How to Start the School Year Online and Keep Your Sanity
You blinked and spring turned into summer, and now in a matter of weeks (or days), a brand-new school year will be upon us. While the start of the school year traditionally brings a lot of excitement and a little bit of anxiety, this year, most educators are preparing to return to their classrooms with more anxiousness than ever. There still seem to be a million unknowns in the world, especially in the world of education. Will we return to in-person instruction at some point this fall? This year? If we start in person, do we have a plan b in case we are faced with a second mandatory shutdown? So how do you get ready for the school year? How can you take what is within your control and prepare to create the best experience for yourself and your students? Here are a few tips for starting the school year while saving your sanity.
Create a Learning Space
There are a million benefits of having a classroom to call your own, but perhaps one of the most obvious perks is having a designated place to teach. In your classroom, you likely have your own desk. You have an area for all of your books and tech supplies. You have inspiring quotes and posters hanging on the walls. Walking through the doorway of your classroom somehow magically transforms you into an educator. It's as though the doorframe itself crowns you as a teacher each morning and somehow makes you invincible and ready to start the day. Chances are you do not have a designated "classroom" space at home. Trying to juggle instruction from your kitchen table one day, tp the corner of your bedroom the next, and out on the patio by Friday can seem like limitless flexibility, but it can also create a sense of chaos and stress. Here are a few tips for finding a semi-permanent spot that can work for you:
Pick a Corner and Cover It
Whether you are working in the kitchen or the garage, pick a corner and claim it as your own. You can hang a bulletin board with student artwork, a whiteboard for demonstrations, or a plain green sheet or curtain and use one of the many virtual backgrounds supported by online meeting hosts. You'll find countless ideas for virtual classroom set-up online, but remember this is not the year to try and keep up with Mr. or Mrs. Jones. This is the year to ground yourself and your students with a sense of community, belonging, and save everyone's sanity. If building, creating, and customizing a spare bedroom in your home to become your classroom for the year brings you joy, then, by all means, do it! If, however, the idea of adding one more task to your to-do list causes crippling anxiety, a cozy corner somewhere will do the trick!
Focus on the Feel
When you think about your classroom at your school site, what aspects of it brought you joy? Do your best to mimic those in your new at-home space. You may want to include photos of past students or fellow teachers. Maybe you have an encouraging note from a parent or administrator propped up on your desk to remind you that you are appreciated! Better yet, how about a set of FREE Teachers are Superheroes Posters to remind you of your true (albeit secret) identity? When the days feel long and technology is driving you mad, take a peek at a poster and remind yourself of what you are made of. Teachers aren't sugar and spice and everything nice; they are made of brilliance, compassion, perhaps large quantities of caffeine, and certainly superpowers. Make sure your new teaching space reminds you of that.
Optimize Your Organization
Your classroom on campus likely had several cupboards, cabinets, and bookshelves ready and waiting to hold your accumulated teaching supplies. Your home cupboards, cabinets, and bookshelves are likely already full of family things! So what's the solution? You can calm some of the back-to-school chaos and clutter with a little organization. Some teachers have opted to purchase a rolling cart to collect their ever-growing pile of paperwork. Others are using cardboard magazine holders that can line the table and hold upcoming lesson plans. Ever creative, teachers are notorious for coming up with solutions that will meet their needs. Whether it's a bedside table, several containers for office supplies, or a few spots on the family bookshelf, make sure you've identified a place or a space for all of your teaching materials .
There are also several great online options for organizing your digital teaching materials. One popular and free resource is called LiveBinders. Picture your classroom shelves lined with colorful binders. Each is filled with great lesson plans and activities. Now imagine that all those resources are online, easy to access, and don't waste a single tree. That's what happens on the LiveBinders site. You can collect and store PDFs, websites, or anything stored online in one easy-to-find and easy-to-use space. You can even share the resources with your students or colleagues by posting a private link. Once accessed, your audience will be able to view all of your carefully created (and organized) materials.
Create Some Boundaries
One of the million reasons that most educators choose this profession is because of their deeply rooted belief that what they do daily makes a difference. They know that the long hours that they pour into their lesson plans translate into an engaging learning experience that spurs students to success. They know that investing in the lives of their students, whether that's during recess or tutoring after school, results in students who feel valued, seen, and capable. Teachers long for all of their students to feel that way! But at the end of the day or the end of the week, teachers still get to walk away from the school building. They may very well be dragging a week's worth of work home to grade or prep, but they can still leave campus and head home. Distance learning has changed that. When teaching from home, many educators struggle with knowing how to shut down at the end of the day. Teachers need a chance to recharge and refresh, and creating boundaries can help.
Set Your Hours
It is likely that you have a laundry list a mile long (and then you still have real laundry to do while working from home!). When it feels like there aren't enough hours in the day to tackle all that your to-do list demands, start by setting your hours and designating what must get done. If your school has contracted hours, that's where you'll start. Set your agenda for each day based on the hours you are required to work and then map out the additional time that you are choosing to work. Will you schedule additional time for office hours? Do you need to set aside a time slot each week to connect with students or colleagues? These are all very important, but equally important is giving yourself permission to turn off the computer and walk away from your makeshift desk at the end of your designated day. Teachers can't pour from an empty cup. Part of creating healthy boundaries includes setting working and non-working hours. Do your best to allow those non-working hours to be non-school-related. Read one of your favorite books. Binge-watch some mindless TV. Start a new hobby or pick up an old one. Take a walk and appreciate the changing scenery. Learning to "turn off" at a certain time each day will help you feel refreshed when it's time to "turn on" again in the morning.
Start to Say No
Teaching matters. It really does! Educators have the awesome responsibility and privilege to help shape the minds of future leaders and members of society. Because it is such a noble career, and because your daily interactions and decisions affect the lives of your students, it can be hard to say no when asked to take on additional projects or support additional endeavors. However, while this season is requiring teachers to take on new and different roles, it also needs to be one of learning to let go of burdens that feel too heavy. Believe it or not, the word "no" can be a complete sentence. You are not required to give a lengthy explanation as to why you cannot complete something outside of work hours or why you cannot design a new learning management system for the entire district (unless, of course, you enjoy doing that-then, by all means, please do it!). Sometimes, it's okay to say no simply because you need to rest in order to be your best self for your students the next day. Sometimes, you may need to say no just to save that last bit of sanity you have left by the end of the week. That is okay too!
Sit in Your Strengths and Appreciate Your Success
During the COVID-19 shutdown, most teachers have been asked to juggle a whole new set of responsibilities. Some of those may come easier to you than others. Learn to embrace those! If you are extremely tech-savvy, you may easily create virtual classrooms, Google Classes, and design online platforms perfect for student engagement. Your fellow teachers, on the other hand, might be experts at organizing or creating a curriculum that will work well in a hybrid environment. Still, others may feel that their instruction is more effective using engaging workbooks, class read-alouds, and writing projects. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for distance learning. You can't be all things to all people, but you can be the best version of yourself for your students. While this season will certainly stretch you beyond your comfort zone, it is OK to stay within your strengths, find what works for you, and celebrate that!
As you prepare to jump into another new year in the midst of unprecedented circumstances, know that one thing is for certain: uncertainty! While you may not know what exactly next week, month, or semester will look like, know that this too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass! Create a place, set some boundaries, celebrate all you are and do and know that you have an entire world cheering you on!