Mind Your Own Monkeys- 10 Tips for Dealing with Teacher Stress

The testing season is upon us.  There are added responsibilities, added things to keep track of, and added stress for students and teachers alike.  When these extra added things hit us all at once, it can have a detrimental effect on our overall well-being, both physically and emotionally.  Here are 10 things you can do to take care of yourself when you are knee-deep in stressful work situations.

1.       Prioritize– Have you ever seen the man who spins plates on top of poles?  He runs back and forth among the poles keeping each plate spinning.  This time of year, we can feel just like that plate spinner.  It seems that everything is demanding our attention and everything is top priority.  When you start feeling like this, take a step back and think about each thing on your plate.  Prioritize those things that absolutely have to be done, and focus on completing the next thing.  That awesome idea you saw on Pinterest that you wanted to try might need to wait until next year.  And that is ok.

2.       Mind your monkeys- The saying goes, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”  However, when people under stress are together in one spot, sometimes that stress can spread.  We start letting things that really don’t have anything to do with us affect us in a negative way.  When you feel yourself getting pulled into a situation that is causing you stress but really doesn’t concern you, take a step back.  Mind your own monkeys.  Be the keeper of your circus.

+Jim Shore Mini Monkey Figurine
I actually have this little guy on my desk to remind me to mind my own monkeys.

3.       Make a Plan, don’t just admire the problem- When difficult situations arise, it is easy to get stuck just thinking about the problem in an endless cycle.  Discussions start in an effort to solve the problem, but those discussions can sometimes just keep restating the problem over and over instead of coming up with a plan to address the problem.  I once heard this described as “admiring the problem”.  When you find yourself admiring a problem, stop and focus on how that problem can be solved, who can help, and what supports are needed.

4.       FIDO: Forget It and Drive On–  Similar to admiring the problem, when something negative or stressful happens to us, we can get stuck in a loop thinking about the incident, reliving it over and over. We need to break that cycle and move on to the next thing.  I once heard a speaker who had faced a number of huge adversities say that this was the secret to him getting through life.  If something bad happens, when it’s over, forget it and drive on.  Leave the past in the past. Look to the future.

5.       Exercise– Exercise is truly good medicine and a great stress reliever.  You don’t have to join a gym to get the benefits from exercise.  A walk in the park or in the neighborhood with a friend is good for your body and your soul.

6.       Laugh deeply and often– I love to hear babies laugh from their bellies, and it always makes me think that adults don’t often do that.  Laughing can have much the same effect on a person as exercise.  I once was waiting for some medical results with some pretty intense consequences.  A family member gave me a Blue Collar Comedy Tour DVD.  I laughed until I cried, and it made me feel so much better.  Watching funny stuff got me through a pretty stressful time.  Laughter is therapeutic.  (If you need a laugh this very minute, check out this hysterical Youtube video from Principal Gerry Brooks that reminds us that lamination is permanent.)

7.       Celebrate success– Take time to recognize the good things you do.  Look back through your file of positive notes from former students and parents.  Lots of good things happen in your life.  Celebrate them.

8.        Focus on the positive, and smile- The simple act of genuinely smiling has been shown to improve your mood as well as the mood of those around you.  Focusing on maintaining a positive outlook can also help your brain make pathways that help you be a more positive person.

9.    Sleep- I think we can safely say that teachers don’t get enough sleep.  Between grading and planning at home and balancing that with family responsibilities, sleep is often the first thing to go as we look to get more done.  However, being well rested can make a huge difference in our day.  We can better focus on tasks, be alert when challenging situations arise, and have more patience and kindness with others.  Even 20-30 minutes more sleep per night can have great cumulative effects.

10.  Seek support- When life gets overwhelming, find a trusted friend or colleague that you can confide in.  Sharing your burdens makes them lighter, and a friend can offer a different perspective on the situation.

All of this boils down to taking care of ourselves and giving ourselves some grace to get through these stress-filled days.  And remember, summer break is not far away!

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Under Pressure- Anxiety in Students and How You Can Help

Over the past couple of years, a common theme I hear from teachers is that children today are dealing with more anxiety than ever before, and more children than ever are showing signs of anxiety in the classroom.  This post will give you information about what anxiety might look like at school and give you some ways to help your students deal with anxious thoughts they might have.

What It Looks Like

When students are anxious at school, this anxiety can take on several forms.  Some of these behaviors can look like other things such as ADD, but all are signs of anxiety as well.

·         Restlessness and fidgeting

·         Irritability

·         Crying

·         Shutting down, not talking

·         Not participating in class

·         Physical complaints (think “clinic frequent flyer”)

·         Acting out

·         Constant questioning and need for reassurance

·         Crying

Students may exhibit one of these symptoms or several.  All of them can have an effect on a child’s ability to fully participate in and enjoy school.  When students’ minds are overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, the amount of brain power they have to devote to learning is greatly diminished.  Additionally, anxiety can have a negative effect on a student’s relationships with his or her peers.

What You Can Do To Help

The good news is, there are many things that teachers can do to help the students in their classroom deal with their anxiety.  One of the most important things that teachers can do is to be patient and understanding when their students are struggling with anxious thoughts.  Students who have anxiety are not exhibiting these behaviors on purpose to annoy you.  Think of their behaviors as a call for help, but the student is too overwhelmed to use words. Here are some other strategies you can use with your anxious kiddos:

·         Acknowledge their anxiety.  Saying things like, “You’ll be fine” or “That’s nothing to worry about” will not make your anxious student feel better.  Instead tell them you notice that they seem anxious and ask if something is bothering them.  Then, listen to them.  If you have a student who frequently tells you their worries, it is okay to give them a time limit as to how long they can tell you about them. “I’m going to listen to your worries for 3 minutes.”

·         For frequent worries, give your student a plan or go over the plan that is in place.  Worried about storms?  Remind your student that they are safe inside, and that the school safety specialists have a plan to keep them safe if bad weather happens.  Do not force students to confront their triggers.  That is something best left to a trained professional.  Our job is to help students know that we have plans to keep them safe.

·         Help students who are stuck in anxious thoughts.  At our house, we call this getting stuck in a thinking trap.  Tell the student that they are stuck in a thinking trap, and they need to get out of it.  The following are ways to help with that.

·         Distraction can be a great tool.  Is there a particular job that your anxious student likes to do?  Ask them to do that for you.  Let them take a 5 minute reading break.  Have them take a note to the office.  Focusing on a task can help break the thinking trap.

·         Arrange for your student to be able to take a break if needed.  A trip to the drinking fountain might provide just the mental break for them.  If your student is uncomfortable asking verbally, let them use a break card to ask for their break.

·         Remind them of calming strategies they know.  Encourage deep breaths and take some deep breaths with them.  Have fidgets available that they can use.  Allow some time for drawing.

·         If your student is seeing a therapist, ask for suggestions specific to that child for ways to support them  in the classroom.  Make sure you go through the parents to do this, as schools need a release of information on file to communicate with health care providers.

·         Have a safe person for that student to talk with, usually the school counselor. Generally speaking, school counselors are great with anxious students.

·         Model what you want them to do.  Show your students productive ways to deal with stress and unforeseen events.  Talk about what you are doing to get through it.

There are many good resources available for dealing with anxious kids.  One of my favorites, 13 Helpful Phrases You Can Say to Calm an Anxious Child,   can be found here, from Lemon Lime Adventures. Helping our anxious students manage their anxiety is something we can do that can have lasting effects, long after these kiddos leave our classrooms.

5 Fun Games for Visual Perceptual Skills

Visual perceptual skills play a big part in a child’s learning.  These are the skills that help us differentiate between similar letters like b, d,  p, and q. They help us remember letters or numbers in order, like the alphabet or a phone number.  These skills are put into use when students copy from the board. Visual perceptual skills are used when students memorize sight words.  Students use visual perceptual skills to notice details in illustrations.  These skills allow us to track words and lines of text when we are reading.  (A great post detailing these skills can be found here from Therapy Fun Zone.)

As a reading interventionist, working on these skills with my students is an important part of our time together.  One of my favorite ways to work on these skills is through games.  I want to share 5 games with you that my students love so much, they don’t even realize that they are working on these key skills.

Spot it!

                 

In this game, students look for matching items on cards, collecting as many as they can.  The images change size and rotate position on the cards, so you have to have a keen eye to find a match.

Robot Face Race

              

My students LOVE this game!  Students look at the marbles in the “Robot Randomizer” to determine the attributes of the robot face. (example- blue head, yellow eyes, green nose, purple mouth)  Then they quickly scan the board to find the face with the matching features.

Make ‘n’ Break

One great feature of this game is that it has variable difficulty levels and can easily be played by kids and adults.  Students roll the dice to determine how much time to put on the timer.  Then they draw a card and use multicolored blocks to copy the design on the card.  This one game covers several visual perceptual skills, and it is hands-on fun!

Speedy Match

Students use foam disks to replicate the pattern of the colored marbles on the game shaker.  This game not only works on visual perceptual skills, it also is great fine motor practice.

Perplexus

This game is an awesome 3D maze that can provide hours of entertainment.  Players have to maneuver a small marble around barriers to reach the end of the maze.  Students must twist and turn the sphere to move the marble as well as predict what will happen for each decision about where to go next.

I love to find fun games like these that allow my students to work on critical skills while having a good time.  How about you?  Do you have games your students enjoy that target visual perceptual skills?  Share them in the comments.

*I am not compensated in any way for sharing information about these games.  I am just a huge fan of fun learning!

Having one of those years? 8 things that can help you make it through

In teaching, some years are easier than others.  And some years are downright hard.  Those kinds of years, the hard years, can take a toll on you.  I recall one year when I was teaching 4th grade. Beginning in January or so, I started to cry every day on the way to work.  I would start crying at the same street every day, and then a few miles later I would turn the tears off, steel myself, and drive the rest of the way mentally preparing to get through the day.  Now, I’m sure that part of the tears were due to the fact that I was pregnant that year.  But, in addition to that my class that year was a challenging one.  I had over 30 students, many who had things going on at home that I couldn’t even imagine, and many who had special needs of one kind or another.  I loved teaching, but that class required every ounce of my energy- physical, mental, and emotional- all day long.

These memories came to mind recently while I was chatting with a colleague who teaches in another building.  She was sharing the difficult challenges she is having this year.  Hearing her stories and the emotion with which she was telling them made me think, “Oh, she is having one of those years.”  I started thinking about what I have learned about making it through those tough years.  Even in the midst of the struggle, there are steps we can take to improve our life in the classroom.  Some of these things are easier than others, and I’m not going to pretend they will “make it all better”, but they can help.

  1. Practice rational detachment- I am an instructor for non-violent crisis intervention in my district, and this is one of the key things we teach in that course.  Rational detachment essentially means not taking behavior personally, and remaining in control of your emotions.  Having a well-thought-out plan in place before incidents occur can help you remain calm.  Understanding that you are rarely the cause of the behavior can help you separate your students from their behaviors, seeing them as people who need your help to function successfully in school.
  2. Remain calm- In the midst of challenges in your classroom, it can be difficult to remain calm, but that calmness can mean the difference between an okay day and a bad day for you and your students.  Taking deep breaths or counting to 5 in your mind before you talk can help you take a moment to consider your words before you say them.  Think low and slow, in your voice and your actions.
  3. Don’t pick up the rope- We have a poster that we use in our non-violent crisis intervention training with this statement on it.  It is one of my favorites.  It refers to power struggles.  Think of a power struggle as a student challenging you to tug-of-war.  If you pick up the rope, digging your heels in to prove your point, you will spend a lot of energy with little to show for it. Don’t get sucked into a power struggle. Don’t pick up the rope.
  4. Model what you want to see in your students- Do you have a class who can’t seem to find one nice thing to say to each other?  Intentionally say nice things to them.  If you have students who seem to dwell on the negative, say point out the positive whenever you can.  You and your colleagues can also model what you want to see when you interact with each other. Not only will doing these things provide a model for your students, it will likely make you feel better as you focus on good as often as you can.
  5. Notice the good- This goes hand in hand with modeling what you want to see.  Intentionally look for your students doing what you want them to do.  Notice the kids who see the positive side of things and tell them how much you appreciate it.  Positive attention from a teacher is something nearly all students enjoy.  Reinforce what you want to see, whenever you see it.
  6. Pick one thing- When we have a student who is struggling with academics or behavior, we don’t try to fix everything at once.  We pick on thing to focus on at a time.  This can work with your class, too.  Make a list of the things your class is struggling with.  Look for patterns.  Look for the thing that seems to start a chain of events.  Focus on that thing first.  As that improves, look at the next thing on your list and target that.
  7. Educate yourself- No one knows everything.  If you have a student with a diagnosis that you don’t know much about, read about it or ask someone with more expertise to help you learn strategies for working with that child.  Talk to previous teachers to find out what was successful in the past.  A little time spent seeking knowledge can make a big difference in how you handle things in the classroom.
  8. Take care of yourself- A challenging year with challenging students is stressful.  Stress is bad for your physical, mental, and emotional health.  In order to be the classroom leader you need to be, you have to take care of yourself.  Exercise is a great stress reliever.  Meditation can be, too.  Don’t keep everything bottled up inside.  Talk to a friend.  If stress starting to interfere with your ability to function at school or at home, seek professional help.  There is no shame in talking with your doctor or a therapist.  It can make a huge difference in your ability to live a life with happiness and joy even in the midst of a challenging year.

To those of you reading this:  I hope you are having a great year, a year that leaves you smiling most days you leave school at the end of the day.  If you are having “one of those years”, I hope you found something here that can help.  And, I hope your days get better and better from this point on.

 

 

Wait…What?

You are in your teaching groove.  You have just delivered a fantastic lesson.  The flow was good.  Your students looked engaged, and they participated throughout the lesson.  You think to yourself, “They get this!”  You are at the point where it is time for the students to work on an assignment so they can show what they have learned.  You carefully give the directions for the assignment and head to your desk to grab a drink of water so you can watch your students get to work.  As you glance around the room, several of your students are doing just that.  They have the materials they need out on their desks and are busy completing their task.  However, you notice that Emily is just sitting at her desk with a puzzled look on her face.  Ben has some things on his desk, but one of them is the wrong book.  Chris has his hand up and is anxious to talk with you.  Jessica is out of her seat and on her way up to see you.  What happened?  The lesson went so well.  You gave what you thought were thorough directions for the assignment.  The kids looked liked they got it when you were talking.  How is it that now it appears that at least four of them didn’t get it at all?

If you have taught for any length of time, this scenario is probably one you have encountered at least once.  It can be frustrating to you as the teacher, especially since you thought your lesson went so well.  It might be tempting to just write it off as students being lazy or “not paying attention”.  While there is a chance this may be true, it is more likely that there are other things coming into play that can affect your students’ ability to be able to hear your directions for their assignment and then be able to get right to work and get it done correctly.

There are many factors that can inhibit your students’ ability to understand and then execute your directions when you are teaching.  Sometimes these factors are things you over which you have no control. Your student didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t sleep the night before, is having conflict with a friend, has a sick parent at home. These situations can make it difficult for a student to focus on instruction.  Other factors that affect a student’s ability to understand classroom instruction and directions include issues like ADHD or auditory processing problems.  If a student has ADHD, there are many things in the classroom competing with you and your instruction for his or her attention.  They may be dialed in for the beginning of the lesson, only to zone out just before you wrap it up and give them instructions for the assignment.  If a student has auditory processing issues, they have trouble making sense of what they are hearing.  They may be listening intently to your instruction, but when you ask them to take out their book at turn to the assignment on page 37, they take out the wrong book or just sit at their desk staring into space.  (For more information on the difference between ADHD and auditory processing issues and how they affect a student’s ability to listen in the classroom, check out this article from Understood.) Taking a minute to consider why a student might be having issues understanding what is going on in your classroom can go a long way in adding to your patience when dealing with your class.

One Intentional Thing

No matter what causes students to have difficulty listening to and understanding instruction and directions in the classroom, there are some things you can intentionally put in place to provide an environment that helps all students know what is going on.

  • Watch your speed. Be sure to speak slowly and clearly when you are teaching.  When we are excited, we tend to speak more quickly, and that can make it difficult for kids to keep up.
  • Don’t just rely on verbal instructions and directions. Make use of your whiteboard or anchor charts as you are teaching.  Write down key words and phrases as you teach and give directions.  Written words don’t disappear, spoken words do.
  • If you know listening is a struggle for a particular student, come up with a silent signal that you can give that student to alert them to the fact that important key information is being presented.
  • After you have given directions to your whole class, offer a second chance to hear them.  Invite students who would like to hear them again or who still have questions to meet with you at the front or side of the room.  This allows those students who understand the task to get to work, and those who still have questions to be able to get the help they need.

What about you?  What do you do to help ensure students understand what you are teaching?  Please share your ideas in the comments.

 

Intentional Reflection

Winter break comes just in the nick of time, every year.  By the time break arrives, teachers have been giving it their all for at least three months, and they are tired.  Children are so excited about the holidays that they often bounce down the hallways at school.  And there is usually some nasty virus or stomach bug starting to rear its ugly head and spread through adults and kids alike.  But then winter break arrives. And we all take a collective breath and a collective break.

With winter break comes the start of a new calendar year.  Even though this new calendar year comes in the middle of the school year, it is still a good time to pause for a moment and take stock of what has been happening in our schools and classrooms since the start of school this year.  When the school year starts, we tend to get into a daily rhythm.  The classroom can be a hectic place with a hectic pace, and there is often precious little time to really reflect on what we are doing, how things are going, and if our classroom is is truly the place we desire it to be for our students and ourselves.  Winter break affords us a bit of time to intentionally think about these things without the demands of the classroom crowding our attention.

Resolutions are part of the new year for many people.  Exercise more, eat less, unplug, build that savings account.  These things are commonly resolved, and perhaps commonly forgotten a month or two later when everyday life has again started its familiar rhythm.  Resolutions, however, don’t just apply to one’s personal life.  When we take time to reflect on what is happening in our classrooms, many teachers make some professional resolutions as well.  I have teacher friends who fall into two camps in this regard.  Some teachers I know, after reflecting on the year thus far, are ready to make big changes.  This might come in the form of a new way to manage reading or math instruction, or a completely different strategy to help with classroom management and discipline.  Other teachers can’t imagine making huge changes like that in the middle of the year.  They prefer tweaking small things, like adding a new comprehension strategy they read about, using some new mentor texts, or incorporating new writing mini-lessons. Profession resolutions still, only on a smaller scale.

No matter which camp you might fall in regarding resolutions for the rest of the school year, one thing is certain: Reflecting on our classroom and classroom practices over winter break is time well spent. I decided to start this blog in part because I have seen the benefits of taking the time to reflect on life, inside and outside the classroom.  However, merely reflecting on our practice is not enough.  We need to take those reflections and use them to improve our professional practice in our classrooms. Over the life of this blog, I will be sharing ideas and tools that can help you as you seek to make intentional changes based on your reflections, not just at the new year, but throughout the year.

ONE INTENTIONAL THING

One take on the new year’s resolution that I will be doing this year is My One Word. The idea of My One Word is to narrow down your life plans for the coming year to a single focus, a single word. You can read more about it here. I pondered over what word to choose, thinking about where I am in my life at this moment, personally and professionally.  The word I have chosen for my year is Learn.  I want to use this year to learn-about myself, my profession, about life and living it to the fullest personally and professionally. My hope is that this blog one way that I can do that.  What about you?  Have you made a resolution?  Have you chosen one word to represent your focus for the coming year? If so, please leave a comment sharing it.  I look forward to hearing from you.