Summer vacation is on the horizon, with a month (or maybe less) to go. The hard work you’ve put in throughout the school year has paid off. Your room hums with productivity and wonder, at least most of the time.

You’re almost there, but don’t relax the reins quite yet. Students can get antsy as the end of the year approaches, and without an end-of-year plan, the days can begin to spin out of control.

As a 14-year veteran who has taught grades 1–8 in five different schools, I’ve had a diversity of experience within a variety of school cultures. This has forced me to create systems and strategies that can be easily adjusted depending upon the school and grade I am teaching. I have a “playbook” of practical tips, which I think of like a teachers’ lounge conversation, that I use to approach different times in the school year, such as back-to-school night, field trips, and the final weeks of school. Here are a few strategies to help us all end on a high note!

Drive the Curriculum to the Very End

Why waste the few remaining weeks of school with “free time,” parties, and meaningless work?

Instead, put your students’ acquired skills into action. If your curriculum allows, create a project that combines subjects. Kids can work in groups, focusing on an assignment that is both fun and challenging. If this seems overwhelming, then plan publishing parties, art exhibitions, and/or math games and presentations and invite families to participate.

A good book is an effective way to carry you through the final weeks or days of the school year. Whether you’re working in small reading groups or doing a class read-aloud, using literature through the end of the year is a handrail that many teachers find useful.

But the book had better be good! For example, although I had completed our yearlong study of the American Revolution, I continued reading the series we had started in September until the end of June. The last week of school, we divided the series into chunks so that small groups of students could write and illustrate summaries of the different parts of the protagonist’s life.

We ended this project—a handmade illustrated guidebook to the series that we shared with other classes—the day before school let out for summer. That helped other teachers who were struggling with end-of-year projects. We also inspired a lot of kids to read the series over the summer. It was
a win for our class and for the school community.

Give Students the Reins

If your students have proved themselves by showing they are responsible, work well together, and respect your systems, let them run the show. This doesn’t mean you loosen your demand that they follow routines or continue to meet high expectations—it simply means they’ve earned more responsibility.

When I taught elementary school, I assigned seats. But in the last few weeks, I would let students sit where they wanted to at certain times of the day. I’d explain, “You’ve proved to me that you can be responsible and make good choices, so I am happy to let you take on more responsibility. Feel free to sit where you feel you will do your best.” The students loved it, and the extra accountability brought out the best in them.

This can even extend to the morning meeting. You’ve been running it for the past 165 days. It’s time to let someone else give it a go. Let a small, rotating group of students plan and run the meeting while you become a proud participant, watching your students take over with ease.

Now that I teach middle school, I allow students to help design some of our last assignments. They plan the skills they want to incorporate into our final projects and specify how they want to be graded.

Finish With a Positive Message

All kids look forward to summer vacation, but for those who struggled throughout the academic year, whether because of behavioral or academic difficulties or out-of-school issues, the end of the year can be a relief and feel like a chance to move on. Their parents might feel the same. Reach out to these students and families with a positive message. It will send them into the summer break feeling better about a school year that you all know was not easy.

For these students, if you haven’t done so already, create some guaranteed “wins.” Even if it’s simply having them erase the board, sharpen pencils, bring the attendance log to the office, or serve as line leader, be sure they get to do something that makes them feel good about themselves. Even if you cannot seem to find anything they do well, make up something that will bolster their self-esteem.

My dad, a motivational speaker, developed a tool to help people remember their personal achievements. Participants write down the “victories” they experienced during the day or week so they can reflect upon them. This can be an effective way to remind that kid who struggled throughout the year that he or she had some significant accomplishments. They can take their “victory list” home and reread it to help them get ready for the next school year; encourage them to add to their list throughout the summer. Also suggest that they begin a new list in the fall so they can review an ongoing compendium of wins to illustrate, edit, and bring home.

To finish on a positive note with parents, share the successes their child had over the year. Even if the relationship between you and the family was strained, share an appreciation of their child with them. If an in-person meeting will devolve into a rehashing of conflicts from earlier in the year, then give them a call or write an e-mail. You want parents to head into the fall feeling optimistic about their relationship with the school and their child’s teachers.

Leave It How You Want to See It

The last kid just walked out the door, giving you a hug and a bunch of rainbow-colored pencils and cherry-flavored whistles. (I could write an entire article about the bizarre gifts teachers receive.) You’ve cleaned up most things and thrown a few others in random boxes and shoved them into the corner.

You’re ready to walk out the door. But wait.

Picture this: You’ve finished an awesome workout at the gym. You’re sweaty and feel great. Instead of washing those socks, you leave them in your shoes. A week later, when you go back to the gym, you need to find a clean pair of socks or cancel your workout.

Think of your classroom the same way. Do not slack on cleaning and packing up. I know—you’re done in. But when you come back, the last thing you want to do is reorganize. You want to open your classroom door and feel like the room is pretty much set up. Short of pressing a button and—BAM!—magically having everything fall into place, how can you best ensure you won’t walk into chaos in the fall?

Give your students jobs, enlist friends to help, and label everything with your name, room number, and contents. When school begins, you’ll be able to spend time planning for the upcoming year and not searching for your stapler and those rainbow-colored pencils.

Whether it’s your 30th year or your first, everyone deserves congratulations when the school year ends. Your students, their families, and you can now rest easy over the summer knowing you ended the year with passion and creativity. Finishing strong will lead to returning strong in the fall.

Otis Kriegel has trained hundreds of new teachers. He is the author of Everything a New Elementary School Teacher REALLY Needs to Know (But Didn’t Learn in College). He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City.

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Image: Liav Zabari