Three months into the school year, I find myself reflecting on my teaching practice a lot. I started the year feeling frustrated that everything was so different, most of what I enjoy about teaching is gone, and students were more difficult to engage in learning than I had ever experienced before.
Now, as we round the corner into December, I’m realizing that within this very different school year, there are also things to rediscover – things I had lost or forgotten about somewhere in working full time, parenting, dealing with personal issues, trying to survive.
Here are a few of the things that I find are really working this year that I hope to continue once we’re on the other side of this whole mess (and we will, one day, be living in a world where “pandemic” isn’t the word of the year).
Focus on the Big Ideas. All too often, I get caught up in all of the specific expectations in the curriculum. My class goes off on tangents. We get far, far away from the “big ideas” – the key takeaways in each unit. Usually, I’m able to get us back on track after a while, but “a while” isn’t a luxury this year affords.
To keep myself focused, I’ve been posting the big ideas in my classroom. Having them visible – to both students and myself – helps us remember what the point is. My students will connect their learning directly to those big ideas during discussions. It’s helped us have more targeted, intentional conversations about Social Studies and Science in particular.
Don’t be afraid to go back to fundamental skills. This year, I’m teaching a 4/5 split. My grade fours (16 of my 25 students) are in their first year of French Immersion, some with no French exposure at all before the first day of school. My grade fives have been in immersion since last year. The last time I taught this split, I mainly kept very early literacy skills (phonics, word sorts, etc.) to my grade four students because the grade fives were already able to decode, read with decent fluency, etc.
This year, I don’t really have the same ability to split the class and teach only one grade. My grade four students still needed instruction on French phonics, though, and rather than giving the fives independent work during those lessons, I decided I would just include everyone in these lessons. The whole class will do short “chalk and sock”-style lessons, for example – which is a lot to manage with 25 students, but not impossible.
A few months later, I can look back and say that was absolutely the right call. My grade fours are making great progress (some even further ahead this year than I would normally see by December!) and my grade fives have shown huge improvements in their literacy skills. They may have seemed “beyond” these lessons at the start of the year, but that didn’t mean that the lessons would be worthless to them. The extra practice has given them a big boost this year.
Next year, should I find myself teaching grade 5 again, I’ll likely continue whole-class lessons on phonics, spelling patterns, etc.
Not everything needs to be a big, creative, grandiose project. I really love finding creative ways to teach concepts and have my students show me what they know. My students generally love them, too. This year, though, it’s difficult to find the time or energy to come up with the same level of engaging tasks as I normally would. I’ve had to scale back my plans and teach in a much more traditional way for some concepts.
At first, I was worried about it. Would my students be miserable? Would they learn as much as they usually do? How deep would their understanding be? While I will admit their engagement in some tasks is lower than I would see in a normal year, I can confidently say that they are still learning what they need to learn. It’s not as fun to teach and they don’t get as excited about it, but they ARE learning.
This is an important lesson for me, because I often take on too much at work due to guilt over not being the super fun, creative, quirky teacher with the wild ideas. I needed the reminder that it’s really, really okay to step back and scale it down. My students will still be learning.
Finally, I REALLY need to get better about packing up well at the end of the day. I sheepishly admit that I have, in pre-pandemic times, been that teacher who has come to school sick because everything was in too much of a shambles to even know where to start planning for an OT. The pandemic really snapped me out of that mindset, but I have a long, long way to go in leaving my classroom “OT-ready” at the end of the day. I still find myself saying, “It’s fine, I’ll put those away tomorrow morning.” Except I can’t be certain that I will be back in tomorrow morning. I could wake up symptomatic and have to get a COVID test. I could have to stay home with one of my children. I could be put in self-isolation unexpectedly.
I know myself well enough to know that I’ll never be one of those teachers who can leave a perfectly tidy desk and classroom at the end of the day, but I can at least try to be better than I have been in the past. I’m getting there – it’s just slow.
I’m sure these won’t be the last little revelations that I have this year. I know none of these are new ideas – it’s just been interesting to suddenly see them differently or be reminded of their value.
Has the pandemic surprised anyone else with some teaching strategies or practices that have worked well and that you want to continue when we’re “back to normal”?