Need a New Mattress?

At this time of year, people who work in schools often start feeling a bit frayed. Now that the school year is well underway, the “honeymoon period” of the first weeks is long gone. Students may be testing limits a little more, seeming less satisfied with tasks they are assigned, a bit quicker to get into quarrels with each other.

Have you noticed that you’re not feeling quite as positive as you were a few weeks ago? If you are feeling this way, chances are good that your students have noticed.

For instance, my six-year-old nephew recently told me that his first grade teacher, whom he’d raved about in September, had “gotten kind of strict . . . and not the good kind.” In true six-year-old fashion, he continued, unprompted, to explain that it wasn’t the teacher’s fault—the teacher needed a new mattress.

Needless to say, I was intrigued and asked how he knew this. It turns out that he and a buddy had been discussing the teacher’s grumpy behavior, and the friend’s parents (who were acquaintances of the teacher) overheard and told the boys that the teacher had been having trouble sleeping. Using impeccable logic, my nephew figured that his teacher would sleep better if he got a new mattress. Then things would go back to the way they were at the beginning of school.

I didn’t quarrel with my nephew about his logic, but given what I know about the pressures of teaching, I’m willing to bet there’s more to this the situation than a lack of sleep. Managing a class of twenty-eight six-year-olds is challenging, tiring work. Doing so under the sort of pressure many teachers currently face makes the job much, much harder.

Still, trying to preserve the honeymoon-like aspects of the first few weeks of school is a worthy goal. It can make a positive difference for students, and it will benefit you, too. Here are some simple ways to start:

  • Remember students’ needs for fun. During the first weeks of the year, we often intentionally build in fun, community-building activities and songs throughout the day, and strive to make academic tasks extra-engaging as well. Strive to keep doing this as the school year progresses. Students need to have times when they feel playful and can unwind. They also need to feel engaged and interested in what they are doing throughout the day. Choose a read-aloud you know they will love, schedule a few extra minutes outside, or read a few jokes from a joke book.
  • Consider risk levels. Once “real academics” have begun, it can be hard to make sure all students feel comfortable with their assignments and challenging to do the kind of individual scaffolding needed for success. Students who might have felt okay about school at the beginning of the year may be starting to feel less confident. Spend a little time observing your students to see if assignments are too challenging, or not challenging enough. Adjust as necessary.
  • Remember that mistakes are part of life, even in the behavior realm. During the first few weeks of school, we understand that students may not be able to live up to all of our expectations all the time. But as the year goes on, we can fall into the trap of expecting perfect behavior. All children break the rules sometimes. While we want to have high standards for behavior, we still need to understand that mistakes are part of learning.
  • Continue helping students develop relationships with each other. Sometimes we assume that children are all set with friendships and leave them to their own devices in this area. But, the truth is that many children, especially those who are shy or relatively new to the school, may still feel less than comfortable in many situations throughout the day. Continue to be thoughtful about pairing or grouping children for tasks within the classroom, setting up lunch partners and discussions, and offering a variety of recess options and supports.
  • Smile more. I know I give this seemingly simplistic advice all the time. But, it helps us and our students. Smiling helps us relax, and smiling at students helps them do so, too.

One other thing that struck me from my nephew’s story is how willing students are to give teachers the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, and to forgive. So, if you have had some rough days lately, it’s never too late to give things another try. Return to some of the goals of those first weeks of school and pay close attention to students’ social-emotional needs as well as your own.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Building Classroom Community, Engaging Academics, Middle of the Year, Mistakes