Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

10 Habits to Help Teachers and Students Stay Positive and Engaged

From Educator and Blogger Gabby Arca

It’s been a year, and it’s only October. From talking with other teachers, I think many of us feel like this year is even harder than last year.

When I think about how we can navigate this tough year, stay positive, and keep kids engaged, my mind first goes to the fundamentals of good instruction: explicit instruction with active participation, setting students up for success by meeting their Zone of Proximal Development (activities that are too hard or too easy make for a real checkout), repeated exposure, routines, clear expectations and praise, creating content that is relevant and student-focused… I could go on!

Of course, we’re all trying to do each of those things every day, because they’re best practices for instruction in any year. They influence our strategy for instruction from a pedagogical standpoint. When it comes to dealing with this year, and all of its unique challenges, It’s helpful for me to dig deep and consider some of those squishy, hard-to-define, little things — the habits we establish that keep the classroom vibe positive with an undercurrent of focus. Here are my favorite quick strategies and habits, in quick summary:

Take breaks! Go outside. Eat lunch alone. Have something on your calendar to look forward to in your own life (For me, I aim for food I can’t wait to eat).

If you’re an educator and you do just one of those things today: You win all the prizes! You are amazing and our job is incredibly difficult.

If (and this is a sincere if) you have the bandwidth to consider more ideas, here are some of my favorites that help me and my students push through the tough parts of the day-to-day:

Take breaks with your students

Go outside, look over each month and make sure you’ve got something you can all look forward to! Yes, the same ways you might take care of yourself you can also do together.

Laugh!

Learning can really stink, it’s hard. Being back in school stinks for a lot of us and a lot of kids in a lot of ways. From more grief and trauma to more doldrums and fatigue, we remain in a place where it is okay for things and aspects of life to stink.

Learning can also be fun. It won’t always be full stinking or full fun. But at times, we can tune ourselves into more of the fun.

A joke a day, a fun all-class compliment prank, a random celebration — these keep us afloat. I was just reminiscing on one of my favorite class pranks of all time where the entire class wore black shirts and we printed out 30 pictures of our favorite front office assistant’s face and secured it to our shirts. We all then “dressed up as her twin” for the day. It was random and weird and totally wonderful. She has the group picture of all of us with her flexing in the front of a class of “mini-me”s hanging in her office to this day.

I have a very math-phobic intervention crew right now who begrudgingly enjoys my math joke each day. It’s a little thing, but it’s a routine that lightens the space and that we can look forward to together.

Prioritize get-to-know-you activities

Did someone tell you about their bagel for breakfast? Integrate that casually as you ask them to head to their seats that you were inspired and got bagels for breakfast and it started your day off well. (Food is clearly my love language). I tie in so many random details from and about my students in the filler room of the classroom and those tiny shout outs of: I see you, I know you, I pay attention, I enjoy your company and your advice... they matter.

Other options include: Remember a pet’s name, use it in an example in writing, start showing you are paying attention to them to head towards those deeper connections.

It’s never too early in the year to say you are proud of your students. It’s also never too early in the year to say how much you enjoy them.

Assign class jobs to students

We’ve been in school for a moment. Are there some things they can take over and feel some ownership? It’s a great way to feel seen, involved, helpful, and then be praised.

Establish class routines that everyone looks forward to

We have days of the week themes in my class this year. Mystery Monday (We love Mystery Doug videos) is a big hit and so is Tunes Tuesday (a student gets to be DJ). Wonderful Wednesday (compliments) and Fun Friday are also hits. Yes, our students deserve and need something fun at LEAST once a week and a Fun Friday holds me accountable to making sure I am keeping their playful engagement in mind. It doesn’t need to be complicated — my virtual crew, for example, is currently enjoying “recess” rooms on Fun Fridays where they get to choose what to talk about and join the room with other kids who also want to talk about video games, drawing, etc.

Work in some content you love

When you love it, you are able to shake off the drudgery blues (and those are always real but even more real these days) and feel a little joy as you teach. For me, that might be a twisted short story, a wacky poem, a beautiful photograph, or a song for break time. Choose what you love that you know lifts your mood. I’ll be darned if I don’t play September by Earth Wind and Fire starting on September 21st (if not sooner) and dance my way around the room.

Take LOTS of breaks

We have no time. That’s the crux of teaching and forever the struggle — even MORE so now. However, we also need breaks, more of them, more than ever. I set timers, and we take a lot of breaks. I planned in more than I thought we needed, I’ve taken feedback on what types and time limits for breaks feel best for us and made our schedule match that as much as possible. Once we decide, I don’t skip our breaks. I think it lets my students know they are cared for and that I prioritize that we are all (myself included) taking care of ourselves. Breaks keep us all headed towards our better selves and more available to actually teach and learn. They also remind us that we are humans first, then learners. Bonus: Breaks are opportunities to sprinkle in more content you and your students love (a song request, a quiet aquarium video, a stretch someone leads).

Celebrate I don’t know”, “I’m not sure”, “I’m confused”, and “Wait..”

If your students are saying these things they feel safe! They are learning! They are working through an idea. I make a point to have a positive response every single time anything along these lines is said. It reminds them this is a space where we are working things out, they are practicing using their voices whenever they need to. They are also giving me feedback that is helpful for all of us as learners, and that I also own when my teaching isn’t clear! Many of my students have a laugh at my overeager reactions to these phrases, but I also always notice that I get *so* much feedback from them (included frustrated moments or kids who started the year quieter or shut down) because of this practice. I promise it is worth it. We all know it feels better to learn when we have room to be unsure as we try new things.

Schedule some switch ups

Pre-COVID times I would say buddy reading or some other way to get together with another class is such a gift. Sometimes, just like how they say you can rekindle with your loved ones by doing new things together, it’s helpful to see our students in another light. We can see how patient they are with younger students, or the way they adore the older kids. We can share about them with another teacher and we can feel a bit refreshed just from appreciating them differently. I know this one is hard during COVID times but if you have a way to do this creatively, I’d say it is worth it.

Share a story moment together

Whether it’s a read aloud that you’ve all locked into (choose one with a great voice, a mystery, humor, and short chapters!) or a short story with weird twists or turns (or an unexpected ending!) Nothing is more of a bonding experience for me than sharing a story and creating that memory together as a class community. It brings in the laughter, sometimes tears (usually me, alas), and it brings up all sorts of connections to their lives and thinking styles.

Finally: What did you love most with your past classes? Make sure you do incorporate those habits into this unique year, whenever possible!

Gabby is currently an elementary educator for the Global Division at The Lab School. She has previously been a K-12 Special Ed and inclusive education teacher in public and private schools on both coasts of the US. Gabby is adamant about equity, and supporting all kids in knowing and being their best, full spectrum selves. She writes about and facilitates trainings for equity-based and research-based practices via TeachPluralism with Nina Sethi. Find her on her blog, TeachPluralism, and reach out to her at teachpluralism@gmail.com.

Follow the conversation #WhyITeach

To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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