher because I don’t enjoy doing those things. Buy why not approach the holidays in a way that feels right for you, personally, just like we do at home with our families? There’s no one right way to celebrate!

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5 Matt December 14, 2014 at 8:31 pm

I once had a principal that always reminded the staff of Warren G. Harding’s quote that our classrooms should “return to normalcy” around Winter and Spring Break.

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6 Angela Watson December 19, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Nicely said!

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7 DJ December 11, 2015 at 7:39 pm

I write all my notes to my students the last weekend before vacation wishing them Merry Christmas. I don’t seal them so I can add a thank you if necessary and then hand them out the day before break. It gives me the opportunity to personally give them mail and it saves me on postage too.
The idea of de”decking” the halls/walls has come to help me on more than on break as we have had our parties on return from break in January too many times in my career due to snow days right before break. Ugh. HORRIBLE way to start the new year.

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8 Francine December 11, 2015 at 8:59 pm

Keep your decorating theme winter oriented for your classroom. When “de-decorating”, you can leave the majority of decorations up and simply take down your tree or christmas oriented items.

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9 Anne Paoletti December 12, 2015 at 4:46 pm

Excellent advice! I thought I was going to click on an article that suggested holiday-themed activities and things that would just add to the frenzy, but no. These are words of wisdom. Thank you!

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10 Meg December 14, 2015 at 9:41 pm

I will just add one more:
Remember that you and your classroom are the happiest place for some of your students.
They are acting up, not because of excitement for the holidays, but because they are dreading being home for that long and away from the security of school-even if they can’t articulate it.
These are often the same children who start pedaling their bikes around the school parking lot months before vacation ends in the summer.
Avoid asking children what plans they have or what gifts they have gotten, unless you are reasonably sure of a positive answer. Some families won’t have gone on vacations or given elaborate (or any) gifts.
Read a choose your own adventure for your read aloud or a book of silly knock-knock jokes. Have older children work in small groups or give short oral presentations, and when all else fails….both young and old children love a good coloring page!
And as to the decorating, as the parent of a child with attention issues, I am very appreciative of teachers who keep the classroom focused on learning. A Pinterest explosion is setting up many of your kids for failure!

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