10 Reminders to Keep Your Sanity

Jon Konen
School Principal

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What many people in other professions don't understand is how engrained and engaged educators are in the lives of their students once they step foot in our doorways. We now stay up at night worrying how to connect, how to feed, how to clothe, how to support their trauma, and how to engage them further…and not just in academics, but also in their socio-emotional health.

In order to keep this hectic pace as well as tackling the tsunami size of responsibility in front of us, there must be some things we can do to keep our sanity.

Recently, I spent a relaxing weekend with my friends from Helena, MT. I asked, "What are you doing right now at the beginning of the school year to keep your sanity?" She had many things she could rattle off immediately, especially ones that she was making a priority this school year that she learned from last year.

For the sake anonymity, we will just call her Jen! Jen is a master teacher with a master's degree in curriculum instruction. She is in her sixteenth year of teaching and is highly revered and requested by parents in her school district. She is quiet in her demeanor, very humble, and never asks for recognition. In my experience with teachers, I would rank her in the top 5% of all teachers I know. In fact, she is one of my "go-to's" to talk and discuss education. I am proud and lucky to know her as a colleague and a friend.

A great discussion ensued and she came up with ten things that have helped her keep her sanity and I believe they can be helpful for all teachers. These are not in any particular order, other than we talked about these topics in the following order!

1 - Stay One Step Ahead

In order to stay one step ahead of her students, Jen talked about planning and over planning. After learning about her students as much as possible, she lays out educational experiences that fill the needs of her students. She feels if she can always be thinking about what is going to be easy for my students, as well as what might trip them up, she can plan activities and instruction more effectively. When chaos ensues, she says it usually comes from not being prepared or thinking faster than her students.

Supplies, materials, and transitions can eat away valuable time if these are not thought about and planned beforehand. She continually thinks about what students need and what she needs in order to keep instruction going, as well as the pace for engaging all her students. Stopping to get out materials that are stuck in a closet somewhere, or transitioning to an activity when everything the students need are not ready can be a complete waste of time for the teacher and especially the students.

2 - Think in Chunks

One of Jen's greatest strategies is to think in chunks. When looking at her schedule, her students have chunks of time: 30, 60, or even a 90 minute chunks. She understands that utilizing all that time comes from being prepared with materials and supplies, but also from engagement strategies that she is going to use with students. She asks herself what will I be doing and what will the students be doing?

When Jen chunks this time, the days become more manageable. She is able to plan her time accordingly making modifications to the curriculum due to time, as well as making time for more student support in small groups and one-on-one with students.

If you are a checklist type of person like Jen, she feels much better when she can think in chunks and check each "chunk" off of her lesson plans.

3 - Put Myself in My Kids' Shoes

Many times as teachers we get into a grove. We know what we have to teach, as directed by our state and districts requirements, and we do not put time into anything extra. We may not even take into account what are students need, if they are even engaged with our instruction, or what they have going in their lives.

We come to school and just want to do our jobs of teaching the required curriculum. Teaching has changed. If we try to put our square pegs into our round holes we will burn out and leave education.

One strategy that Jen stressed is always trying to put herself into the minds of her students. What do they think about each learning experience, and more importantly about being a part of the classroom culture that she has created and nurtured? She keeps thinking…do I want to be a student in my classroom? Are students having fun, are they engaged? She also thinks about students who many have learning difficulties, trauma, anxiety, and other behavior problems. Being self-reflective supports her own growth mindset and she is able to respond to student needs more effectively.

4 - Behaviors…Students are Not Out to Get Me!

For the most part, the negative behaviors a student exhibits are not directed at the teacher, nor are they doing it to annoy the teacher. Jen understands she cannot take this personal. She knows that most of the behaviors come from something more deep rooted.

Compassion for her students is something Jen prides herself. She knows that negative behavior is a communication to others as well. She knows if she continues to ask questions and dig deeper, she can usually find a basic need that is not being met. She then tries to meet that need.

5 - Rely on the People Around You!

Where you work can be the number one determining factor in job satisfaction. The people you work for and work with can make or break your teaching experience. This is true in Jen's workplace.

Grade level partners, the principal, and para's support her every day. Jen said she wouldn't know if she would be able to do the job without these vital partners. Grade level partners support her in so many different ways from emotional support, to planning, giving ideas, and even helping with student behaviors. Jen's secretary is also vital to her every day sanity as she is a constant wealth of knowledge for getting not only the miniscule tasks completed, but also in supporting with the insurmountable problems that arise.

6 - Relationship Building is a Priority

Many teachers start teaching curriculum right away, working towards a set a pacing guide as required. What this strategy is missing is the relationship between the students and the teacher. The teacher can forge ahead, but truly understanding how well your students are comprehending the curriculum is in question.

Jen spends a majority of her time at the beginning of the school year building relationships with her students. She knows this pays off in several different ways throughout the school year. She is able to get through more curriculum when her students trust her and have created a positive relationship. In addition, the time she might spend on behavior and off task behaviors is lessened because she knows her students.

7 - Teaching Procedures, Classroom Management, and the Power of Observation

Putting time into the small things in your classroom right away has always been a strategy Harry Wong and other top education guru's tout: greeting at the door, sit in rows, establish how to respond, getting supplies, etc… How you respond to behavior right away sets the tone for how all other behaviors will be addressed. The first five days are vital to the remaining 175.

Jen, understanding these premises, puts a lot of time into procedures and establishing her classroom culture and climate. She teaches many explicit procedures that students need to use in order for the classroom to run efficiently.

Another aspect that has changed in her teaching is the ability to observe a situation or behavior from a child before jumping right in to fix it. She said she is able to learn more about a student and find out the "why" for the behavior if she first steps back. She can then utilize strategies to find a solution for the deeper rooted problem before jumping in to fix it. This is the power of observation that she has found successful over her career.

8 - Build Strong Relationships with Parents Right Away

The greatest partner we have in educating our students should be our parents. We are with them for eight hours a day, while the other 16 hours students are with their families. Understanding this concept makes it obvious why we should connect with them right away, or even before the first day of school.

Jen said over her 16 year career she has found this to be one of the number one strategies in supporting her students. Building strong relationships with families is one of her priorities from the start of the year. She teams with them on academics and socio-emotional issues immediately.

The first phone call from a parent is hopefully a positive call. Jen makes sure her first contact with parents is always positive. Then when she has to call on getting support to stop negative behaviors she already has built up the proverbial bank account. She knows that many parents had an adverse experience during their schooling. She sets goals to make it better for her students and increase her support with these parents.

9 - Establishing High Expectations from the Start

Setting expectations is part of every classroom. Yet, setting high expectations of all students may not be. When teachers set high expectations and the students buy into the classroom culture, anything can be accomplished.

Jen sets high expectations of her students from day one. She builds trust, works on culture, and sets high expectations that her students strive to exceed. When the bar is set low, academics suffer and behavior problems can supersede any learning. She sets goals and expectations for both academics and behavior.

Over her career, she said she understands what her students at her grade level can do when high expectations are set. She continually adjusts and increases those expectations, and she has found ways for her students to meet them.

10 - Put School Away for a While

Teaching is one of the few professions where you cannot drop your work at the end of the work day. Many professions you start work at 8:00 AM in the morning and when it hits the last whistle, your work stops. It is easy to take work home with you and end up working off and on all night and all weekend. Being able to put the work away for a while is important.

Jen puts family first. At nights she understands she must put time into her family, twin boys. She spends time each night working with them on their needs both athletically, academically, and emotionally. She makes sure her weekends are with her family and making sure that this is her primary focus.

We all must put our work away for a while in order to recharge mentally and physically. Jen exercises routinely and knows that putting time into herself gives her more time and energy to put into her family. In fact, Jen understands that the more she gives herself the more she can give others.

Jon Konen