Between holiday concerts and tallying grades, finding perfect presents, and the rush to fit in required lessons, the weeks just before the December break can seem more like a season of stress than a season of cheer. Hold on a little longer though . . . your exhausting first months of teaching are almost behind you, and the upcoming holiday break will be rejuvenating. In the interim, here are some sanity-saving solutions to help you manage the December crunch.
1. December Crunch: Your planning book for 2009 is empty. Sure, you took time out during the summer months to think about your first term, but there never seems to be enough time to develop ideas for January and beyond.
Sanity-Saving Solution: First, congratulate yourself on the hard work you put into teaching so far and know that many teachers worry about lack of time to prepare lessons. It's a top cause of teacher stress. Develop a workable plan, such as setting aside even 20 minutes a day to get a project like term-planning off the ground. Once you get started, it's easier to keep the momentum going.
"One way to begin is by thinking about your end-of-year goals for your students, then work backwards. It helps focus your planning," says Carolyn Orange, author of 44 Smart Strategies for Avoiding Classroom Mistakes (Corwin Press, 2005). Teacher Erika Dhen of Philadelphia swears by this method. She suggests gathering notes, lessons, and reproducibles into folders by month, and then later sorting monthly folders into ones for each week.
2. December Crunch: You feel like the Grinch with no time in the schedule for a holiday party in the classroom. With state tests looming in the spring, there's just too much material to cover. You can't seem to justify spending an afternoon on a party.
Sanity-Saving Solution: Holiday parties don't have to be straight-up festivities and fruit punch. Think about how you can combine your teaching goals with your celebration. (You may be required to do so by your district anyway.) Try giving your party a reading theme. Host an afternoon of holiday and wintertime reading and snacks. The December New Teacher Survival Guide offers some great recommendations in Bookshelf Bests for grades K–5 and grades 6–8. You'll be meeting standards while immersing yourself in the spirit of the season.
3. December Crunch: Too many report cards to write, tests to correct, gifts to buy, cards to sign and send, and decorating to do.
Sanity-Saving Solution: Consider handing over some grading to your students. "Self-monitoring allows kids to feel invested in their work," says Susan Stackhouse, a middle-school teacher in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Her students graph their progress in math, writing, and spelling. Stackhouse frequently checks their work to make sure they're on track. And don't worry . . . you needn't have started this system in August. Students can spend time going through their own spelling tests — or check a class set against a key. It's a great review for end-of-term assessment. As for writing report-card comments, try to write one or two report cards each night. Keep a list of helpful phrases close at hand. Check out Just the Right Words: 201 Report Card Comments (© 2003 Scholastic).
4. December Crunch: Your friends have fallen to the bottom of your to-do list. You had such high hopes. Back in September, you'd planned to host a stunning holiday party; by October you'd downgraded that plan to a lunch. Now, you wish you'd never even heard of "Secret Santa."
Sanity-Saving Solution: "Simplify the holidays," says Betsy Taylor, author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy (Warner Books, 2003), and you'll reduce stress and increase personal fulfillment. She suggests "gifts of time and gifts of your experience, talent, or expertise." So bake holiday cookies if you love to bake, but don't if you don't! If you love to decorate, offer to do a bulletin board. If you have an interactive whiteboard down cold, teach a friend for an hour. If everyone shares a talent, it could be the richest holiday ever.
5. December Crunch. Holiday crafts — where's Martha Stewart when you need her? The teacher down the hall is planning to have her kids make beautiful holiday candles (handmade during their pioneer unit) as holiday gifts. If you have the supplies and energy, you were thinking about construction-paper greeting cards in ten minutes on a Friday afternoon.
Sanity-Saving Solution: Here's a low-cost present parents will appreciate, plus it connects to the standards. Have students write poems about a perfect winter day or an especially memorable day. Then create an MP3 of each child reading his or her poem aloud. This is easier than it sounds. All you need is a microphone and sound recording software, which comes standard in most computers. Track down a tech-savvy colleague or classroom parent to help you. Make a compilation of the students reading their poems by burning the MP3s onto a CD for each family. Presto: instant heirloom. For more ideas, check out Classroom Activities: Celebrating Holidays and Wintertime.
6. December Crunch: You can't remember when you last had a few minutes of peace. There's no doubt about it — 'tis the season for a fried-out Palm Pilot. It can be tough to take time out to appreciate how much progress your kids have made since the school year started, the beauty of (and your students' wonder at) the first snowfall, and the good things you have going in your life and in your career.
Sanity-Saving Solution: Take a deep breath. You'll be modeling a different approach to the holiday rush than your kids may be accustomed to seeing. "Teachers often create an atmosphere that says never taking a breath is the way to be in the world," says Dory Adams, a leadership coach and former librarian in Silver Spring, Maryland. "To the extent that you can create something else, do it!" Adams suggests asking students for their input on how to spend five minutes in the morning, five minutes at midday, and five minutes at the end of the day to have a peaceful moment. Then follow through on their ideas. It may be the best time you spend all season.
This article originally appeared in Instructor magazine, published by Scholastic.