26 Teaching Tips for the Dog Days
by Debbie Wolf Page
I am writing this for all elementary teachers involved in this daunting, intriguing, powerful profession Here are 26 favorite ideas and tips gleaned from twenty-six years of teaching. You can find lots of books on curriculum-based lessons but few people tell you how to deal with the overwhelming workload and the fatigue of constantly "being on."
I'm still not sure what it takes to be a good teacher. Yet somehow that is what has intrigued me all these years. I feel I have stayed elementary age myself really, in my spelling and my thoughts. I am more comfortable with children than adults most times. I was twenty-six when I began teaching and after twenty-six years, an empty nest, a breast cancer scare, and a travel itch, it is time to move on. Good luck to all the new and enthusiastic blood.
Teaching is part emergency room, mental hospital, slapstick movie, and college classroom.
- Latch on to a few helpful parents every year. These folks will bring you in Pepto Bismol when you are feeling peaked or a few extra hardboiled eggs for a science experiment.
- If you can't talk with a sore throat or laryngitis use the overhead to write explanations of directions. It forces the children to read
- Sit on a chair on top of a table and have the children draw you. They are so surprised to see you up there they will be very good. You'll really see how you look from many different perspectives and it gives you a few minutes of rest.
- Pair up with a colleague who will take the children to the playground or play some learning game with them and catch up on correcting papers while they are playing it.
- Have them write letters thanking someone in their lives and have them really send or give them to that person. One set of adoptive parents were very touched.
- Don't do anything a student could do just as well. I got this idea from a wonderful book called Shortcuts for Teachers by Jean Enk and Meg Hendricks (Pitman Learning Inc., 1981) If you can find a copy, snatch it up. You can get very good leadership skills out of kids by letting them check off lists and collect things. It is best to draw the line at money though. Spot check for accuracy on ticking off homework. I have seen bribes happen here.
- Don't give out your home phone. Parents find it anyway if they need to and are much more apologetic and less likely to abuse the privilege. Anyone who has taught knows that the LAST thing a teacher wants to do is talk some more on the phone after hours.
- Do your best teaching with your lessons, then forget how your students will test and enjoy the year. I did this the last year and wish I had done it way sooner. Take time to chat about Brad Pitt in the hallways or go to the local watering hole with teachers, what ever is necessary to make you like being in school. It's like exercise, keep it fun or you will find excuses not to do it.
- Speaking of diet and exercise, beware of eating too much thinking it will give you energy. I'm always so hungry at 3:30 I have seriously considered eating construction paper. I've finally figured out it's an emotional need to be replenished rather than a physical hunger and it makes you sluggish if you just eat. Exercise and then eating is better.
- Befriend the teacher next door. This person is your lifeline to the bathroom and the phone. When you have diarrhea, the nurse at your child's school is on the phone, or the doctor is calling with your pregnancy or breast mass results, it is crucial to walk to the office quickly. We don't run in school. That is how people get hurt.
- Try to leave your room reasonably neat every night. The sanitary engineer is your friend, even if he is a spooky person you are afraid to be alone with. He is the one who will come and pick up the big messes: the throw-up or the fecal matter that has plopped out of someone's pants. He also has paper towels, hooks, keys, and other handy things.
- Throw things away. The articles and notices that immaculately conceive in the office mailbox during the day can be read at stoplights and traffic jams on the way home. There is no need to keep them.
- Combine subjects. Here's a great Math/Art project: Drawing from a Grid. Find a simple drawing done on big grid or superimpose a grid on your picture and label the lines ABC and 123. Make an overhead of it. Give the students grid paper and ask them to copy the overhead in sections A1, B3, etc. until it is all done. They are quite pleased with themselves.
- While you have a grid overhead out, you can play Tic Tac Toe with the whole class on a rainy day. It helps teach axes and coordinates of points. You can even learn negative and positive numbers with a four-quadrant grid. It's the only time I ever do boys against girls. Boys can be the O's, and the girls the X's. You have them tell you where to put their mark by stating the coordinates of the point. The first team to get three in a row wins.
- Or try this Math/Spelling idea. Combine fractions and spelling words. What fraction of the word "look' is vowels? Two fourths. Is there another name for the same fraction? One half.
- Spelling Baseball will capture the heart of even the most reluctant learner. Designate four spots in the classroom as home base and first, second, and third bases. Divide the class into two teams. Team One is up first and then Team Two. One at a time the members of the team are up at bat, you pitch them a spelling word and they get on base if they get it correct. They sit down if they don't. When they come in for a home run they tally a point for their team on the board. The team with the most points wins.
- If you are learning cursive have two students go around the school collecting samples of adults' handwriting. Be sure to tell the adults what it is being used for. Have your students critique the adults' hand writing. Tell the students that their handwriting is their "font". Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary is a great book that goes with the struggles of learning cursive writing. It's perfect for third grade.
- Read science articles to the class as they appear in the newspapers. Professor Abruscato at the University of Vermont taught me this. Keep kids up to date on new findings. It is usually good news. The New York Times on Tuesdays has a science section (on-line too). Lately there was an article on scientists finding a way to stop light, trap it, and start it again. There was another on the study of how liquids drip for the purpose of finding how laser jet printers could be more effective. Yet a third article was about how plants are cleaning up toxic waste. You never know what future scientist's imagination you are sparking.
- Have I told you about my "Do Not Disturb" hat? If you are working with one student or if you have to tally something really quick while a messenger waits, put on your Hat. The other students will respect it and not interrupt you if you do it rarely enough.
- Can you imagine no interruptions? Your brain feels like Swiss cheese or a Bloomin' Onion by Friday. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it's hard to be a writer while you are teaching because your head feels like it has jumper cables on it by Friday. You cannot retain a complete thought without chanting it over and over.
- My favorite moments are when all the students are happily working and it is quiet. I call this "the good fairy" passing overhead. An effective transition activity is a minute of silence.
- Get tired of hearing your own voice talking? A great antidote is the Author's Chair. Get students sharing their writing with the whole class. This idea is from Diane DiGenaro in Williston, Vermont. It is a great thrill for them and most are willing to read even if they moan, "Do I have to?" Then after each reading ask the audience what they remember about the piece of writing. What is remembered is the good stuff. You can take this further by having an Author's Tea (Swift House, Williston, Vermont) where you invite parents in to hear the students read their stories into a microphone. Use the mike so that delicate voices that do some beautiful writing can be heard.
- The Wish List: at the beginning of the year ask parents if they want to send something in to help the class. It's handy to have some paper plates and cups on hand, some magic markers, balls and equipment for recess, yarn, and fabric scraps, etc. Most parents are dying to do something to helpful at this time of year especially if it doesn't involve a lot of their time.
- Find a place to hide in the school from the difficult person or just to pull yourself together in a moment of privacy.
- You really have to fight to have a life outside of school, but do it. One trick is to do the work you took home Sunday morning so that Saturday is a day free from thinking about teaching. On Sunday night do something fun. Go to the movies or get a video so that you can sleep Sunday night.
- Remember to err is human. I won't tell you about the time one of my students started a fire in the wastebasket or the day I left the film projector on during recess and we came in to a smoking machine. Nor will I tell you about when the reel-to-reel movie jumped off the projector and ran out the door like the gingerbread man. My seven-year-old son was visiting that day and burst into tears when I spoke sharply to the class to stay put while I chased the reel. These are the stories I will laugh about in the retirement home.
I have stolen most of these ideas from a lot of wonderful teachers in the Burlington, Vermont area. I recommend this kind of professional theft. Thank you, all.