The Beleaguered Teacher

Beleaguered Teacher

It’s October…the month I have dreaded every year since that very first year of teaching! The papers are piling up. Parent-teacher conferences are looming. The first report card is about to be sent out,  AND I’M BURIED WITH WORK.

I have decided that there is no worse month than October for the weight of the workload, the stress, and the demands on my professional and personal time. It was during October of my first year of teaching that I decided that there was no way  I could keep this pace up for 30+ years. Well, who knew? Here I am, still going at it after 34 years in education.

How have I done it? By keeping these things in mind:

  • By the end of October, many difficult “firsts” are over--the first report card, conferences, and first emotional “crash and burn”
  • The grade book is filled out and students adding and dropping classes (especially in high school) is slowing down.
  • There is usually a Columbus Day holiday on my calendar.
  • Routines have been established.
  • I know the students’ names and have a pretty good idea of their abilities.
  • I’m no longer getting used to the new wake up and bedtime routines.
  • The holidays are looming and provide something to look forward to.
  • The students are falling into their own routines and classroom management gets easier.

So, if you’re one of those “beleaguered” teachers right now, take heart!  Once November rolls around, things start looking up and before you know it, winter break will be upon you.  Once you’ve made it through October, it just doesn’t get much worse!  Hang on!

In the meantime:

  • Use a personal day if you must, just to dig out from all the paperwork
  • Choose a weekend day and spend it doing what YOU want to do.  Let the papers sit for 24 hours.
  • Plan a day with your students that is not only a fun day,  but is also educational.  It gives you time to build relationships and learn at the same time.  Don’t make it extravagant, however, or you add a boatload of other troubles.
  • Get your hair or nails done.
  • Spend an afternoon decorating your home for fall.
  • Put your pajamas on when you get home from school and do NO school work.  It’s worth it!

Write to me and tell me some things you’ve done to help you get through October, and I’ll post them here in the future!


Choosing Your Battles Carefully

girls talking in class

During every lesson, you are constantly bombarded by stimuli and forced to make split second decisions.  Judy is looking out the window.  Timmy is asleep.  Roger is drawing a picture, and Karen is trying to get the mud off her shoe.  Chloe is listening intently, but across the aisle Theo is unwinding the spiral binding on his notebook.  Tristan heads to the garbage can with the pencil shavings from his pencil sharpener while Kevin is reading a book in his lap.  Which of these students’ behaviors need re-directing immediately?

All the while, you are giving directions, trying to monitor the progress of your students, keeping an eye on the time, and watching, watching, watching your students.

A common question of a novice teacher is “Which behaviors should I react to and which behaviors can I safely ignore?”  As a general rule of thumb, ask yourself these questions:

  1.   Is the student still mentally engaged in what the class is doing?
  2.   Could the student answer a question about content if you were to call upon   him/her?

If your answer to the first two questions is YES, continue to monitor the situation.  You may want to walk towards the off-task student, however.

Now, consider the following three questions:

  1.   Is the student totally oblivious to the lesson/activity that is going on in the     classroom?
  2.   Is the student distracting others?
  3.   Is the behavior going to become even more problematic without re-directing?  (i.e. The student who is unwinding the spiral edge of a notebook appears to be   fashioning a makeshift fishing pole to snag the bow in Twila’s pony tail.)

If you answer YES to the last three questions, intervene.  However, keep in mind that intervening does not necessarily mean calling the child out by name.  Try these steps first:

  • Walk towards the student who is not paying attention or is not on task.  Stand near his desk/work area.
  • Use the student’s name in the lesson.
  • Call upon the student to help you with something.  For example, send the student to the board, have him hold a poster, have him demonstrate how to focus a slide on a microscope.
  • Ask the student a question…not a “gotcha” question to point out that he/she is not listening, but rather one that will redirect his/her attention.

Unless there is a safety issue or a blatantly disrespectful action, try to keep the lesson moving without calling out each student who is off task.  Every time you stop the lesson to correct misbehavior, time is lost.  Choose your battles carefully.  You are the person who defines the classroom atmosphere.  For the sake of continuity and peace, be proactive rather than reactive!



Helping the Struggling Student

struggling student

As a new teacher, you are pulled in many different directions. Prioritizing your time becomes a survival skill! Unfortunately, what I sometimes neglected on the list of priorities in my first years of teaching were the struggling students. After all, I was struggling myself!

With no mentor and no (significant) prior experience with struggling students, I had to figure this out for myself.  How was I to remediate the struggling student when I had no idea what the root of the problem was?  There are several key avenues to pursue when helping the student who is flailing in one or more subjects.

Before you meet with the student:

1.  Identify the weakest academic area.  (If you are a self-contained classroom teacher, it will probably be reading or math.) 

2.  Collect work samples and look for patterns.  When did the problems begin?  Was it when you started two digit multiplication?  When you began reading longer stories with more difficult vocabulary?  When you started the unit on simple machines?

3.  Check school records for test scores, anecdotal records, and anything else that might indicate where the problem began.   Did Timmy attend 6 different schools in the last three years?  Does Timmy have a history of excessive absences?  Has Timmy been tested for learning disabilities?  (I once found out that I had student who was blind in one eye–in NOVEMBER!  She wore glasses, but the parents did not mention it.)

3.  If you teach elementary or junior high, get permission from the parents/guardians to meet with the student after school.  If you teach elementary, try to find time during the school day to meet with the student.  Perhaps an aide can keep an eye on the rest of the students while you work one-on-one.  If you have no aide, take the student aside while others are doing seat work (if this is practical for you.)

When you meet with the student:

1.  I have the student read aloud to me and then ask several comprehension                           questions.  While oral reading ability is not a “tell-all”, a student’s ability to decode                  and answer questions about a paragraph can be very revealing.

2.  Ask the student to write a simple paragraph (age appropriate in length and                   complexity) about a picture you provide or a topic you initiate.  This also yields a                     wealth of information.

3. If the topic is math, ask the student to work a few problems for you on the                       board and watch how he/she goes about solving them.

4.  If the student is junior high or high school age, have them empty their back                       pack.  This has traditionally been the source of much valuable information during my           career.  Check for organization and completed work.  Usually, you will find one of                     two scenarios:  the contents are either in complete order, or the contents are a                         disorganized mess.  Work forward from there.  Congratulate the student or help                       them clean it out!

After you meet with the student:

1.  Contact the parent and share the results of your investigation.  Decide whether it would be best to have them come in for a conference.

2.   Identify a plan of action and share it with both the parents and student.  Students need a good dose of hope and a boost of confidence.

3.  Set aside 15 minutes per day to help the student make progress.  I have done this with both math and reading when I taught in a self-contained classroom.  I worked with students one-on-one while the rest of the class worked on homework or silent reading. If you only have the student one period a day, set aside 15 minutes after school twice a week, if possible.

4.  Set goals and chart progress.  Modify student work as you are able.  Do not bog the student down with extra practice homework every night!  

5.  Celebrate progress!  Give stickers, notes, certificates, and be sure to send notes/e-mails to parents as progress is made.

Sometimes the extra attention works magic on its own to build a student’s confidence!  If a student feels that he or she is going to improve, it is very motivating.  And after all, that’s really what it’s all about–PROGRESS!