This morning marked an important day in my annual end-of-summer routine: the return of the back-to-school nightmare. It’s the same every year, ever since I started teaching five years ago. I show up to school, ready for a smooth first day when I’m handed a student schedule instead of a teacher schedule. I try to explain to the school secretary that there’s been a mistake, but she only shrugs and tells me that it’s my choice which schedule to follow, but if I don’t report to Algebra 1 in five minutes then she’ll have to call the school’s truancy officer, who will have to arrest me. I follow my student schedule all day, trying to explain to all of my coworkers that I’m their colleague until I go to the last class of the day, which is my own English class. There’s a sub in the room, and now I have to try to explain that I’m the teacher while all of my students argue that I can’t be the teacher since I sat next to them earlier today in Bio. Somewhere while I’m trying to plead my case and regain control of the room, I wake up.
I’ve never met another teacher who hasn’t had a recurring back-to-school nightmare at one point or another, and while none of them are the same, they all stem from the same anxiety that makes us shudder when back-to-school commercials start running the week after the fourth of July. Sure, some of these feelings are perfectly healthy, but if it’s starting to define the final days of your summer vacation, here are five strategies to cope.
1. Use this time to plan your first day, first week, first unit.
This seems like an obvious one, but if you’re like me, sometimes it’s easier to avoid the problem rather than deal with it head-on. If I pretend that summer isn’t ending, then it won’t really end, right? Something about sitting down and planning how you’re going to use my class time at the beginning of the school year can feel really overwhelming, but knowing that you have the first few days taken care of will help you to savor the last few days of summer instead of worrying. Planning out the first few days in detail will also free up your time to do more important things in the first few days of school, like learning your students’ names, getting a head start on building parent relationships, or just going outside and enjoying the sunlight before the days start to get shorter.
2. Look back on last year with a critical eye.
The beauty of education is that we get to hit the “refresh” button at the beginning of each new school year. Now that you’ve had some time to put school out of your mind, you might find that you have a new perspective on the choices you made. If last year was a particularly rough one (we’ve all had some years that were harder than others), how did your choices contribute to it? For many of us, it’s only after time has removed us from the experience that we can look back and acknowledge our own mistakes or shortcomings. Taking some time to look back and consider the ways in which we can improve only makes us better.
3. Make a big change.
Now is the time to revamp an old routine, scrap a new policy that wasn’t working anymore, or add a fresh new idea to your curriculum. This is especially true if you’re having trouble feeling anything close to excitement about a new year. Were kids buzzing about a great new study tool their Math teacher used? Ask your colleague if she doesn’t mind sharing. Dreading the stacks of grading that are only a few days or weeks away? Check out this YouTube series on strategies to combat those piles of paper. Sick of students losing the resources you spent hours putting together for them? Spend some time exploring the world of interactive notebooks on Pinterest. Freshening up your content, routines, and strategies will give you something to look forward to, and your students will pick up on that excitement.
4. Find a support network.
Jennifer Gonzalez over at the Cult of Pedagogy calls this “Finding Your Marigolds.” To paraphrase, planting marigolds near garden vegetables typically helps those other plants grow larger, healthier produce. On the other hand, the presence of a walnut tree typically will produce smaller, sicklier fruits and vegetables. Your support network should help you to feel excited about your job and challenge you to be better. These people might be your mentor or coworkers at school, but they could also be fellow union members, your cohort from your teaching program, or family or friends in education. Finding these people and engaging with them now will help you talk through your anxiety and feel part of a bigger picture as the school year starts.
(Shameless plug time: Still looking for your support network? Come to the New Member Committee’s annual professional development conference, Just for New Teachers, on Saturday, 4 November. Registration is already open!)
5. Enjoy the last few days of summer.
Look, in just a few days, kids will be sitting in front of us, whether we like it or not, and we can choose to find that fact oppressive, or we can find it liberating. It won’t be long until the weather cools down, the days start to get shorter, and we’ll all be driving home in the dark. You know what you won’t regret then? Spending that last beautiful weekend of summer vacation at the beach instead of at school slaving over a rubric you won’t need until the first week of October. Take this time to do what makes you happy outside of school, and you’ll feel more ready for the work you’ll soon be doing every day in school.
Have another tip for early-career educators getting ready to head back from summer vacation? Leave a comment below!
Post written by Emma Hensler, a MTA New Member Committee Member and English teacher at Rockport High School. You can follow Emma on Twitter: @emhenzz
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