May 14, 2017

Reflections on a (Kind of Crazy) School Year

Well, a whole year has gone by and not a single post… obviously the sign of a busy teacher. No kidding, this year has had me far too busy to write much for a lot of reasons. For starters, my student load increased by another third and my schedule went from 7 to 9 (very short) periods, so prep has been challenging. The days go by fast, but because of the unique demands of teaching art, there have been lots of lesson planning and classroom management changes necessary— and those take time.

That said, after a long absence from my blog, here are some of the ways I dealt with a challenging year:

More is More: Though my class time with students was reduced this year, I actually ADDED a “bell ringer” activity. Each day, my grade 7 & 8 students start with a “Warm-up” drawing. I post a theme each week. Low-cost in supplies, we start using a 12 x 18 paper folded 3 times in half and replenish as needed. This activity exercises visual memory, idea generating, and creativity. Students can also practice shading and color media skills.  Believe it or not, it actually increases the time I have with students because they settle into the routine of this focused activity quickly. I give them appropriate time as needed, and then we launch into the day’s main event.

Prep Like an Elementary Teacher: I teach middle school, and students should be able to independently set up and clean up their studio and work space, right?! Well, it can take 10 or more minutes for a large class (18+) to set up and 10 to clean up their own spaces in a 43-45 minute period that does not include class-changing travel time. For my larger classes, I absolutely have to prep more to utilize work time. 
One way that has saved time and still allowed students to have some responsibility is to have a tote with supplies for each student work table. Later, I do have to comb through the totes to make sure the supplies are re-organized, but this has allowed for more instructional and work time in a short class period. Cleaning brushes sometimes comes down to having a student collect all in a large cup of soapy water for a volunteer to clean at the end. I also cheat and bring some things (like mixing trays and water cups) home to clean in my dish washer from time to time. I make sure I have enough sets to use for multiple classes in a day, and just rinse before putting them in a plastic tote for transport.

Grading on MY Schedule: I close grades “early”. Grades take 1 to 2 weeks to compile and complete with comments for my 325+ students in 4 grade levels (I currently teach 3/4 of the school at any given time throughout the year). We do essentially 8 report cards a year (“progress reports” are exactly the same process and work load as report cards). I hold projects over to the next grade period that end too close to grades being due.This way, students who were absent or unfinished close to the end of term get a grace period on their work, too. I can chip away at entering the final grades and comments throughout that longer time frame, and still have time to re-check for errors or update a single grade as needed. There is no way that I could close grades on the official day and have the data entered in our online system for 350+ students 1 or 2 days later when due by my administration.

Saying No: I had to reduce the demands on my time outside of classroom duties this year to save my sanity — not even joking a little bit here. When the year started, I was dealing with some anxiety about going back. First-day butterflies after 20+ years of teaching?? What?!! Seriously, I had some real issues many teachers face, and I had to deal with them or I know I could easily burn out. First, I started seeing a counsellor to talk about my stress issues, and it was truly helpful. Do not be ashamed or afraid to talk to a professional about your teacher stress. 

I realized that I had to choose between focusing on my classroom vs. other activities, and that was a no-brainer. I started the year by telling myself I would agree to do nothing that wasn’t directly beneficial to my students and program. I dropped some leadership and committee work that I really enjoyed doing but had become overwhelming. I also decided to avoid people who were toxic or energy drains as much as possible while remaining professional. I stuck to it. It made it easier to prioritize at that time when you get a lot of people asking for things and for you to do things. I literally practiced what I would say out loud. It didn’t go over at all well with some people who were used to me agreeing to do everything asked. 

My stress level went way down.  As time went on, I began working in things that I felt I had the time for without feeling over-burdened and were worthwhile for my own reasons. Some of my close co-workers even mentioned that I was handling art show season really well this year— so clearly in past years I was a raging stress ball!! Seriously, I was! So, this year was better, but it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Stress is an ongoing reality. I still do take on some “battles”, but only situations that I think are truly worth it.

As the year comes to a close, I know there will be more changes ahead. One thing we can count on about teaching is that it is constantly changing. That keeps many of us interested in what will lie ahead, but it can also create anxiety for some of us. Hopefully my tips will help some teachers in the same situation work through stress and changes in practical ways.

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