I can do this ... right?
September 7, 2016 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Help me get used to a teacher lifestyle!

Hi y'all,

So I'm beginning a brand new job as a high school teacher. It is a boarding school for international students (though I myself am not boarding there). I will be teaching upper level ESL. However, it is only student orientation week and I am already feeling exhausted. The school day begins at 7:50 and won't end until 4pm at the earliest. My commute is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, which is the longest commute I've had in quite a long time. (Assume I cannot move for now - I love my neighborhood and my apartment, and I just signed a year lease.) We've been working from 9-4 every day since Saturday (yes, that's right, no weekend) to administer standardized placement tests, do orientation activities, and have meetings - everything but prep for class. Though I've gotten some good tips and have some vague ideas about what I'll be teaching, I've had zero time to think about it or make a syllabus or anything, and I will have to prep all of this week's lessons over the weekend. This seems to be part of the culture of the school -things are disorganized and often assigned at the last minute, and while I really do genuinely like and admire my fellow faculty, everyone must be available most of the day because the school is understaffed. (School lunch is free, though, and it is surprisingly extremely healthy - I eat lots of yummy veggies and protein, and I don't feel guilty about eating there.)
When I get home at night, I'm too tired to even think about anything - I have never ever been a morning person, so transitioning slowly to waking up at 5:30 am is uncharted territory for me. I do everything I possibly can the night before, and I try to go to bed early enough so I get at least 7 hours, but it's still pretty exhausting. This morning I actually *slept through my alarm* - I would not have made it to work on time without the assistance of my roommate's cat, who's adopted me and meowed incessantly at the door until I woke up. (Good kitty!!) I got to work around 7:50 and got home at about 6:50 - that is an especially long day but it seems likely that it may happen again.

Mefites, I know this is a transition period and it will probably get better, but I'm already freaking out. How do I have a good quality of life as a high school teacher at this place? (It would be awesome not to quit just yet, seeing as I'm just starting!) How do I see my boyfriend? How do I get enough sleep? How do I do the things (see friends? get to therapy? go to my synagogue?) that actually improve the quality of my life? I will not normally have to be at school all weekend, but I still have to do regular teacher things like lesson planning and grading, of course. I can't do right by my students if I'm an unhappy zombie - I already feel like I'm wandering around in a burned-out haze and I haven't even begun to actually teach yet.
(Sorry if this is incoherent - I'm barely functional right now.)
Thanks, as always!
posted by bookgirl18 to Education (8 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
A longtime teacher friend of mine does this: she stays at school after teaching is over and gets all of her work done. Then she goes home, eats, relaxes a bit, and goes to sleep. The advantage of this is that her weekends are totally free for whatever.

Another teacher friend who recently retired came home at the end of the school day, showered and napped for an hour. She did whatever during the evening and got up extra early to do her prep. She found she could do it more efficiently and quickly early in the morning.

Is your commute on public transportation or do you have to drive? If it's on public transportation maybe you can get some work done on that? Also be sure to fit in exercise because it will energize you.

Your body will adjust to your new schedule, whatever you choose to do. Don't give up, it will get easier. The first few weeks are always the hardest. Hang in there.
posted by mareli at 6:09 PM on September 7, 2016 [12 favorites]

Well, the first year or more of teaching anything is pretty much going to be a shit time. The exhaustion does lessen over time as your brain adapts, but it's still pretty draining.

With that said, by being a bit mindful during the lesson-planning and course setup phase, you can definitely engineer things to spare yourself time, labor and heartache in the long run. For instance:
-- Get to know the available online resources in your field, early. Learn how to Google for PDFs, powerpoints, worksheets and lesson plans, so you can make use of pedagogical work already done by other teachers. No use reinventing the same wheel for the 50th time.

--Do some early thinking about overall course design, and try to structure things as far as possible around repeated subunits-- something like, conversation class on Mondays, watch a film Tuesdays, discuss Wednesdays, writing project Thursdays, test Fridays. Or within a period: lecture first 10 minutes, then a bit of reading, then discussion, then 10 minutes of writing and reflection. Having a fixed rhythm makes things a lot easier for the students, and it saves you time and trouble if you don't have to constantly find ways to bring people up to speed on the mechanics of what's going on. When you're really tired, having a nice, modular lesson structure already established makes a big difference.

--Force yourself to deliberately preference activities that give the students most of the work. Like, you could singlehandedly design and laboriously execute a fancy JEOPARDY!-style review game... or you could divide the students into groups and have each group research and write questions for each other. Lots of open-ended projects, lots of teaching each other and generating their own materials. Self-directed learning is more effective than direct instruction, anyway.

--Especially as a new teacher, you're going to tend to overstuff lessons. Resist this urge: the plan you think you can cover in one class, force yourself to break down into two by allowing lots of leisurely interstitial time for trial runs, Q&A, fun Youtube intros, etc. Have a general-purpose backup activity or two at the ready just in case you ever do seriously undershoot on your time estimates, but really, unless you've got fixed goals to cover, the students will thank you for taking things at a slower pace.

--Finally, particularly in an ESL context, you could read up on and consider implementing techniques for partially "flipping the classroom"-- i.e., having the students absorb content on their own during normal "homework" time, then converting the classroom into a coaching space where you help them do the exercises they'd normally be assigned for home. This normally takes a big initial investment to videotape lectures, etc., but if you're drawing on premade content or cultural artifacts that already exist "in the wild," then you could save quie a bit of time by having a day or two per week where you don't directly teach, but just circulate the classroom and help students complete translation exercises.
posted by Bardolph at 6:24 PM on September 7, 2016 [15 favorites]

My sympathies -- the first year of teaching is hellish, and there's no way around but straight through it. You will be in an overwhelmed fog the whole year. The good news is the year will pass so quick and you'll remember very little of it; the bad news is that's true because you'll be exhausted and stressed always. But every first year teacher survives it. It helps me every year to remember this cycle, which is meant for brand new teachers but applies to the whole profession. September is all about the free-fall, every year. Everyone's in crazy survival mode. You feel it more intensely the first year, but trust me -- just because you're feeling overwhelmed doesn't mean you're actually in over your head. It's just the job.

Step 1 is always, always self-care. The day you let that slip is the day everything else starts to unravel. If you don't know yet, figure out your non-negotiables. For me, it's sleep. If I don't get a solid 8ish hours I am useless and my overall health spirals. I'm not a morning person, but I also get up at 5 to 5:30 every morning for teaching. Here's what's helped me:
* Bedtime for me starts at 9, definitely asleep by 10. Staying up later than that can happen max 1x/work week.
* I learned meditation/breathing routines to help me fall asleep quickly. My first year it took 2+ hours to fall asleep; once I mastered that it takes me 20 minutes, maybe.
* When I wake up from stress in the middle of the night, I give myself 45 minutes to fall back asleep. If I don't, I'll get up and grade or something til I get sleepy again.
* Unfuck your morning as much as possible. Pick your clothes the night before, make breakfast/lunch for the next day, keys in the same place, bag packed, etc. I started showering at night and grew my hair out so I can put it up when I'm late.
* Exercise in the morning if possible, even if it means getting up early. The movement is energizing, and if you wait til end of day it'll never happen.
* Even if it's only an hour per week, do something NOT WORK. Go to brunch on Sundays, see a Saturday movie, board games on Tuesday nights, something. Do it with your boyfriend, or invite friends, or just be by yourself. But be careful and clear that that time is yours and not the job's.

Step 2 is the job. If you're not already, start talking to the other people in the department. Anybody else teaching the same classes as you? Even if they're not, start to collaborate. Good teachers borrow each other's stuff all the time. Ask your department head for advice; they might be willing to lend you their syllabus, for example. Websites like TeachersPayTeachers is great when you're absolutely lost, but it's easy to fall into a habit of just buying stuff all the time and then you waste money. Find other ESL teachers on twitter or tumblr or facebook and see what resources are freely available.
* New teachers waste a lot of time when they lack routines. If you don't have stuff like this yet, you need a place where all collected assignments go -- an accordion folder, hanging folders, etc. You need a singe place where all papers you're going to pass out will sit. When a student hands you something late, or forgets to put their name on something, or was absent, or you get paperwork in a staff meeting, all of that needs a place. None of those places should be your desk.
* Backwards by design planning is useful. Start with where you want them to be at the end of the unit -- what should they be able to do? How will they demonstrate they know it? What planning tools/activities do they need to get there? What kind of content do they need to know to get there? Then you're able to start planning daily lessons. It takes more time up front, but it saves so much time later on.
* Not everything they do needs a grade. Sometimes you don't collect things. Sometimes you just do completion credit. Don't feel you have to grade everything.
* Likewise, don't overcomplicate grading. Unless something has easily measurable points you can add up, have a few grade thresholds you use. Don't agonize over whether this assignment is an 83% or an 84%; just give it a 95 and move on. Do something like 100-95-90-85 and so on.
* Projects are awesome because they give you day(s) in class where lesson planning is super-easy because it's just a workday; on the back end they suck when you end up with a bunch of projects to grade. Balance which brain break you need at a time.
posted by lilac girl at 6:52 PM on September 7, 2016 [11 favorites]


I was you 13 years ago, and this kind of school is pretty much always in crisis and super stressful, despite some of the perks, like free healthy lunch. I burned out there after a year, as did most of my fellow teachers.

First, I am actually one of the leading voices nationally for flipping the classroom, and I would NEVER suggest a first year teacher who is already facing exhaustion try to take that on. Even if you don't make your own videos, it takes so much time to find good stuff (especially in a non-math/science classroom) that it's WAY too much.

Second, teaching is exhausting. I have some tips (but I need to sleep so I can go teach and do Back to School Night tomorrow) that I'll drop here tomorrow. You have to choose your battles and be okay with things not being perfect. It really won't be perfect.

Finally (for right now), the first week can all be fun games with a little content. Spend time getting to know your students. Assess their ability (you can find diagnostic assessments online, though I'm sure your school has something you can use) and make it as low-stress and fun as possible. Don't give out a syllabus. I don't even HAVE one anymore. Kids want to know about the following things, and pretty much ONLY the following things:
1) Will we have homework? If so, how much?
2) Will this class be fun? Will I like you as a teacher?
3) Can I eat in class? Can I use my cell phone?
4) What will we be learning? (maybe. not every class cares)

So ease those fears. Seating charts are your friend (both for names and for discipline). I like to take a video of each kid saying their name - with how they want it pronounced. That saves my ass later when I have seen 90 students and forgot everything. Plus, it helps you connect faces to names. I actually put those pictures on my seating chart so I can learn names faster.

Other lesson plan stuff: show some fun videos. I love Simon's Cat. They're great for ESL because they don't really have dialogue and they deal with household things for which vocabulary is pretty accessible. Get them to describe what happens. What characters are feeling. What they think happens next. What the personality of each character is. Etc.

You could even have them record a voice-over explaining what's happening in the video in English.

Okay, I'll get back with more tomorrow.

Most importantly: You are going to feel like you totally suck at teaching and at life and at all of the things. Be kind to yourself. I am in year 13 and I still don't have energy to do much more than go to school, come home, make some food and go to sleep. You don't have to be perfect. Remind yourself: do you want it perfect, or do you want it Tuesday? Most of the time, the answer is "Tuesday." And you only have to be one day ahead of the kids.

You will make it. One day at a time. One minute at a time if you have to. Memail me if you want! I've been you (I taught ELD and Sheltered in a high school for several years) and I can at least relate.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:58 PM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

"I like to take a video of each kid saying their name - with how they want it pronounced. That saves my ass later when I have seen 90 students and forgot everything."

Great idea but be advised that it would be illegal to take pictures in a US public school of students.
[Don't ask the details. You need parents permission yadde yadde yadde]
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:12 AM on September 8, 2016

I just want to be a voice that says it is perfectly fine to give yourself until X date to see if you like this job, and then re-assess. Sometimes I think teachers and other people in "helping professions" can get really sucked into this sense of "DO IT FOR THE CHILDREN" obligation, but it's important not to lose sight of the fact that, as with any job, you can quit if (after giving it a decent shot) you decide it really isn't for you. Or, that it is for you, but that this particular disorganized school is not where you want to spend the beginning of your teaching career.

Or, another way of looking at it might be: give yourself X amount of time (a couple of weeks?) to just completely drop everything else in your life and focus on this new job. Then, be sure to add back in the couple of things that are most necessary to your health and well-being (please see your therapist!). Consider promising, now, to give yourself a mulligan for this first year--promise that you will not hold yourself to any kind of standard for your teaching, but will simply observe it, like an anthropological study, and see all the things that go wrong/ that you could do differently next time. Then, over the summer, think about whether/how you can work on those things next year, and still make the necessary basic concessions to yourself as a human being.
posted by Owl of Athena at 8:26 AM on September 8, 2016

"I like to take a video of each kid saying their name - with how they want it pronounced. That saves my ass later when I have seen 90 students and forgot everything."

Great idea but be advised that it would be illegal to take pictures in a US public school of students.
[Don't ask the details. You need parents permission yadde yadde yadde]

It is not okay to use or post those pictures without parent consent. However, I have been doing this for many, many years, and given the fact that I don't post or share those photos, I am perfectly allowed to do so (although I might not be in the state of Georgia). There are students for whom parents have signed a do-not-photograph paper with the school, but I have never had a student or parent complain about pictures I take of my own students in my own classroom for my personal use.

So don't let that put you off.

In fact, my teacher did this in my high school, and that was twenty years ago.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:38 AM on September 8, 2016

A few more suggestions that might help now that it's not 11 PM.
1) Use something positive for behaviour, like Class Dojo (https://www.classdojo.com/). I use ClassCraft, which is sort of an RPG for the classroom. It's not for everybody, but I really like it.

2) Written instructions (on the board is ideal, and in a place students can find online is super ideal), with verbal instructions given at least twice, and repeated back by the students if possible. That way, if a student asks what to do, I point to the board and say, “Read the second sentence to me.” That way, I can spend time helping the kids who really need it instead of spending time re-explaining something.

3) Train them with a routine to get them settled quickly. I use counting: 5-4-3-2-1. We explicitly practice that when I get to 2, their device is shut/face down, and they stop talking. At zero, it's quiet and they don't have anything in their hands. I go into negative numbers after zero, and I've kept classes behind before based on that (but we build up to that). 30 seconds per negative number. I super reward groups that are ready early. I know it seems kind of elementary, but expecting students to snap from inattention to attention instantly is unrealistic and frustrating for everyone.

4) Start and end with a routine. For starting class, I use a short video (any of the Simon’s Cat videos on YouTube) and ask students to summarise using the format Somebody Wanted But So Then (SWBST). Now that we’ve done that at least a dozen times (I did other practice rounds with other texts during class time as well), I’m moving on to conflict (decide if it’s person vs. person or person vs. self and give specific details, etc.) and from there, maybe supporting claims with evidence. That also gives me a high-interest 90 seconds where I can get settled, take attendance, and pass stuff out. After the video, I just have them discuss, then randomly call on table groups to tell me what they discussed. Five minutes total, but it helps students settle into class and gives you time to spot problems before they erupt.

To end class, I use Kahoot. (getkahoot.com). It can be short (5-6 questions), but covering whatever we did in class is a good gauge of who actually got it, and what I’ll need to cover more times. There are almost 10 million Kahoots, so often I don't even make my own.

5) Post a timer (you can get one by typing "timer" into google and clicking on the time to set it) for every activity. 15 minutes is the most I'll set it for, though I often add more time if it's clear students need it. Every 15 minutes, give students a minute to stretch, walk around, get some water, etc. Adults need breaks, and kids need them more. This solves a lot of the behaviour issues, and students respond better to "We'll have a break in 7 minutes!" than to "c'mon, get back on task!" etc.

Breaking up the period into separate tasks also keeps it feeling like you're moving quickly. That's what you want. Kids often say "Wow, this class went by so fast!" and I love hearing that. It also is a major help to students who struggle, because I can also use that time to check in with them and see if they need additional help or time.

Another trick is to give them several minutes less than they will need (if they need 15, I'll set the timer for 12) and then when time is up, say "Oh, it seems like you need more time! Here's five more minutes." They are grateful, but they also learn that when I assign something, it's time to PANIC NOW AND GET STARTED. You NEVER want to tell students "You'll have plenty of time to finish." Then they will wait to get started as long as they can get away with.

And again: you can do this. It really is about taking one day at a time and doing what you can in the moment. Be kind to yourself, and do the best you can to take care of yourself on the weekend.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:01 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

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