Back to school, fellow teachers! Here are 7 tips to handle our angst.

If you’re new to a school, make friends with teachers and colleagues. Unpack and settle in. Be flexible with change.

A kindergarten classroom with text overlaid on top of the image reading: Back to School.
Here are some tips, teachers, to soothe that annual back-to-school angst. (Source: Mint Images / Getty | Photo Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat)

As the new school year begins across the country, teacher and columnist Dr. Kem Smith offers advice for teachers at every stage of their careers. She’ll return to answering your questions next week. You can submit them here.

A cartoon by the late James Estes in “Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul” shows two kids standing in their shiny new school clothes and backpacks outside a classroom door. There is a sliver of the teacher’s head visible through the small window. The caption reads, “We know you are in there, Ms. May - we can see you. Open the door.”

While the cartoon is meant to be funny, new school year worries can be debilitating to even the most seasoned teacher. But, there are ways to avoid that angst. 

As teachers, we must remember to consider what we can control. We are faced with so many challenges. If we get bogged down in every detail of every problem, we will never be able to create the teacher work-life balance we need.

How to navigate new-year angst

- If you’re a new teacher, get help! New teachers often think they can operate on the same level as 10- and 20-year veterans. The benefit of being new means you know what you learned in school and what you experienced as a student teacher. 

Having your own classroom is a different experience. You have to talk through your thoughts about learning (metacognition) with a person who can brainstorm solutions.

- If you’ve moved to a new school, hopefully, you were able to get unpacked and settled before the new school year. Step out of your comfort zone and find a way to make new friends at work. Teacher friends are the best; they will show you how to win in the classroom and with parents. When they invite you to lunch, go. 

Use all the skills we teach our students to make connections. And, don’t forget to connect with the staff. Stay late and meet the night custodian; come in early and greet the cafeteria workers, librarian, and coaches. If you win them over early, these colleagues will be your allies with students, families, and the bosses.

- If your classroom environment feels chaotic, be attentive to possible solutions. As the practitioner, you have the front-row seat to learning loss and can often determine when connections are broken. 

I have gone home feeling defeated after a long day of trying to teach a new concept. Before bed, I meditate on solutions asking myself, “How can I relate this material to something familiar to the students?”  When I wake in the morning, I have at least 2-3 ideas I can implement to improve my classroom success.

- If you’re teaching a new subject or grade level, it doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel. Talk to other teachers about the class. They will have a stack of resources that could fill a football stadium. It’s a mistake to try to read through everything in one sitting. Tag the resources that look interesting and group them by theme. Use planning time to read over and incorporate whenever possible. 

- If this is your first time back in person since the pandemic, incorporate safety measures that matter the most to you. There are over 100 teachers in our building. Some wear masks, some don’t. Some use personal air purifiers or take other precautions. 

Your health is your personal business. No one should pry into what you choose to do.

- If you have a new supervisor/administrator/department chair, give your new boss the opportunity to gain some experience and familiarize themselves with the building. Also, consider being flexible with any changes they propose. Organizations may operate under a “that’s the way we’ve always done things” mentality, while outsiders can see the error in maintaining the status quo. Allow new leadership the chance to learn for themselves that your way may be best.

- If your best teacher friend left your school, cry! No, I’m kidding. You may feel like crying, but part of being a healthy, whole individual means accepting change. 

The pain of losing a friend can be reduced with all the technology available at our fingertips. Wouldn’t it be great to become pen pals with your former co-worker? If your friend took on a corporate position, can he or she use volunteer hours to assist your class? Think of all the ways you both can benefit from a continued relationship even if it means you meet for brunch or snow cones.

I hope these tips will help you in the new school year.

There has been a surge of comedians with stand-up routines about teaching. Everyone finds a way to laugh about what we take seriously every day. Maybe, we can find some humor in our profession as well.

I have learned that what frightens you in August and September will make you laugh in June. 

Even in the moment, find and choose joy.

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.

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