Secondary Solutions

Ideas, tips, and tools for the middle and high school English Language Arts teacher. Visit our store at!


When teaching feels impossible…

I read this article from the Washington post in which a fellow teacher eloquently explained the issues pushing him out of the profession he loves.  He’d love to teach but…

It hit dangerously close to home.  My issues are a little different, but the sentiment remains the same.  Teaching is hard, bordering on impossible.  In reflecting on this, I wanted to share some reasons I keep going, reasons I think you should keep going too.  I’d love to hear what keeps you from giving up when teaching feels impossible.

validation within

We can’t wait for parents, administrators, or even students to tell us we are doing a good job.  We have to daily tell ourselves how awesome we truly are.  Celebrate. Every. Victory.

each student

Some parents are going to question what you are doing wrong to produce bad grades for their students and some administrators will side with them.  Some students will brag about cheating or “spark-noting” a book and getting away with it.  Some students will fall asleep in class.  These are just some, not all.  Do your best to teach all students, but when times get tough, find the students for whom you are making a difference.  Find that shy girl in first period who is grateful for all the extra time you  spent proofreading her writing.  Find that student athlete in your honors class who has made huge strides in close reading despite an overwhelming schedule.  Focus on them.  Hard.


Even when it seems like no one is listening, stay in love with Poe, Hawthorne, and the art of a perfectly crafted argument.  They will comfort you during those long hours grading into the night.  Who else gets to hang out with their heroes all day?


Administrators, studies, news reporters and the like will tell you that the data reveals the truth.  You will hold on tight to the big picture.  You will know that your work is so much bigger than the test scores, grade averages, and pass rates.  You will know that you battled for something that matters.

What keeps you going?  How do you stay in the classroom when it feels impossible?


Teacher Resolution: Stop the School Drama


This is my first post for 2014 and so I find it fitting that I share one of my new year teaching resolutions, which spun out of my top 10 teaching struggles post.   Here it is ladies and gentlemen, this year I resolve to…

stop engaging in the school drama.

Don’t worry fine art department, I am not talking about putting an end to the spring musical.  I simply mean to stop participating in the destructive habits that can stir the proverbial pot.  In a previous school, that pot overflowed with bad vibes that ended with a lot of tears…and a new job.  Although I currently work in a relatively low drama school, there are always means to improve personal habits and nip the drama in the bud.  Now that I have killed you with clichés, I can tell you exactly how I mean to go about this plan.  I’d love to hear your teaching new year’s resolutions or your feedback on this blog in the comment section below.

1. It is not fair to compare. Sure, so and so has smaller class-sizes, better preps, more advanced classroom technology, and is lavished with praise at the faculty meetings.  The question here is: so what?  Don’t get me wrong, I am a tireless advocate for equity, but when I really look at my school jealousy, the differences are mostly petty.  More importantly, they are irrelevant.  Do I have what I need to teach effectively?  Yes.  Would I vote any of my kids off my island? No.  (well, not everyday…).  The bottom line is that comparing what I have to what other people have not only causes frustration, it is generally an exercise in futility.  I desperately want to cultivate an attitude of doing the best I can with what I have and with a positive attitude to boot, which means the comparisons must stop.

2. Stop over-talking.  I suffer from severe foot in mouth syndrome and more often than I like to admit, I find myself talking about things that are none of my business to people who have no business listening to me blabber.  Sometimes it is gossip; sometimes it is random; sometimes both cause drama and I just need to stop.  If it is not my business and/or it is not the right audience, for goodness sakes stop talking about it Guthrie!

3. Repeat after me, “I am not always right”. I think I am pretty good at my job and I have a relatively clear head on the issues important to me.  That being said, life is complicated and who am I to leap to judgement without understanding all the factors.  As it turns out, I am not always right.  Weird.  I know.

4. Pick battles carefully. I love to lead the charge against what I see as wrong (see above).  However, it is not good for my soul to constantly crusade on every issue. Fight for academic services for struggling students? Yes.  Fight for a nominal change in the school dress code?  No.  I am going to prioritize my concerns and I have a sneaking suspicion that some issues will resolve themselves without me raising my hand at every faculty meeting to voice my opinion.

5. More coffee, less complaining. I think a lot of my school drama comes from down trodden moments where I feel tired and over-worked, so I just start venting.  Coffee is more than the sum of its caffeine for me; it is also a treat, a break, and with my face buried in a mug, a handy way to stop me from over-talking!

6. Have a tribe.   Occasionally. we all need to vent and run ideas past others.  I need to focus on a small circle of people I can trust.  This is a little tricky, because it can’t become a clique of negativity.  With my tribe, I still need to share all the niceties and classroom victories that will fill the bucket with positive energy so that I can cash in when I need to vent without it seeming like I am always “that teacher” who comes by to complain.

7.  Let it go.  Several weeks ago, I had a private meeting with an administrator who meant well, but deeply hurt my feelings.  I haven’t been able to look her in the eyes since then.  Maybe because she was so wrong?  Maybe because she was so right?  Either way, it is time to let that go.  It feels bad to hold a grudge and it takes a little bit of energy that I could sure use to grade a few more essays


What are your new year’s resolutions?  Do any of mine resonate with you?



Ideas for Decorating the Secondary English Classroom!

wall post collage

I don’t know about you guys, but I am completely addicted to Pinterest and so jealous of our elementary counterparts with AMAZING room ideas!  If you are not already following Secondary Solutions on Pinterest, check us out soon.   This year, I decided to step it up on the decoration front in a way that is not only pinterest pretty, but also completely functional for teaching secondary English and the Common Core. I teach primarily American Literature so my ideas for this post surround the idea of teaching literature along a chronological, historical path in US History, but you could do something similar with any literature class.   I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and classroom decorating tips in the comment section below! 


On one wall, I created a massive timeline of important quotes and events in US History.  The quotes are on the far left in chronological order and include important moments like “Give me liberty or give me death” (Patrick Henry), “Suffrage is the pivital right” (Susan B Anthony), “Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall” (Ronald Reagan), “Students must have initiative; they should not be imitators” (Cesar Chavez), and more. I tried to line them up with the units of study and the values of my students. 


With this wall prominently in place, I can refer to it when teaching literature.  For example, when we are reading The Grapes of Wrath we can easily look at how history informs the novel.  The 19th amendment gives women the right to vote in 1920; the stock market crashes in 1929, the new deal begins in 1933. How do these historical events impact the characters and conflicts?  


I created a “You are Here” arrow that has velcro on the back so we can move it along the timeline as the literature progresses for easy reference. I lucked out that my wall has carpet type material so velcro works, but you could also use painter’s tape or putty to keep it up.  IMGP2465

At the top, I made larger poster board markers for each of our units so that students could also see the big picture at a glance. IMGP2469

Under the American timeline, I included a section about the (very limited) history of the rest of the world.  This helps students to understand the interconnectedness of the world’s history.  For example, when we are reading political commentaries by Dr. Seuss, we can look at what is going on in the rest of the world that is inspiring his critique.   


For many of the events on the timeline, I included iconic pictures for visual inspiration and also because I teach the rhetoric of images as part of my AP English language class.  IMGP2439

On the side opposite of the quotes, I have a white board with my three tips of the week.  These are general messages that I like to get out to students but don’t have time for a whole lesson on.  I usually include something practical or school schedule related, some type of idiom or maxim, and a grammar point.  I spend about 5 minutes somewhere in the week talking about them.  IMGP2459

Finally, I got this awesome little organizer from 31 recently.  I use it to keep my calendar, display bulletins, hold emergency lesson plans, and organize papers/scantrons.  I love that it is beautiful and functional at the same time! 

Have any suggestions, comments, or ideas for us?  We’re all ears! 

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