Making It Work:
Preparing Mind, Body and Spirit for a New School Year
It is that time of the summer for most of us to begin thinking about the new school year. With some planning and preparation, I am working to avoid the beginning of the year physical and mental exhaustion that sets in during the first few weeks of returning to work. Here are some of the strategies I plan to use to make the transition from my free and easy summer schedule to my rigid work schedule as seamless as possible.
Preparing My Body
To physically prepare my body for the transition back to work I will start going to bed and waking up at my normal work times two weeks before the first report day. Will I keep my schedule every night? Probably not. My husband will want to go to a baseball game or some other fun event will pop up and if I resume my sleep schedule on most nights I will be in a better place physically when I go back to work.
Along with resuming my sleep schedule, I will begin eating my meals at roughly the same time as my work schedule. I am lucky to know when my lunch and planning period will be ahead of time. If you don’t have your class schedule before you return, eating breakfast at your usual time and setting a lunch and snack time for the last two weeks of summer break will let your body get used to eating in a routine again after the freedom of summer grazing.
I will also begin warming up my voice, and spend some time talking to just about anyone or anything for a period of time each day. I do not have children at home and during the summer I can have entire days of no speaking when my husband is at work. It is a great time of healing for my voice, and easing back into speaking for the classroom everyday will help me to fight off the hoarseness that can surface after the first week or two of teaching.
I am a pretty active person all the time. If you are more of a couch potato during the summer or you take a summer desk job you may want to up the activity level each day for about two weeks. Go for a walk, do some stretching or hit the treadmill while you watch your favorite show. This will ease your body back into being on your feet and moving all day when you return to work.
Preparing for Healthy Eating
Next on my list is to plan ahead for healthy eating. Over the summer I have been creating plans for prepping healthy lunches for the week. I have adopted a new eating plan for myself under the guidance of a nutritionist which will require a new lunch plan for the upcoming year. I prep lunches for the whole week on Sunday, so I just have to “grab and go” the rest of the week.
My sister is also a music educator and has four school aged children. She sits down with them on Sunday afternoon and they read the school lunch menu. The kids decide which days they want to buy or pack for the week, then the children help to pre-pack their lunches. They store perishables in the fridge and each child just loads up their lunch box the night before on pack days.
Not having to worry about daily lunches frees up a lot of time for me during the week and makes it more likely that I will eat a healthy lunch and snack at work. I take some time on Saturday to meal plan/prep dinners ahead for each week. I make a shopping list based on what I plan to cook so I have everything on hand ahead of time and don’t have to think about dinner. In fall and winter, I often make a large pot of soup or stew in the crock pot, or roast a chicken that can serve several meals. If I make something that easily freezes, like a meat loaf, I make double then freeze the extra for a busy evening down the road. If you have older children, having them plan and prepare one meal a week can help too. Another friend, who is also a music educator, makes breakfast casseroles on Sunday so her family has breakfast on hand each morning. Many people find success with meal kits, crockpot dump recipes, or sheet pan meals. Whatever your plan, having one will make it more likely you will eat a home-cooked meal rather than being tempted with take out.
I have also been working on a hydration plan for the return of the busy school schedule. Many educators don’t get enough water during the day because busy teaching schedules make running to the restroom difficult, if not impossible. Planning when to drink, and setting a goal for how much you will drink to optimize hydration, is an important aspect of self-care that can help you to stay healthy throughout the year.
Preparing for Teaching and Learning
I have a few teacher friends who return to work, set up the classroom, and spend two to three solid “binge” work days and are ready to go. This is so not how I function. I like to set aside a few hours each week to work on planning and curriculum to spread it out over the summer months. If you need time to detach, perhaps taking time over the last few weeks of break to check off tasks may work better for you.
I sort tasks into two groups, ones that can be completed from home and the others that need to be completed at school. When I am at school, I focus on the tasks that need to be done in the classroom while saving the others for rainy afternoons when I have extra time at home. If you have young children, team up with another teacher and offer to watch their kids while they work in the classroom then switch roles the next day. Older children can help with tasks that don’t require your attention. In my district, I can sign up for National Honor Society students to help with beginning of the year tasks. I make a list of jobs I don’t need to do myself. The students get service hours while I get tasks checked off the list — it’s a win-win for both of us! I like to set learning goals, and identify lessons, songs, and activities to facilitate learning for each quarter. This makes both weekly and day-to-day planning a lot easier. See my blog post on long range planning for more details on how I plan for the year ahead.
Preparing for Sanity
When I think of all of the things I need to do to prepare for the upcoming year, I often feel overwhelmed and will literally find myself walking in circles in my classroom, not knowing where to start. I have developed some strategies (based on suggestions from one of my Summer Professional Reading List books from last year: Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of REAL Productivity by Charles Duhigg.) to keep myself sane and on task.
First, I set goals for myself; long term, short term, teaching and learning goals and personal goals. (See Dr. Christa Kuebel’s blog post for more detail on goal setting for self-care.) Secondly, each morning I create a manageable to-do list. I prioritize tasks that need to be met today and add future dates to items that can be completed later. If I finish earlier than planned, I know what to do next. If I am delayed, I have checked off the most important tasks first and know what to start with the next day. When creating to-do lists at the beginning of the year, I account for time to catch up with colleagues and interruptions. It is going to happen, so I block out the time. Planning for time to catch up allows me to set reasonable limits on social time. At the end of each day, I take five minutes to assess what I accomplished, celebrate my personal “wins” and prioritize tasks for the next day.
This practice has been transformative in my personal and professional life. I am able to manage my work and time more effectively and “hair on fire” moments are fewer and further between. In the beginning of the school year, it can be easy to commit to things while I am rested and fresh and find myself overwhelmed later on. When I am asked to join a few more committees, or add one more performance, I ask for time to consider if I will be able to offer my best efforts to the new task. I look over my calendar and honestly access if it is something I can manage effectively. If not, I advocate for myself, my family and my students.
When I am over burdened with non-teaching tasks and projects, the quality of instruction and interactions with students suffers. Saying “no” to things I don’t NEED to do is saying “yes” to myself, my family and my students. I know this is easier said than done. I have found as long as I am sincere and truthful, people understand when I cannot add another commitment and respect that decision. A new action I will take this year is to review and reflect on my work experiences from last year, identify times when I needed assistance and ask for help early. Often, I realize I need help when it is too late to ask. Planning ahead to identify parents, students, other teachers and staff who can assist will help to take the pressure off when the busy times roll around.
Empower Myself for Successful Change
Change is difficult, even positive change. It is easy to get started and then find myself falling into old routines when the going gets tough. I send emails to my “future self” to remind myself to stay on track, refresh goals and to take time for self-care. I use this website. I seek out coworkers with a positive outlook and let them in on my goals and ask about theirs. We all get frustrated with the “crazy” in education and need to let off some steam. Amazing and beautiful things happen with children in every school every day. When I spend my time with co-workers who find the positive and the beautiful and talk about breakthroughs and success more often than complain my outlook improves no matter how difficult the hurtles may be. I am learning to acknowledge problems and focus on what I can change and control. Adopting this outlook has enabled me to keep fresh and focused at the most stressful moments, stay positive (most of the time) and celebrate successes with students and staff.
This is my plan to prepare for my return to school after summer break. What are you doing to prepare for a smooth transition from summer to work? Share your ideas in the comments on the blog so we can help each other find a happy transition into the new school year, and “Make it Work.”