But it doesn’t have to be.
by Tina Beene
As months go, October was always my favorite. Changing leaves, cooling temperatures, college football, comfy sweaters … these are indeed a few of my favorite things, even though only one of the four applies here in Texas until at least mid-November. Still, I absolutely lived for that first crisp fall breeze, for driving without sweating, and for choosing activities based on interest versus A/C availability.
That all changed when I became a teacher. I quickly learned that this month brings more than pumpkins and hayrides and cider; for educators it also brings deadlines, doubts, and sickness. (So. Much. Sickness.) And while I still don’t have the ability to manage the October stress for myself — I’m writing this post (which is five days overdue) during a 30-minute window between a doctor’s appointment and picking up my child from school because it’s either now or 11:00 pm, when I would probably doze off, type three lines of “wwwwww” and then accidentally share it to a random google drive — that won’t stop me from telling you what you should do to make it through the fiery inferno that is October. Even with my sage advice, I’m not promising your eyebrows won’t get singed a little, but hopefully these three tips will help minimize the scarring.
1. Discernment is crucial when it comes to deadlines.
October brings due all of those beginning-of-year forms and spreadsheets and reports whose deadlines seemed oh-so-reasonable from the comfy confines of late August. What it doesn’t bring is a break to catch up or catch your breath. That means that if you weren’t able to complete them ahead of schedule, you’re looking at about 20 percent more work (in my completely arbitrary estimation) this month with even less time to do it, since you likely also have out-of-work commitments and loved ones with whom you want to experience this magical season.
To maximize the return on your time investment, it can be helpful to evaluate the to-dos with a two-pronged approach: importance and effort. Which tasks are absolutely non-negotiable, and which are more of a formality? Which three can be knocked out in twenty minutes, and which will require mental effort and considerable time? Once that is determined, scheduling becomes easier. For me, tackling cognitively demanding tasks first thing in the morning is the best approach, so I often block off a couple of hours before my family really wakes up Saturday morning to work on anything that requires much thought.
Disclaimer: If you try this, it will seem like the world’s worst idea when the alarm goes off, but I find being able to enjoy the rest of the day without those tasks hanging overhead more than makes up for the initial suffering.
2. Reflect on what’s working (and what’s not) for you and for your students.
At the beginning of the year, teachers receive a ton of data that is intended to inform instructional practices during the first weeks of school. In theory this is wonderful — knowledge equals power, after all — but in reality the limited scope of information coupled with the passage of time since the assessments were conducted limits their benefits somewhat. October is a great time to compare what the data says to the living, breathing humans in your classroom. It’s not unusual for some ELs to demonstrate higher proficiency than their assessments would suggest, or conversely, appear to have taken a couple of steps back from what was expected. In my experience, the students who had regressed somewhat had often spent the summer reconnecting with family and friends utilizing their primary language, whereas the kids whose listening comprehension had skyrocketed had spent the summer in front of the television watching SpongeBob. I’m all for linguistic growth, but at what cost?
Student input can be invaluable during this time of reflection, but the manner in which it is solicited can make all the difference. I like to start by working together as a class to list all the different ways we learn alongside any explicit or implicit procedures, routines, and expectations. After forming the class list as a place to start, students are ready to let you know what’s working best for them and what’s not their favorite in whatever format is most comfortable and convenient for you. Sentence stems can be useful for guiding student thinking and offering them a framework for giving feedback constructively and politely.
|Which of the expectations or procedures help you the most? Which could you do without?
Is there anything about the classroom environment that makes it harder for you to learn?
What’s your favorite way to learn? Which ways do you dislike?
What else would you like for me to know?
Taking the time to engage students this way communicates two invaluable messages: that you respect and value their input, and that you yourself are open to reflection and improvement. Not to mention it makes planning easier once you realize that almost everyone in your class loathes group work or loves partner tasks. By adjusting linguistic accommodations to match what is really taking place in the classroom (versus the cold data from the previous year) and delivering the content in a way that is comprehensible to students based on their feedback, teachers can recoup much of the instructional time spent on reflection.
3. Make your mental and physical health a priority, no matter how chaotic things become.
Your classroom is a cesspool of germs, your campus a virus-filled petri dish. Your loved ones are swimming in their own seas of sickness at their workplaces and schools, and they’re kind enough to bring some home with them to be mixed with whatever plague is ravaging your campus this week. There’s no avoiding the contamination, but you can take steps to give yourself the best chance of survival. Listening to your body, getting adequate rest, and exercising regularly are all essential battle protections as we wage this war against cold and flu season. Godspeed, comrade.
If you can stay healthy, there are lots of memories to be made this month (and some will even be good!). If there are children in your life, they will only ever be this age and in this costume once. (With the exception of my son, who has always insisted on being a teenage mutant ninja turtle or zombie-something. Four years of turtles, then three sports-related zombies, now a resurrected Revolutionary War soldier. The abrupt departure from contemporaneous athletics was not explained.) The point is, as much as we might wish this month over and done with, it would be a mistake to barrel through without noting the first signs of fall and the magical mysteries of the season. I encourage you to try and pause at least once a day to look around, breathe in the pumpkin spice, and then go wash your hands again. And again. Maybe once more. You really can’t be too safe.