The end is in sight, so aim for a sprint finish

13th June 2014 at 01:00
If the school year were a race, we'd be entering the home straight. Follow our tips to avoid hitting the wall in these final few weeks

For cyclists and runners who specialise in long distances, the fear of "hitting the wall" before the end of the race is ever-present. The sudden loss of strength and energy that can strike during extreme physical exertion has to be prevented or the competition, for them, is over.

Teachers who are reading this probably feel that they are approaching a wall of their own. The school year can seem like a marathon and, as the finish line of summer appears on the horizon, the wall is a constant threat. Avoiding it requires effort and skill, so how can we tap into the reserves of positivity and strength that will carry us through to the end?

What to do in the classroom

It is essential to remember the extent to which we influence students when it comes to mood and attitude. If you are running low on energy and enthusiasm, it may be time for a bit of acting - or a bit more than usual. It's not uncommon for pupils to also appear drained as the end of the school year approaches, or to feel anxious about everything that is left to do; if we project negative feelings, we increase the odds that our students will give in to theirs. Present a cheerful facade, no matter how difficult that is. Try a warm smile, an enthusiastic greeting, perhaps some upbeat pop music as pupils arrive at your classroom.

Just as students are influenced by our mood, we draw on theirs; if they are energised, we will be too. Motivate them by mixing up the routine. It might be a good time for pupils to perform an amusing role play that relates to your topic, or to create a good-natured spoof of something they have learned. Seek out a fun take on your subject matter for students to read, view or listen to.

Your class may also benefit from looking backwards rather than forwards. This is the ideal time to review the work they completed at the beginning of the year; not only do such exercises help students to see how far they've come but they also give them the chance to feel older and wiser. Remember, you may have been through the school calendar many times, but every year is new and different for the children.

A colleague of mine suggests a similarly reflective exercise: asking students to write a letter to next year's class. This gives them an opportunity to put the year into perspective and to take on the role of helpful, authoritative guide. And this activity may pay off next year when you share their advice with your new students.

Another colleague reminds me that reflection on student growth is a sure-fire way for teachers to inspire themselves. After all, that is why we teach, and it's worth pausing to remind ourselves of our successes and to draw energy from them.

Learn to help yourself

In addition to being inspired by our current students, we can sometimes boost our spirits by focusing on the future. This may sound counter-intuitive: thinking about two school years at once can seem overwhelming. However, while I often recall something that hasn't gone so well when I reflect on the past year, my feelings of regret fade as I consider what I can do to get better. It can be energising to make notes or preliminary plans for next year's classes - just the broad strokes, enough to remind you that new beginnings lie ahead, providing opportunities to improve.

And it sounds simple, but if you are feeling fed up, try to do something for someone else. If you are in need of a pick-me-up at school, the chances are that someone else is too, and thinking of others may lift your spirits. Baked goods and coffee generally raise smiles where I work. Or perhaps you are in a position to offer some kind of assistance to a colleague.

How leaders can enthuse staff

If you are a school leader, you may be looking for ways to motivate your staff for a strong finish. Just as teachers do with students, you can remind staff of their accomplishments over the past year or preview something great about next year. Acknowledgements always go a long way - and the more sincere and specific, the better. If you can free up people's time by shortening or cancelling a meeting, go for it. And remember the power of those baked goods.

The end-of-year period is a struggle for everyone involved in education; constantly giving 100 per cent takes its toll. But now we are so close to that well-earned break, we must help each other to avoid hitting the wall. We work hard to get our students to the finishing line, but we need to get there, too.

David B Cohen is a high school English teacher in California, US, and associate director of teacher leadership network Accomplished California Teachers

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