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Back to School Resolutions for Teachers

James Paterson

As the time until the start of school grows shorter, experts say teachers should be deliberate about prioritizing goals for the year with three things in mind: What is most important for their students and their professional growth, and what they realistically can accomplish.

Educators, by nature, are energetic and goal-oriented -- and apt to want to put in place many new approaches they discover. But sometimes having too many projects, priorities, and plans can be overwhelming and counterproductive for the teacher and confusing to students, parents and others in the school -- and can suggest a lack of focus.

Establishing and communicating clear objectives should be a back to school priority for teachers, says Sonya D. Hayes, an assistant professor for educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee. She says too often teachers overlook the importance of communications with parents, for instance, when they have too many new initiatives.

“My advice for all teachers is to create a communication plan and stick with it. Most of the time, conflicts with parents occur because teachers simply are not effectively communicating with them about their child.”

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Hayes teaches a class of experienced teachers at the University of Tennessee who are moving to administrative positions, and she asked them what their experience suggests about new approaches for teachers as they face going back to school. Those suggestions generally fit into this list of five resolutions.

1. Use Available Data When Going Back to School

Take time to collect and study good information and feedback, which can come from some familiar places. Survey your students at the end of the year, or their parents, and ask them some fundamental questions about your approach and whether they have suggestions. Make sure you understand and benefit from a review by an administrator, and ask for time to discuss it and seek practical suggestions. Some teachers film themselves and review the recording with supervisors, peers or evaluate it themselves.

Check grades and test scores for patterns (the affect that time of day has, the personality of a class or approaches you took, for instance). Think about other ways to get input -- and then take time to evaluate it and come up with a short list (five or less) of practical goals for change. Carefully consider the steps to achieve them, their value and a timetable for them.

“Work with peers to discover how they are teaching the same standards and what is working for them, Hayes says a teacher in her group suggested. “Sharing ideas is one way to improve and grow.” Another suggested making the most out of formative assessments throughout the year to “Change your instruction as needed. If students are not learning the curriculum the way that you are teaching it, adjustments will need to take place.”

2. Think About Space and Technology

There are a lot of new strategies for changing classroom space creatively or to improve the layout to make it more efficient or student-friendly. Consider some simple things you can do to improve the flow for you and your students – and experts note that it doesn’t have to be involve a complete makeover of the room.

Meghan Snable, a teacher with the Santee (California) School District, successfully used a flexible seating approach with 1st, 4th and 5th graders and found it successful. “I’ve quickly discovered that these students benefit from choice of learning space and the ability to move.” She suggested, too, that teachers can try it gradually, perhaps, in an area where students can read or work on tablets in casual setting or by introducing a few other seating options.

Take a day after school gets started to consider the location of your desk, student desks and work stations and materials. Might there be slightly different needs depending on each class -- and should you shift things during the year to create some excitement?

When it comes to technology, try one new thing every month -- whether it improves your personal efficiency, your ability to assess student learning, or changes up how your students work on a lesson, Hayes suggests. Other teachers and district tech experts always have suggestions, especially if you identify a specific problem.        

3. Be Deliberate About Stress

A lot of research also shows it is one of the primary reasons teachers struggle and leave the profession. You can attack the problem of undue stress personally, using everything from meditation to workouts, and professionally by considering what during the day causes undue stress, according to researchers at Wayne State University. Teaching is a difficult job full of challenges, but some of the stress may be caused by circumstances you can control.

“Work-life balance and taking care of yourself is especially important,” Hayes says her teachers reported. “Teachers often push themselves and forget to recharge – it is the reason for their burnout in the spring.”

4. Work on THAT One

Is one class particularly challenging? Rather than dread it each day and all year, can you devote extra time to strategies to improve it? Will more personal conversations with students help, or parent calls or conferences? Would it help to have a colleague or administrator sit in and provide some advice? Do you need to change how lessons are presented, or ask for adjustments in student schedules to change dynamics?

Hayes notes, however, that the teachers she surveyed believe that accountability for students is important. “Set and maintain high expectations for your students,” one teacher told her. “It may seem as though they have an understanding of what is expected from them in your classroom, but to ensure that students consistently meet expectations, you must hold them accountable. 

5. In Their Shoes

Research shows that student performance and behavior improves significantly when students believe that someone understands and has empathy for them.

Busy teachers often don’t have time to get to know individual students and their personal strengths, concerns and circumstances, but prioritizing it may pay off by saving a lot of other time when a student struggles inexplicably or is a behavior problem.

Find out more by asking students for information about themselves in written assignments or regular, brief personal “Surveys” (What did you do on your vacation? What do you like best about this class?). Try to set aside regular time for individual meetings (casual lunch invitations, are easy) and talk to parents in a nonthreatening way about concerns, and let them know at the start of school and throughout the year that you want to learn about students and their changing lives.

Here are some of the comments from Hayes’ group of experienced teachers about the issue of developing relationships with students, which they felt should be a top priority for teachers:

  • “Recognize the diverse backgrounds of your students. Utilize their diversity within your instruction. Be open to seeing things from a different perspective, more specifically, through the lens of your students. All students have something valuable to add, but it is up to the teacher to create a safe space for learning.”
  • “Be the teacher you would want to have, or want your kids to have. Your students only have one year with you – make every lesson count.”
  • “Make your primary goal for your students to be successful and develop a positive relationship with them, built on mutual respect. Building relationships with your students is crucial for classroom management and student success.”
  • “You cannot have enough patience. Patience and empathy go together, because if you come to understand your students and their life situations it will help you have patience with some of their actions and behaviors.”
  • “Don't take their actions/behaviors personally. When a student acts out it is probably not because of you or directed at you. It is more likely their way of dealing with an issue that has nothing to do with you.”