Back to school teacher meetings for my school start at the end of this week and the first day of class is next Wednesday. Usually, this is a stressful, but fun blur of a week filled with post-it notes, to-do lists, meetings, and classroom decorating. This year is different. A few days ago I received the devastating news that my little brother passed away. In that instant all of the lesson plans and school supplies fell to the absolute bottom of my priority list. While writing this blog post is a somewhat cathartic experience for me, I think it can also be a help to others in a variety of difficult situations. In my ten years teaching, I’ve witnessed countless teachers navigate the classroom while battling loss, divorce, miscarriage, home fire, bankruptcy, legal troubles, depression, and many other emotionally intense situations. Although I do not think there is only one way to balance personal trauma and classroom teaching, I want to share my tips in this area and I invite you to leave comments, questions, and advice in the comment section below.
- Communicate proactively: If you are going through something that will impact your attendance or performance as a teacher, I think that it is better to communicate proactively. Many times administrators and colleagues will jump in to support you if they know what is going on. Chances are you will also have a better substitute situation if you let your administrator know that the days off may be coming. Even if you are not sure which days you will need a simple heads up will likely lead to easier coverage.
- Communicate professionally: Know your administrator and share details only as appropriate. I tend to keep the details close to the vest unless the situation necessitates more sharing. You may consider writing an email instead of a call or face-to-face meeting. I’m a crier and my boss would likely not understand what I’m saying after the first sentence or two. It’s also usually best to avoid people seeing you leaving the principal’s office with tears streaking down your cheeks. That is a quick way to start the high school rumor mill and you have enough on your plate as it is.
- Allow others to help: Most teachers I know are control freaks to some degree. I usually feel like I must leave foolproof step by step instructions for every minute of sub time, but sometimes that just can’t happen. A few years ago I had to leave the classroom for a few weeks while I battled post-partum depression. When I came back, a found a small miracle. The classroom had not fallen apart. The curriculum had not suffered. My department members had rallied together and taken care of everything. If you have a co-worker, department chair, assistant principal, or other person on campus who offers to help, swallow your pride and take them up on it.
- Decide what to share in the classroom: It is very important to decide exactly what you will say when you return (if you take time off) or when you have an emotional moment (if you work through the pain). Off the cuff, you may over share or lose control of your emotions. While I don’t think it is wrong in every circumstance to share your grief with teens, it must be productive or quick if mentioned at all. You know your school and can make the decision with care. For example, at my school, it would be frowned upon for a teacher to discuss a boyfriend/girlfriend break up or financial problem, but other traumas can be instructive. When I teach Tennyson’s “In Memoriam AHH”, I mention briefly the impact of the untimely loss of a good friend and fellow teacher. When I teach Emily Dickinson’s “Certain Slant of Light” I mention the very real struggle with depression that many face, including myself. A word of caution: Be mindful that students may have experienced relatable pain. While it can be healing to see that they are not alone, it can also be an incredibly destructive force if done without care. Read your audience and plan your words carefully.
- Don’t rush yourself: Good teachers want to get back to the classroom as soon as possible. It may be cathartic to keep busy. The mounting sick day total may be causing stress. Evaluate all of the factors before going back into the classroom. Remember good teachers must also take care of themselves in order to be effective to their students.
We’d love to hear your comments, questions, or suggestions below. If you found this post while going through your own pain, please know my heart is with you. Teachers have to stick together.
In 10 years, I’ve learned that long-term planning is the #1 way to manage the crazy stress and overwhelming to do list faced by teachers. I’m sharing my process for planning below. If you are reading this as a new teacher, I cannot stress enough the need to come up with some system for organizing your long-term goals and curriculum. If you are a fellow veteran, I’d love to hear your process. Either way, join the discussion in the comment section below!
Start with Goals and the Big Picture by Quarter, Trimester, or Semester: For each grading period include required literature, major projects, and other must do items. Tip: Add district and state assessments also! Here’s an example:
- Quarter 1:
- Summer Reading
- Short Story Unit (list specific stories here)
- Vocabulary: lessons 1-5
- Grammar: Verbs- transitive, intransitive, linking, basic sentence patterns (lessons 1-5)
- Writing: Intro to MLA and 5 paragraph essay + 1 process essay
- Quarter 2:
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Vocabulary: lessons 6-10
- Grammar: Parts of Speech
- Writing: 2 process essays
- Video Project
- Quarter 3:
- The Odyssey
- Nonfiction Unit (list specific selections here)
- Vocabulary: lessons 11-15
- Grammar: Phrases and Clauses
- Writing: Research paper
- Quarter 4:
- Poetry Unit (list specific poems here)
- Vocabulary: lessons 16-20
- Grammar: Sentence types
- Writing: Infographic project
Move to a Broad Weekly View: This step is primarily meant to double check that you will have enough time to fit in everything from step one. For example:
- Quarter 1:
- Week 1: Summer Reading (with vocab lesson 1 and grammar lesson 1)
- Week 2: Intro to MLA and 5 paragraph essay: Writing Architect (with vocab lesson 2 and grammar lesson 2)
- Week 3: Elements of Short Story + “Short Story 1″ (with vocab lesson 3 and grammar lesson 3)
- Week 4-5: Freytag’s Pyramid + “Short Story 2 and 3″ (with vocab lesson 4 and grammar lesson 4)
- Week 6-7: Conflict and Characterization + “Short Story 4 and 5″ (with vocab lesson 5 and grammar lesson 5)
- Week 8-9: “Final Short Story” + Essay (incorporate vocab and grammar from the quarter)
Pencil in a Monthly Calendar: You can buy one or print it out/save it from this website. I love technology, but for some reason, it makes it feel some much less overwhelming to literally use a pencil on the printed calendar. You can just as easily type into the calendar template.
Work with Lesson Plans on a Weekly Basis: I have a couple of co-workers who stick to the long-term plan exactly as written, but I usually need to reassess weekly based on formative assessment and flukes in school schedules. When I have done the long-term planning outlined above, my weekly lesson plans only take a fraction of the time. I also feel like I’m going to meet my benchmarks without forgetting any of the many strands of my class!
Are you drowning in weekly lesson plans? You are not alone! Do you have ideas for managing long-term and short term plans? We’d love to hear from everyone in the comment section below!