This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’m answering 12 questions and dishing out teacher advice on time management, classroom management, and more just in time for back-to-school season.
I’m excited to try this new episode format for my Truth for Teachers podcast, because I get a lot of questions from teachers which I haven’t been able to answer up until now. Either I don’t have enough information or knowledge to answer, or I don’t have enough to say that would fill an entire podcast episode. And sometimes, the question is just so specific to that person that it wouldn’t make a good episode for everyone else.
I think this will be a really fun way to cover a wide variety of topics in a short amount of time and still give you a lot of value. Basically, I’m going to give my BEST piece of advice for each scenario. If I could tell a teacher in that predicament ONE thing, what would I say? And then we’re going to move on, lightning style to the next question.
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1) When you were starting out teaching, how did you deal with doubts such as “Am I really going to be able to care for every child’s individual needs,” along with the fear of failing? (Lara)
I don’t think those doubts and fears ever go away, and that’s part of the reason why so many teachers burn out. If I could give you one piece of advice, it’s to recognize that you’re not going to be able to meet every student’s need in every lesson. You won’t reach them all on the same day, no matter what you do. The goal is to make sure you’re not meeting the needs of the same kids every day.
2) I’d love to hear more about managing my time more efficiently at school. (Julie)
You should check out Episode 128 — a coaching call on a daily routines makeover with a graduate of the 40HTW Club. But if I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to figure out the most important things you need to get done, and do them first. That’s true for instructional time and your planning time. What’s going to really move the needle? Prioritize that and if you have time left over, do the other things.
3) Lesson planning takes a very long time. I’m talking at least three hours for one good lesson that meets admin requirements. How do you keep from going down a rabbit hole while planning and sticking to a reasonable time frame? (Anonymous)
Three hours to plan a single lesson is outrageous and not acceptable! You should ask other teachers in your school how long they take to plan. If it’s not as long as you, ask how they do it. If it is, you all need to organize and go to your principal — and even superintendent, if needed — and fight this. Do not accept those kinds of documentation burdens as the new normal. It’s not sustainable, and this is one area where you have no choice but to take a stand.
4) How do I deal with an admin who openly shows favoritism? (Danielle)
There are a lot of variables here, and those include: if you have a union, if other teachers are willing to speak up with you, if your principal would be open to listening or would just deny and push you out if you speak up, etc. But if it were me, I’d probably look for ways to be quietly subversive. That’s a topic I talk about in my book Unshakeable. Look for ways to recognize other teachers that are often overlooked. Speak to the people who are always chosen for things so they realize others notice it’s happening, and encouraging them to pass the mic and let others share the spotlight. Look for subtle ways to draw attention to the inequities and elevate the people who aren’t usually chosen.
5) How can I streamline all my hand grading on Fridays for tests that have to be returned on Mondays? (Evi)
Who said they have to be returned on Monday? You should question that assumption. If they don’t have to be returned, give yourself extra time. If they do, build in time during your day Friday to grade. If anyone questions it, explain you understood they must be returned Monday and you had other time commitments over the weekend. I used to give my students extra center time on Friday afternoons and that would let me catch up on grading while still giving them something valuable to do with their time. See if you can figure out something that works for your context.
6) How do you find PD that is a good fit for yourself? (Livia)
It’s really important to think about this because there’s so much PD out there and a lot of it directly contradicts other PD. You can find, research, or advocate for pretty much any teaching philosophy you want. So you really have to think about what fits your personality type, your teaching context, and your students’ needs. It gets easier over time, as you learn through trial and error what doesn’t fit.
In Season 1 Episode 7, I talked about finding your unique classroom management style with a story about how as a fourth-year teacher and in a new grade level, I didn’t know my classroom management style yet, so I just emulated another teacher and it was a horrible thing! By my eighth year of teaching, I would’ve known not to do that (some of this is still discovering who you are in the classroom). Look for people online and books that resonate with you and where you’re at in your development as a teacher. Find something that speaks to you now, knowing that those approaches may change later. Make sure you’re learning from a variety of people so you can be exposed to opposing ideas and learn on a variety of topics, instead of just settling on the first one that you find.
7) What are some best practices for teachers who share classrooms or float into several rooms? (M.D.)
I don’t have experience with this myself, but if I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to set up really clear expectations about what you need in order to teach well. If you’re going into other people’s classrooms, and you need students’ desks to be cleared, or you need board space to write on, or you need the LCD projector ready to go, state that specifically to the teacher who’s in the room before you. Just say, “Hey there, on your way out the door, can you make sure that one of your kids puts away all the supplies so that the table tops are ready for my activity?” Offer that same courtesy to the teacher who uses the room after you, so you might ask, “Is there anything that you need me to do so it’s easier for you to transition back into teaching here?” This should open up the conversation to understand what’s working and what’s not.
Similarly, find an appropriate time and ask, “How do you feel like it’s been going for us sharing this room? Is there anything that I’m doing that makes it harder for you to teach?” Chances are the other person will reciprocate the question and if not, it’s an opportunity for that person to realize that you’re pulling your weight and therefore, they need to be open to pull their weight. Sharing a classroom is like sharing a home in many ways — put strategies and agreed-upon guidelines in place so you don’t have to be passive aggressive with each other. Check in regularly and maintain that relationship!
8) Do you have advice for Kindergarten classes without sinks and washrooms that are way down the hall? (Magic Realist)
Bathroom routines are always harder when you don’t have a bathroom in your classroom. See if you can set up a system that allows your kids to go on their own when they need to. When I taught Pre-K, I did a lot of modeling about how to move in the hallway, how to wash your hands appropriately, and so on. After about the first month of school, we stopped the whole class bathroom trips and my kids were able to go on their own.
Try to ease up on control in this area because it will drive you crazy if you focus on it too much, or if you expect kids to have perfect behavior in this area. No matter what you do, you’re going to have kids playing around in the hallway, splashing water at the sink, singing loudly while they’re on the toilet, or other kid things! But if you focus on the goal — which is allowing kids to meet their needs in this area without taking your focus off of instruction — then you can design policies that will work well. Try to avoid anything that requires kids not being able to go when they need to, and avoid interrupting your teaching. If your procedure meets those two criteria, I count it as good, even if it doesn’t work perfectly every time.
9) What would you say is the hardest thing about being a first-year teacher and how can first-year teachers start out strong? (Tara)
The hardest thing is trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not, because the way it’s explained to you is that every single thing is a matter of life or death, or it feels like you will lose your job and all the kids will fail if you don’t do every single thing that you’ve been told to do. If you want to start off strong, try to analyze everything through the lens of what’s most important, and give your best time and energy to those things. When you don’t know what’s most important, ask. Go to the teacher next door, to the principal, or to your mentor and say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed because I’ve got five things that I think are supposed to be complete by tomorrow. Which of these absolutely has to be done by then, and which of these could be done later, skipped, or maybe streamlined a bit?” Try to find an experienced teacher in your school that you can trust and ask, “What happens if I don’t do this well?” I think you’ll be surprised at how often the answer is “nothing.”
Also, you might be making some assumptions about what needs to be done or how it needs to be done that are way more complicated than what’s required. Ask for tips and tricks on how to make your work less time-consuming. It’s not possible to be able to do everything, so figure out what you can eliminate, or at least streamline, so that the most important stuff gets done.
10) What’s your biggest piece of advice for young teachers? (Happiclass)
If you want teaching to be a sustainable career for you, you have to focus on ways to make teaching fit into your life, instead of trying to make life fit into your teaching, because teaching is an all-consuming job, and there won’t be any room left over for the rest of your life if you don’t choose to prioritize. Decide how much time, energy, and money you can afford to dedicate to this profession — set those boundaries for yourself. But know that those boundaries will change throughout your teaching career as you move through different stages of life.
For the first part of my teaching career, I was single and I didn’t have kids, so I enjoyed spending more time on school than I did later on. I also had a lot more energy as a young teacher, and I’m glad that I invested a lot of that energy into becoming the best possible teacher that I could be, because all of that groundwork that I laid made it so much easier for me to be successful later on in my career, with a lot less effort. Depending on your current season of life and the other obligations you have on your time, it might make sense for you to put your teacher identity first for a while, and maybe the boundary you set is that it’s not going to be like that forever. You’re just going to do it for this year and then re-evaluate and see what’s reasonable for you next year. Make sure to check in with yourself regularly to make sure that what you’re doing is working for you so that you don’t burn out.
11) How do we help the many kids with anxiety? (Miss Kay)
I think kids pick up or emulate the emotions of the adults in their lives. I’m not saying that adults are solely responsible for kids’ anxiety, but I am saying that we have a tremendous influence on how kids feel. We can intentionally create a calm classroom where we’re not constantly talking about test scores, or the threat of retention, or not screaming at kids across the room when they’re not following directions. We can pay attention to the triggers that we know can make anxiety worse for kids, and notice what sets off the anxiety for the kids in your room. You can help them find labels and descriptors for their thoughts and feelings so that when something is making them feel anxious, they have the vocabulary and the trust in you to say privately, “I’m feeling really anxious or stressed out right now, can I go sit at the quiet spot in the class library?” or whatever combination you have made for this sort of situation.
Think about ways that you can make your classroom less stimulating and more calming. I very rarely turned on the overhead fluorescent lights (because they stress me out) and used small lamps placed all around the classroom and natural light from the windows. I also played calm, classical music throughout the day. When we did a class activity that was rambunctious, I followed it with something that was quieter and more introspective so the introverts like myself, as well as the kids who struggled with anxiety or getting overstimulated, had that moment to regroup. Be in tune with your kids and be intentional about the way you structure your day and your classroom to be mindful of anxiety.
12) What advice do you have for teachers on those very bad, no good days? (A.)
Decompress as much as you can after dismissal or on your way home from school so that you’re not bringing that energy into your home. Talk it out with one person, preferably a colleague who really gets it, versus a friend or partner who is not a teacher and may end up saying the wrong thing, which makes it worse. Try to create a reframing thought about the day that allows you to feel a sense of closure about it. My book, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, has an entire chapter on this, where we talk about reframing those negative thoughts in a way that is true, but more empowering. It might be something like: I made a big mistake today, but it’s not the end of the world … I can forgive myself and move on and do better tomorrow … I accept the way things happen and I’m confident that I’ll be able to move on from this … I am resilient and I refuse to let this ruin my evening.
Once you’ve gotten yourself in that mindset, go home and don’t allow yourself to think about it or talk about it. Dismiss those thoughts when they pop into your head and replace them with the reframing thought. Try to take a break from work that evening, do some sort of self-care for yourself, or do something that allows you to rest and recharge rather than trying to dive right back into work mode. It’s okay to give yourself permission to do a little bit less on a bad day, rather than trying to power through as planned.
Feel free to submit your own question for a future “ask me anything episode”, using the form at truthforteachers.com or in my Instagram Story Highlights.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode was sponsored by Really Good Stuff. What are the top 10 challenges that teachers face in the classroom? Really Good Stuff released the findings of their National Poll with over 700 participants. Visit reallygoodstuff.com/solutions to find the results, plus solutions to these challenges, teacher tips, resources, and innovative products designed to save you time. Use promo code RGSTRUTH10 for 10% off of your Really Good Stuff order (expires 12/31/18).