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Dear Teachers-Becoming-Parents:

Isn't it cute when well-meaning doctors, family members, and friends tell you to "just relax" and "cut down on your stress?"

Ha. Funny.

There's no cutting down on stress levels when you already "have" somewhere between 30-180 "kids". In fact, I've known teachers who have left the profession because they were SO convinced that their stress levels from work were going to keep them from conceiving their own children.

And, if we're being honest: I finally got pregnant right when summer vacation started. (Coincidence? I doubt it!)

However, I've also known teachers who have gotten a positive test during all months of the school year, not just in the spring/summer, and launched into parenting with grace. Barring other health factors you may have, your stress levels alone do not HAVE to define your current and future status as a parent. 

Regardless of what time of year it is now (and when you're hoping to get good news), here are a few tips from me and some other teacher friends to help you stay sane during this time.

1. Beware the internet rabbit hole.
There are a lot of books, articles, and internet forums out there for TTC women... and while some of those communities are a good thing, to a point, wallowing in self-pity and other women's sob stories for TOO long can actually have an adverse affect. Don't tred in those spaces for too long at a time, and try not to obsess with comparisons to other people. They don't have your body or your life!

2. Get "stress relief" through movement. 
I'm not good at traditional "stress relief", because no matter what things I do that "should" work, things like massages or exercise never get rid of ALL my stress.

However, the point isn't to get rid of ALL your stress - just some of it! And for me, the best way to do that was by moving and not sitting still, which does not HAVE to require a gym membership. Walking a dog, taking the long route, or anything escapist counts!

Use your lunch time to take a brisk walk or do something that gets you "off campus". It is tough to de-stress when you are in the middle of it. - Samantha Steele

3. Utilize your commute.
The 10-15 minutes I spend in the car to and from work are my most zen. Why? Because it's when I'm limited in how much I can work or multitask.

I have specific playlists for driving "to school" vs. "from school", based on whether I need to wake up or calm down, and you may want to experiment with music, audiobooks, radio, or even silence to unwind.

4. Unplug - somewhere, at some time.
It doesn't have to be full-blown meditation or a dedicated 30 minutes, but you'll feel it adding up if your routine involves some version of non-school relaxation.

Take a moment for yourself during the day. I'm trying hard to learn to meditate, even though it's really not "my thing" and I'm finding that just taking a minute or three to breathe and not let my racing mind control me helps a lot with my stress level. - Madame Aiello

5. Visualize that "last day of school" feeling. 
Imagine your first day or night of summer vacation - no grading, no early wakeup, a silent email inbox, no to-do list (or at least a shorter one). Ahh. 

Now, you might not be able to achieve that depth of freedom and relaxation completely during the school year, but it IS possible to...

  • Silence your inbox for certain periods of time
  • Prep everything by Friday so you can truly "go home" during the weekend
  • Have dedicated grading/not grading time so you can ignore the dark cloud looming above your head for a little while
  • Protect one weekend morning to sleep in!

6. Don't let negative tests ruin your day. 
I've known teachers who were so rattled by a negative pregnancy test that they were visibly unhinged the entire school day. Trust me, I know from experience how devastating ANOTHER negative test can be, but you AND your students will be better off if you can compartmentalize that grief to not affect your students.

My favorite way to think about it was that my students were my "first" kids, so I still needed to be there for them until I could go back home and deal with my feelings there.

7. Practice time management NOW. 
I know... it's annoying when people advise you to "live your life while you still can", or distract you with things you should do "first" before having children. But in addition to your bucket list, there are other things to work on NOW, while you still can.

When you DO get pregnant and/or bring home a baby, your entire routine is going to change. You'll have other things and people demanding your attention, less total time, shorter stretches of uninterrupted time, and sometimes less motivation.

NOW is the time to work ahead on...
  • How efficiently you are (or aren't) getting your grading and lesson planning done
  • Work/life balance, including squeezing in exercise or walking
  • Gradually adding loose, long, or stretchy clothes to your closet (more on this later)
  • Logical division of chores at home between you and your partner
  • Professional development or career tasks (while you still have more time)
  • Any other issues at home or school that are sucking up your time

8.  Don't wait to ask for help.  
I mean this in every sense of the word. I waited too long with a bad OBGYN who wasn't listening to me before switching to a new doctor - and getting pregnant two months later - because I got the right help for the problem I was having.

Don't wait to ask for help from...

  • Your partner, if you need help staying happy, distracted, or sane
  • Your doctor, if you think there could be a medical issue slowing down conception
  • Your colleagues, if you need a hand with work/life balance and stress levels
  • Your students, sort of. They don't need to know about your health per se, but ask yourself if you're doing work that your students should or could be, like peer editing more, helping to keep the classroom clean, etc. 

Keep Reading...
Future blog posts with tips for teachers are forthcoming about pregnancy, maternity/paternity leave, and adoption!
Our students will not have us around forever to help them meet their SMART goals or new years' resolutions, so we need to set them up for success now and provide them with the tools they need to be successful. In this post I explore five different ways that we can help students achieve their goals and resolutions. Some work with a common enemy, some work with student choice, and some work with identifying the root cause. I've included a free teacher resolution download for you, too!

Many of us teachers incorporate SMART goals, growth mindset, perseverance lessons, RTI processes, charting growth with data, or other methods to help our students improve over time.

All of these pursuits are great and CAN work. My only concern with SOME school-led initiatives is that SOME of them do nothing to help student independence.

Moving forward, students might not always have you, that magical graphic organizer, or your programs with them in the future. When my 8th graders move on to high school, I have to at least try to make them independent "enough" that they can identify, tackle, and solve their own problems, and not wait on an adult to do it for (or even with) them.

My proposal is, whether we're setting SMART goals in September or resolutions in January, we need to use processes that will:
  • Help students truly self-identify a goal or problem, 
  • Figure out the best method(s) to achieve it, and
  • Adjust, try again, or get the plan done.
So, how on earth can we do that in a differentiated manner (and with limited classroom minutes)? 

Just as your students and their goals are all different, there won't be one right answer in this post. BUT, here are some ideas to try that might help shake up the goals and resolutions in your room. 

#1: Take a poll and pick a common enemy. 
Hear me out. Yes, I'm all for differentiation and individual goals (keep reading #2-5). And yes, you already know some of the skills or facts that your students need to improve. But student buy-in is SO different if you can tell students that "Your survey results show that you really want to get better at ________, and I'm going to help you do that." 

Use your favorite paper or electronic polling method and ask a simple question: What do you want to get better at before the end of the school year? 

Every time I ask this question, the results are fascinating, and not always what I expect. Maybe your high schoolers have more test-taking anxiety than you realized and need some targeted skill work before a standardized test. Maybe middle schoolers are secretly sweating the amount of note-taking they think they'll have to do in high school. But it's worth finding out what "common enemies" you can tackle as a class!

For example, when we realized that our eighth graders had poor note-taking skills and were conscientious of it, another teacher and I co-taught this Note-Taking Skills Lesson to try multiple note-taking styles and identify what they needed to do differently!

#2: Give a choice project. 
Depending on the amount of time you have, your curriculum, and your objectives (are you addressing academic goals or behavioral ones?), then you might like EITHER... 
  • My Life Skills Project, in which students pick a skill or topic to get better at and move through a planning process to meet and achieve that goal, OR...
Our students will not have us around forever to help them meet their SMART goals or new years' resolutions, so we need to set them up for success now and provide them with the tools they need to be successful. In this post I explore five different ways that we can help students achieve their goals and resolutions. Some work with a common enemy, some work with student choice, and some work with identifying the root cause. I've included a free teacher resolution download for you, too!
A sneak peek of my Life Skills Project!

Either way, the idea is that the fixed time frame of a challenge or project can help make the goal-reaching process seem more tangible, instead of a nebulous "should-do" in their lives.

#3: Get to the root of their academic or behavioral issue. 
One day, in a moment of what I call "spontaneous weirdness", I blurted out to my students that I was tired of their "procrastinitis", and that we needed to find a cure for it ASAP.

Well, like any good middle school metaphor, that concept took off like wildfire until 10 different student "diseases" were born...

Our students will not have us around forever to help them meet their SMART goals or new years' resolutions, so we need to set them up for success now and provide them with the tools they need to be successful. In this post I explore five different ways that we can help students achieve their goals and resolutions. Some work with a common enemy, some work with student choice, and some work with identifying the root cause. I've included a free teacher resolution download for you, too!
The poster component of my Student "Diseases"/ Skills Unit!

... and now, we're doing a skills mini-unit in January together about how to "cure" their diseases once and for all. Find out more about it here!

#4: Give reproducible or keepsake tools that will last.  
I've seen some mighty, amazing graphic organizers that are given to students... once. But not every student is a one-and-done learner, and if they ONLY learn how to write that essay or SMART goal with a specific worksheet, then they might not be able to reproduce those results in the future. 

Consider trying ONE of these in your next semester:
  • Keep more copies publicly available. Print more and display them in a milk crate/hanging file, a binder/folder in the room, or on a bulletin board, so students can grab and go!
  • Always pass out an extra blank one with your assignment. Tell students to use one now, and tuck the other in a special "save forever" section of their binders!
  • Be careful with digital files, though! For one, if you didn't make the graphic organizer, then putting it online might be breaking copyright law (for real!). Also, if you put it in a class website or something, will students ACTUALLY be willing and able to go back there years later? Probably not. Just give them a printed keepsake!

#5: Give students more freedom to get it done their way. 
Yes - shocking - what if we surrendered more control of the process? We do gradual release for other areas of learning, so why insist on gripping tightly to student goals even through high school? 

If you (or at least your students) are ready for some independence, try this FREE Student Resolutions BINGO board, which still helps them pick goals (and have a time element) without stringently clutching to some of the steps in-between.

Our students will not have us around forever to help them meet their SMART goals or new years' resolutions, so we need to set them up for success now and provide them with the tools they need to be successful. In this post I explore five different ways that we can help students achieve their goals and resolutions. Some work with a common enemy, some work with student choice, and some work with identifying the root cause. I've included a free teacher resolution download for you, too!

BONUS: I made a FREE version for you, too! Pick up the Teacher Resolutions Bingo Board in this blog post

What other ideas do you have to help students this year? Tell me in the comments!
Returning to school from any break is hard, but returning from winter break is especially hard because of the cold, dreary weather and shorter daylight hours. I'm sharing 15 ideas for what my father calls "look-forward-to" activities - things you can do to treat yourself, plan ahead, be proactive, and have a smooth return from winter break. Additionally, I've included a free download of a New Years resource!

{Scroll down for the FREEBIE!}

Maybe it's just me, but January is NOT my favorite teaching month.

In addition to the cold, dark weather (thanks Ohio) and the fact that winter break is now over (sigh), my school has midterm exams, report cards, and parent conferences all in January. 

Even if your exams happened in December and you have the fresh glow of a new semester to keep you inspired, the beginning of a new term can mean a lot of work, a lot of maintaining or building classroom norms, and a lot of energy to get back into the work/life groove. 

While I'm not the master of sunshine in January, I have learned one valuable secret about this time: scheduling what my father calls a "Look-Forward-To", or preferably more than one. Having new, exciting, or rewarding events already penciled into my life in a dreary time period always works to keep my spirits up. (See ideas in the list below!)

Here are some tips to try to make the week(s) AFTER winter break as smooth and happy as possible!

Before or During Winter Break:
  • Get yourself a "teacher present". Maybe it's a paper slicer, color-coordinating milk crates for storage, a new 2017 planner, or some other tool that will make life better... but treat yourself to something that will add to the shiny "Back to School" school supplies vibe that makes your teacher self smile! Digital files count too, like a new attendance chart or grading help sheets to stay more organized. 
  • Prep your whiteboard/chalkboard. Every Friday, I take 2 minutes after school to prep my whiteboard for the next week - writing the agendas, homework, reminders, etc. to ensure there's one less thing to do on Monday. You'll love walking into a classroom that's ready to go!
  • Schedule a treat for the first week back. Book a massage, pencil in a movie date with a friend, or actually "book" something that makes you happy that is a "Look-Forward-To" in your calendar. 
  • Clean your desk (or another problem zone). Like #2, you'll be happier in January walking into a literal or metaphorical "clean slate". 
  • Schedule a social thing. Even if the new semester is a hard time for you, having *something* social planned will help you feel that your work/life balance isn't totally lost!   
  • Get your lessons plans AND copies done in advance. Bravo if you have lesson plans and/or curriculum maps in place (truly), but if you're rushing to the copier on the first two days back from break, that's added stress, no?
  • Choose something happy for your mornings. New mug? Cool breakfast plan to try? Did you buy yourself a Starbucks gift card so you could get coffee guilt-free? Build in a happy element to your mornings, and you'll start the dark days off right! 
  • Solve ONE student problem. Think about a common student weakness you want to attack, and find a tool or solution to try. You'll feel like a hero, even if it only helps one worthwhile student! For example, you can try pacing bookmarks to help struggling readers, a choice research project to help students fix their own student problems, 
  • Plan way ahead for ONE thing. Treat yourself (and fight procrastination) by choosing ONE thing off your future to-do list and attacking it early. Need a new lesson on a particular topic? Going to plan ahead for a school event, committee, or holiday? Go for it!
  • Reflect on what went RIGHT. Many teachers are their own worst critics (as if we don't have enough of those), but in addition to being reflective about areas for growth, ask yourself what you did RIGHT in the first semester. What activity, routine/procedure, or sequence went WELL? What is worth repeating? 

After Break: 
  • Start in your teaching "comfort zone". Whether you're doing a lesson/unit that you love, or you've downloaded a "sure thing" from Teachers Pay Teachers, you'll draw comfort from that feeling of confidence. Try new grammar bell-ringers, get New Year's-themed Writing Prompts across all the genres, or 
  • Plan a 12 Days of January. If you REALLY have the creative gusto, why not plan one small, positive thing for your first 12 days back from school... either for yourself, OR for the entire classroom? (Can you mimic the 12 Days of Christmas by passing out pencils, mints, or other goodies for 12 days?) Here's a FREE printable if you want to give students a "free pass" card to kick off the semester!
  • Pre-plan your snow day coping strategy. If you live somewhere that's going to get inclement weather, decide NOW what your response will be, especially if your district expects you to give homework anyway.   
  • Maintain some "holiday" spirit in the classroom. White lights and snowflakes are appropriate well into January and February... just sayin'! 
  • Add seasonal shenanigans to your plans. Grab lessons and other materials that make sense for January or winter, such as Snow Day-Themed Nonfiction

FREE: New Year's Writing Activity List!

Rock Around the Clock: Free New Year's Writing Prompts to Count Down to Midnight for Secondary ELA
If you'd like a no-prep activity to help you get through the first day or two, check out this free list of writing prompts/activities, designed to help students reflect on the old year AND dream big during the new one!

Teach secondary students? Giving them gifts doesn't have to be challenging or time-consuming! I walk you through the thought process of determining why you want to give a gift, and then I share a few easy ideas for gifts for older students. Get all the ideas in this post!

Have your students been good this year? Even if they haven't, perhaps you're inclined to show them some love this winter. However, sometimes gift-giving to older students is easier said than done. 

Depending on your class, you might have allergies to worry about, limited color copying privileges, minimal time for crafting... not to mention the need to respect all cultures. You don't want your choice of gift to show preferential treatment to one holiday over another.

Fortunately, giving meaningful gifts to your students doesn't have to be a time-consuming, Pinterest-worthy project. In fact, with teenagers in middle and high school, a lot of the things they want do NOT involve glue guns, pom-poms, or excessive crafting on your part!

(By the way, be sure to check out #lastminutegiftsforbigkids on Instagram. Several fellow teachers and I are sharing our easy cards, bookmarks, tags, and other printables!)

How to Choose Your Gift to Students
First, think about what your goal is and what kind of reaction you want from your teens:

Is your objective to...

  • Make them laugh? Maybe pick an inside joke that your class would understand and give them something "punny". (If sweet tarts are ridiculously funny for some reason, buy them in bulk!)
  • Respond to class needs? Maybe what they really need is granola bars, pencils, gloves, bookmarks, coloring books, or something practical. 
  • Say goodbye? If it's the end of the semester (and if you won't see them again), maybe something closer to a keepsake is in order... a class photo? A laminated bookmark? 
  • Kick off a new semester? Seize the "new year" season with gifts about having a clean slate. (See #1, a Free Pass, below!)

More Gift Ideas
Here are a few ideas to consider that are mutually beneficial for you AND students, depending on how much time you have to devote to it!

1. A "Free Pass"
Even the best students may need a little forgiveness sometimes when "life" happens. Printers fail, assignments get left on the kitchen table,  sports practices run late... you name it.

Thus, one of the most valuable gifts you can give students is what I call a Mercy Card (or a Life Card, if you're more comfortable with that term). It's not a total free pass... the student still has to turn in the assignment... but it's a no-consequences extension to get an assignment turned in a little late without drama.

Get my Mercy/Life Cards for FREE at this link. You can print mine and go, or customize the fine print; it's editable!

2. Anything Edible
There's nothing wrong with bringing in a bag of mints, a box of candy canes, some Jolly Ranchers, or any other allergy-friendly candy to class. (In fact, we have a running joke that if I have to lecture, I bring them candy, and they're supposed to treat it like "mouth glue" and eat it quietly while listening.)

If you have the energy and permission to go the extra mile, breakfast parties are a great way to go, too. Donuts and bagels are hugely motivating prizes. I know a teacher who gave her class a hot chocolate party as a reward once, bringing in whipped cream and sprinkles along with her

3. The Gift of Reading
... either in the form of TIME or actual BOOKS! My students love being given a half or full class period as a reading day, but even better is when I go to Half Price Books or another discount retailer and wrap some books as "gifts" for the class. I follow it with a book talk to make sure they don't crinkle their noses at it, which helps hype the book quite a bit.

Another example: every year, Scholastic sells a cheap edition of A Christmas Carol for $1 for a limited time (usually around early to mid November). My principal lets me buy one for every 8th grader so that we can "gift" it to the kids and get REAL, authentic practice annotating in novels!

4. Movie Time
... okay, except I mean academic movie-watching. Since my school *somewhat* follows the Common Core, I have standards that include comparing texts with their film versions. I made a pack of activities to compare novels and movies, and that has helped me teach the movies for The Giver, The Outsiders, and A Christmas Carol in grades 7 and 8!

5. A Contest
Nothing riles up teens and tweens like a little competition. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Random Draw: Put some stickers on a few pencils in a jar, and let them draw randomly. Though all students get to keep their pencils, the stickered ones can get a bonus prize! (Pro Tip: You could always pair that activity with reading the short story "The Lottery"! Ha!)
  • Campaigning: Give each student an index card or piece of paper; tell them that they have to nominate another student in the class to win a prize, and they must persuade me on their choice. This should hopefully elicit some selfless responses from teens, and you can determine who really needs some bonus kindness right now!
  • Class/Group Competition: Whether academic or not, have a little small group competition OR have your class periods compete against each other. Have a grand prize and a consolation prize for everyone else. 
  • Individual Contest: Have a contest with mandatory individual participation, and reward the top 5-10 winners. (Perhaps a Best Pun Contest to teach verbal irony? A short story writing contest? A reading-related one?)

What other ideas do you have for student gifts? Share them below!

Holidays can be tricky in schools, especially public schools. Some schools even have restrictions for teachers on how they can address the holidays in their classrooms. I share several ideas for you to celebrate winter holidays in this post, including if you can't acknowledge any particular holidays, if you want to include all holidays, and if you want to focus on just one.

Here's a fair dilemma: how do you celebrate the holidays in English class, especially if you teach in a public (or highly diverse) school?

All teachers want to be inclusive and promote safe classroom environments for every student's beliefs... but that can be tough to do when student attention spans are short (and holiday celebrations would increase buy-in.) Plus, you probably don't have a lot of TIME to promote the holidays, right? Your curriculum might be tight, or perhaps you need any activities to be REALLY justified to stakeholders.

Here are some ideas for lessons with different degrees of holiday integration. Feel free to pick and choose what is most appropriate for your building, students, and curriculum!

No matter what your situation, steal one of these low-stress ideas and teach while "laughing all the way" to winter break!

Situation #1: No holidays at all
No winter holidays? No problem! There's more than one way to still make a connection.
  • Focus on common themes, like Kindness. I've successfully done different variations of my Random Acts of Kindness project for each of the past three years, depending on how much time I had. Incorporate whichever parts you have time for, and see what discussions emerge! 
  • Focus on New Year's. Whether you take a goal-setting angle or just want students to briefly reflect on what's old and what's possible, everyone can relate to the "fresh start" that's ahead. Use this FREE countdown activity full of prompts to help your class count down to midnight (or use it in the new year).
  • Hang white lights, paper chains, and/or snowflakes. Focus on a winter theme and keep your room as cozy and bright in the dreary darkness as possible!
Holidays can be tricky in schools, especially public schools. Some schools even have restrictions for teachers on how they can address the holidays in their classrooms. I share several ideas for you to celebrate winter holidays in this post, including if you can't acknowledge any particular holidays, if you want to include all holidays, and if you want to focus on just one.

Situation #2: Equal inclusion of all holidays
Have the green light to celebrate Christmas, as long as it's equally combined with other faiths or traditions? You have some really cool possibilities!
  • Bring in research, debate, or nonfiction. After picking their own holiday, students can acquire research skills "in disguise" of a holiday celebration. Seize the opportunity to teach something more "dry", such as primary/secondary sources, MLA citations, credible sources, etc. It might also be the perfect time for a Socratic Seminar, debate, four corners, gallery walk (of their research findings), or other type of talking. 
  • Read "The Gift of the Magi". Even though it's kind of about Christmas, it has universal themes (giving, poverty, love, selflessess) that the world REALLY needs, as well as some serious bang for your literary buck (difficult text, situational irony, and symbolism galore). Plus, you could follow it up with creative writing; what would a modern-day version of this story look like? What would this story look like in another culture or faith?

Situation #3: Little/No Limits on Christmas
Maybe you're in a Christian/Catholic school, maybe everyone in your room is celebrating Christmas, or you just don't have any restriction on it.
  • Read A Christmas Carol! I have SO much love for this novella, and I teach it every November/December to eighth graders. 
  • Go cross-curricular. See if the history teacher wants to team up on a lesson or project (the history of a culture or element of Christmas?), if the math teacher wants to talk about charitable giving, or if the science teacher wants to do a STEM project with you about the science of baking.  

Thanks for reading! 

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