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Six (Slightly Conflicting) Tips for Returning From Winter Break Strong

Coming back from winter break poses unique challenges, so you need to be prepared with a unique plan.

January 1st

By The TFA Editorial Team

January 4, 2013

Coming back from any vacation and starting work again is challenging, but returning to school after winter break is by far the toughest feat. You trade in your holiday gluttony, shiny new presents and plodding around your house in warm flannel pajamas for cold weather, short days, and the realization you’re still about 100 days from the end of the year. For a month, the radio has been telling you it’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” and you know damn well no one’s singing about January.

With normal jobs, you can glare angrily at your computer and be a hermit in your cubicle until you’re ready to act like a real human being again. No such luck in teaching. Not only do you have to muster enough enthusiasm to get yourself back in gear, but you’ve also got to get a room full of young people going, too. Your kids have been enjoying the same holiday bliss as you, and they’ve become pretty accustomed to not hearing you talk at them about independent clauses, the Alamo and the role of the endoplasmic reticulum.

With that, I give you my six (slightly conflicting) tips for returning from winter break strong. Why slightly conflicting? Well, coming back from winter break poses unique challenges, so you need to be prepared with a unique plan. Hey, if you wanted a straightforward gig, you would have become an accountant.

Tip #1: Be honest...

You know it. Your kids know it. Actually, anyone who’s ever been in school knows it. School in January can be tough. So be honest and tell your kids that coming back from winter break is challenging, and invest your class in meeting that challenge together. I’m showing my kids the graph showing first-year teachers’ attitudes toward teaching by month – the one showing the giant dip marked “Disillusionment” in January. I’ll use the graph to say it’s not just them, that all students and teachers struggle to come back strong from break, and that we’ll have to work hard to get past the initial struggles. I find my kids react well when I’m up front and honest with them, even if that means being the bearer of unpleasant truths.

Tip #2: … but be ready with rewards.

Even if you’re honest about the challenge your kids face in coming back from winter vacation, that doesn’t make it any less challenging. So, be ready to reward them early and often for remembering your procedures and doing good academic work. I have a class points system to reward classes when 100 percent of kids are doing the right thing. Normally, classes will earn about 10 a day, and earn rewards once every two to three weeks. The first week back from break, I’m doubling the points they can earn for nailing procedures and making their first reward (the ever-popular flaming dollar bill) come after only one week. I’m also going to be very generous with tickets, which is my individual reward system.

Are extrinsic rewards less powerful long-term than intrinsic ones? Yes. Will my kids be more likely to meet expectations and shake off the post-break rust when they know there’s some fire involved? Hell yes.

Tip #3: Assume they forgot everything...

Remember those procedures your kids have practiced all fall, and the expectations you’ve worked hard to instill? Well, those habits died sometime over the past week while your kids were watching re-runs of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Some kids will actually have forgotten your procedures; some will have limited interest in remembering them after a long period of unstructured time at home. Either way, they need practice.

Assuming your kids forgot everything isn’t a slight to your kids. Think of it as protecting them from your frustration. If you proactively remind students of the expectations and remodel what should be done in class, you stop yourself from acting reactively (and likely angrily) when students don’t meet expectations.

Tip #4: ...but don’t re-teach all of your expectations at once.

My classroom runs on an abundance of expectations and procedures. One of my kids recently told another teacher that she behaves in my class because there are so many rules, she assumes she can’t do anything but work and learn. That said, on the first day back from break, I am going to review three procedures: how to enter class silently and write a Do Now, how to do a think-pair-share, and how to leave. That’s it. We’ll have plenty of time later to review everything else, but those are the routines I rely on the most, so those are the ones that I want to be perfect the soonest. Your kids will go crazy if you try to re-teach every expectation the first day back from break, both because they won’t be able to remember it all and because they’ll resent doing nothing but practicing procedures.

Tip #5: Make sure your class meets your expectations...

A veteran teacher once modeled how not to sit in a chair for me. She didn’t have her feet up, and she was sort of pulled into her desk, but she was definitely not fully sitting like a student should. She encouraged me to make sure that students fixed their chairs immediately, or the expectation of how to sit at your desk would erode and look worse and worse over time.

I tell this story because you should NOT tell yourself at any point, “It’s the first day back, so it’s OK if it’s not perfect.” If a procedure is important enough to practice and get right, make sure your kids get it right! This fits well with Tip #4 above. It’s a lot less onerous to have your kids practice and nail three procedures than nine procedures. Once your kids have remembered those initial expectations, then they’ll be ready to use those as a foundation for practicing other elements of your classroom structure in the days after.

Tip #6: ...and then release responsibility, and let your kids learn!

You will be nervous to release responsibility to your kids after the long break. It is entirely possible, you tell you tell yourself, that within minutes of letting your kids practice, there will be loudness, running around, and several small fires.

Get over it. You need your kids quiet and listening for some part of class, so you can review expectations and give directions. But after that, let them go! They can’t sit and listen to you forever, and they need to shake off their rust and get back to work. This doesn’t mean that you can’t keep reinforcing important expectations after you release your kids. My first day back, I’m going to practice two procedures with the whole class, and then send them off to do a gallery walk to remind them of some other important elements of class that they might have forgotten.

This is not a magic formula, and I’m pretty sure that no matter what I write here, the first wake-up is still going to sting. However, if you set the right plan, you’ll help both you and your kids get back in a groove quickly.