[WARNING: Long blog post alert! I tried so hard to keep it brief but it was impossible to sum up my summer abroad in so few words! Grab your coffee, get comfortable, and enjoy!]
For as long as I’ve wanted to be a teacher, I’ve also wanted to teach abroad, immersed in a culture different from my own. This dream of mine has even taken me to visit schools in other countries, getting close to applying but not quite being able to commit to a year or two abroad (yet). During a particularly stressful school year this past year, it occurred to me that spending my summers abroad could be a perfect way to satisfy that international craving, at least a little bit. In this blog post, I want to tell you a little bit about my experience living, learning, and teaching in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and the biggest takeaways that I will bring to my practice here in the US.
Later, I will write a blog post detailing how I was able to make this work financially (spoiler alert: it was FREE!) and the steps I took to secure an amazing funding opportunity.
About the Program:
Around November of last year, I started searching for summer opportunities abroad, specifically in Spanish speaking countries. Of the students I work with, a high percentage are Latino and Spanish-speaking. A major goal of mine was to become fluent in Spanish, to the point where I could comfortably talk to a parent in Spanish or translate an IEP. A google search led me to a company called Common Ground International, a husband-wife team based in Colorado who lead Spanish immersion trips for teachers, medical professionals, and high school students. Their ‘Spanish for Educators’ program was perfect for me: 4 weeks in Nicaragua and Costa Rica working with local education-related organizations and schools, taking intensive Spanish classes with a focus on education, and living with host families in both countries. I knew this program would bring me out of my comfort zone and help me to not only become more proficient in Spanish, but also become a more culturally competent educator.
I started the program in the city of Granada, Nicaragua, a colonial city situated on the coast of Lake Nicaragua. Granada charmed me in every way imaginable, with its pastel colored buildings, bustling Parque Central, and breathtaking horizon filled with volcanoes and church steeples. But what I loved most about Granada was the people. I stayed with a host family with three generations, and was always warmly greeted with a ‘Buenos dias’ in the morning and the love they had for each other and their country was obvious.
As for the work I did in Nicaragua, our days were split in half between educational outreach in the mornings and Spanish language classes in the afternoons. During the first week, we worked with an organization called House of Hope, a refuge and safe place for women who have escaped or are still experiencing forced prostitution. I could go on for a while about the prostitution industry in Nicaragua, but I will brief here and encourage you to research it on your own if you’re interested. To put it simply, House of Hope works with some of the strongest women I will ever encounter in my life, who value their children more than anything but aren’t always comfortable parenting their children due to a lack of parental support of their own as children. Now, the idea of being a white person from the United States going into another culture and trying to be a savior is something I have a lot of issues with. Who am I to tell these women how to parent, when I don’t even have children of my own? While that is a complicated issue, our program made a point to ask the women what kind of support they needed so we could plan workshops that would actually benefit them. We ended up delivering workshops to the mothers about how to get their children involved with age-appropriate chores at home. The women were engaged in our workshop, patient with our subpar Spanish skills, and genuinely grateful for the information and resources that they could actually use with their families.
During our second week, we worked with a local school on the outskirts of Granada that serves marginalized neighborhoods or ‘shantytowns’. For families in these neighborhoods, money is scarce and education is often seen as a way out for their children. The students at the school are excited to learn and see a bright future for themselves. Since students were on break when we were there, we again put on workshops for parents. This time, the theme was more general: how to support your child’s education at home. My partner and I focused on math development, and simple ways that parents can reinforce math concepts at home as part of their daily routines like cooking or walking to school. Again, the parents were eager to hear what we had to offer and willing to share their own input on how they talk to their children about math at home.
When we weren’t working in the community, we had Spanish classes for four hours each day, focusing on education-specific usage of the language, such as how to talk to parents about their child’s progress in Spanish, or how to address student behavior in the classroom. I even learned technical, IEP-related terminology and was able to translate an IEP, one of my long-term goals! My teacher, Alvaro, was an incredibly talented educator, and I also learned some great engagement strategies and activities from my time in his class.
Overall, Nicaragua left a huge impression on me. Seeing people so dedicated to improving the lives of others through education was incredibly inspiring. The level of commitment that these parents had for their children’s education, despite difficult circumstances, was unwavering. The two weeks I spent in Nicaragua went by way too fast, and before I knew it I was hopping on a bus for a nine hour journey to Costa Rica!
Costa Rica was drastically different from Nicaragua, and I think the most emotionally challenging day for me was the day of transition between the two countries. The beautiful landscape I saw out the window was just as enchanting as Nicaragua, but as we entered the cities of San Jose and Heredia, I was struck by the economic differences. It was obvious, from the availability of American fast food chains to the (relative) lack of stray dogs to the style of dress, that Costa Rica was in a very different situation economically. This is something that I could write about in much greater detail, not that I would be qualified to do so, but again, I will keep it short here. Overall, the drastic differences in the standard of living between two nations so close geographically was shocking and tough to accept.
The work I did in the community in Costa Rica was different as well. Instead of working with parents, we spent most of our time working with students, which I was so deeply missing! Getting to interact with kids again, although challenging in my second language, brought me so much joy and energy. I was living in a small city in Heredia called Santo Domingo, a town where everyone says hello to you on the sidewalk and everyone seems to know each other. Within five minutes of meeting someone, they’d know all about my life, my boyfriend, my job, etc. The people were truly some of the warmest I’ve ever met, which is my favorite thing about Latin cultures. We spent our first week putting on an educational day camp for kids in Santo Domingo who were still on break from school. My colleagues and I set up separate learning stations, and I decided to teach the kids some of my favorite math games from my own classroom. Their eyes lit up when they found out that they could actually practice math through games. I asked if they ever played games in school and they laughed and shook their heads no. One student even got excited about a multiplication chart, something she had never seen before, exclaiming “Ay, que chiva!!” (“Oh, how cool!”). We played dice and card games, practiced our multiplication facts, listened to the Moana soundtrack in Spanish, and laughed as the kids taught me some new vocabulary. It was sad to part with the kids on the last day (one first grade boy even told us “these were the best days of my life!”) but luckily we would be seeing some of them the following week at their school!
Students in Santo Domingo were back in school the following week (my last week in Costa Rica), and we got the opportunity to work in a local public school. I got to assist the ‘Apoyo de Aprendizaje’ teacher (learning support) in her classroom where she worked with students with learning disabilities in small groups. This teacher was absolutely amazing. Everything was made into a game (unlike what students had told me the week before!) and students were so engaged and excited to learn. The school had a separate teacher and classroom for behavioral disabilities, and because I was paired with the learning support teacher I didn’t get to see much of that. But overall, it seemed to me that this school’s approach to Special Education was very effective. I saw a lot of collaboration between the special education teachers and general education teachers, and the school had a very inclusive atmosphere, even though students who needed individual attention were serviced in a separate room when necessary.
Biggest Takeaways: Why Will This Matter in My Classroom?
The most important thing for me in this whole experience was that I would be able to better serve my students as a result. Here are a few major takeaways that I believe will make me a better, more culturally-responsive educator:
Have you had any experiences teaching or learning abroad? Please share with me in the comments!
And don’t forget--I will be writing another post all about how I got this amazing opportunity for FREE! Stay tuned :)
Ahhh, the luxury of an actual lunch break. Something that we, as teachers, have become far too accustomed to giving up. I know all schools are different, but I think it's safe to assume that many teachers go without a true "break" at lunch time due to student obligations, meetings, standing in line at the copy machine, calling that parent back, and the list goes on. In fact, up until January of last year my school had a policy where teachers had to monitor their class at lunch and eat lunch with their students. That's right, there was *literally* no lunch break for teachers. Thankfully, we were able to hire some lunch monitors and finally got that 20 minutes to ourselves. However, I still find that I am usually occupied by other tasks during this time and rarely get to enjoy my lunch break.
The truth is, many days I actually do want to get that little extra bit of prep work done during my lunch break, or have a group of students stay up with me for a social skills group, but my commitment to myself this year has been to make at least 1 day per week a work-free, student-free, stress-free BREAK. Here's how I do it:
I know when to say "no".
Of course, there will always be lunch meetings from time to time. There will always be a student who needs help with homework. There will always be last minute copies to be made. However, I try my best to prioritize and allow myself to say no to some commitments in order to truly enjoy the lunch break that I am provided. My general rule of thumb is that unless a meeting or student commitment was arranged in advance, I allow myself to pass. "Yes" to the IEP meeting that has been on the calendar for weeks and can't be rescheduled. "No" to the spontaneous consult meeting that the clinician is hoping to fit in. It's totally acceptable to say "So sorry, I actually have some things I need to get done during my lunch break. I will email you and we can set up another time!" Remember: you are entitled to a break and you deserve a break. I am happy to spend an occasional lunch period helping a student catch up on missed work or working on social skills with a lunch bunch group, but to do this every day (or even several times a week) would completely deplete my energy. I know that taking a real break, even for 10 minutes, makes be a more positive, more energetic, and more effective teacher, so I know that it is OKAY to say "no".
I prep satisfying lunches ahead of time.
One of the best habits I have adopted in the last year is meal prepping. Sacrificing a few hours of my weekend to plan meals, buy groceries, and prep large batches of food has been totally worthwhile. I suffer from major decision fatigue during the school week and can't be trusted to do any cooking or meal prep on weeknights. So, on the weekend I make a basic plan for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for the week and cook large batches to store in tupperware containters in the fridge. Having a meal that is ready to go and appealing to my taste buds makes lunch time something I truly look forward to! Now, I love to cook, so spending this time prepping on the weekend is something I enjoy. If you do not enjoy the process of cooking, don't cook! Some of my favorite lunches have been from the frozen section of Trader Joe's or, my personal favorite, "teacher tapas" (aka crackers, cheese, salami, some fruit or veggies, a piece of chocolate, etc)! Keep in mind your school's microwave/refridgerator situation when planning lunches. My school has 1 microwave and by the time I reach the front of the line I have 5 minutes left of lunch, so I usually opt for meals that don't need to be heated. Click here for endless lunch inspiration!
I find the right environment for me.
This is a big one for me. I used to think I was an extrovert who loved spending time with people and would just drive myself crazy with my own thoughts if left to my own devices. That is, until I became a teacher. Talking to students and other teachers all day really zaps my energy, and this profession has taught me a lot about myself. I am (surprise!) truly an introvert. While I enjoy getting to know others, I recharge my batteries by spending time alone. For this reason, I try to spend my lunch break by myself. Since I share a classroom, I usually chat for a few minutes with my coteacher before popping in headphones to get some time to myself. When it's warm enough outside (meaning at the very beginning and end of the year for me in Chicago), sometimes I sneak out to take a quick walk around the block with my lunch or sit on the front steps in the sunshine. Now, if you are more extroverted, this probably sounds miserable. In that case, use this time to catch up with your teammates or chat with your co-teacher. Lunch can be a great time to collaborate or bounce ideas off one another without the pressure to get planning done. Get to know yourself and find the best environment for you to recharge your batteries.
I get my mind away from school for a bit.
Some of my favorite ways to mentally escape, even for just a few minutes, include:
...Or I don't!
Honestly, some days it brings me great peace of mind to spend my lunch break getting some copies made or plans written if that means more of my afternoon/evening hours will be less stressful. If I know I want more time after school to enjoy dinner or just shut off, then I'd rather sacrifice my lunch to power through work. It all depends on the day and my energy level. Listen to yourself and go with what you feel is best for you on that particular day. Relaxation and joy are different for every individual, so don't pressure yourself to do what I do every single day. If you can work during lunch for a few days and get away from work for a few days, that's great! Whatever brings you relief and helps you get through the day is what you should commit to. Remember, you are doing this for yourself!
Moral of the story...use the time you have (however short it may be) to bring joy, positive energy, and calm to your ever-so-chaotic teaching day. How do you spend your lunch break? What do you do to disconnect? What challenges stand in the way of you enjoying your lunch break? Tell me in the comments!
I don't know about you, but the middle of the year is tough for my students. Kids are getting very comfortable with each other, and often start to get on each other's nerves. I teach 4th and 5th grade, and this time of year is always difficult. We start to hear about many more incidents of teasing, frustration, exclusion, and drama. While we work on community building and conflict resolution in our classroom every day, this time of year calls for a little something extra. February happens to be the month in which Random Acts of Kindness Week takes place, and it's a great time for a month-long 'Kindness Challenge'! There are many ways to do a Kindness Challenge in your classroom, but here's my super simple & easy plan:
1. As a class, discuss what it means to be kind. Talk about how acts of kindness make you and others feel.
2. Brainstorm as many random acts of kindness as you can. In my classroom, we just focused on school, but you can add ideas for home too!
3. After brainstorming, fill out the Kindness Challenge game board (attached below--there is also a pre-made one!) with your class' ideas and print a copy for each student. I also turned it into a poster to hang up in the classroom.
4. Each day, encourage students to look at their game board and try to pick 1 thing they are going to do that day.
5. At the end of the day as students are packing up or completing independent work, walk around & ask students which act they completed, then give them a sticker (or a stamp) to put in that box. Challenge your class to see who can get a row across, a column down, or a diagonal line (bingo style!)--and see who can fill up their entire board!
1. Be sure to have a discussion with your class about honesty and integrity when they report what they did that day. Praise the student who is honest enough to admit that they didn't complete one that day, and encourage them to try tomorrow.
2. When I started the challenge, I asked my class to think about this question: "Do you think there should be a prize involved?"...about 20 thumbs up shot up right away. I continued on to say, "Think about the point of kindness and why we are doing this. Are we doing this to earn prizes? If we do these things just to earn a prize, is that truly being kind?" and slowly the thumbs up turned to thumbs down. It can still be a challenge without a tangible prize--remind your students that the real prize is the feeling of pride & happiness you get from spreading kindness!
3. You may have some students that complete a bunch of acts in one day. I tell my students that this is GREAT, but if they fill up their board quickly, they will get a new blank board to come up with more ideas and complete more acts of kindness! The point isn't to get it "done" quickly!
4. Finally, at the end of the month, have a reflective conversation with your students. How did you feel this month? Were there certain acts of kindness that made you feel extra good when you did them or received them? How did our classroom feel? What was your mood like at school? And, most importantly, should the kindness stop now that the month is over? See what thoughts they have!
Are you doing a 'Kindness Challenge' or something similar in your classroom? What does it look like? I would love to hear!
Today I had the fantastic opportunity to attend a Professional Development workshop hosted by Mindful Practices, a Chicago-based yoga and SEL program for schools.
This workshop focused on strategies and techniques for brining yoga and mindfulness into your classroom and I am so excited to share my key takeaways! Read on, and please comment with any questions you have or additional strategies or tips!
Takeaway #1: Start with the WHY
Just as you would discuss your objective before a science lesson, you also need to explain the 'why' behind a yoga practice or mindful break. Explain to students the science behind deep breathing, and the proven benefits of yoga. Ask them how they think a yoga break could affect their day. Make sure they understand the importance behind the practice. One way to start is to have students brainstorm everything that comes to mind when they think of yoga. Together, form a definition for yoga involving key components like awareness, breath, balance, non-judgement, inclusivity, calm. Remind students that they will get out what they put in, and to allow themselves time to adjust, get comfortable, and experience the benefits.
Takeaway #2: Focus on body awareness first
Don't expect your students to jump right in and break out warrior 2! Start by simply bringing students' attention to their breathing and balance. Explain the importance of personal space and non-judgement. Remind students that it's okay to feel a little silly and uncomfortable at first, but to remember that this is new to everyone and that yoga is a judgement-free zone! Remember also that for some students, stillness and quiet are not their norm and may be very uncomfortable. At home, chaos may be all they know. Don't set your expectations too high at first!
Takeaway #3: Personalize and allow choice
When you introduce any concept or skill to your students, you keep in mind their developmental stage and all that comes with it--intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally. The same should be true when you introduce yoga or breath work into the classroom. Tailor your instruction to the needs and interests of your students. While kindergarteners might LOVE to "sit like a frog", 3rd graders prefer to "walk like zombies" and 7th graders are going to roll their eyes at both of those phrases and need to spend more time getting comfortable. Allow your students choice as well-- if they ever do not want to participate in a pose or sequence, they can always return to mountain pose.
Takeaway #4: It's not just for "yoga time"
Let's be honest...we'd all LOVE to have an hour (or hey, even 15 minutes!) to devote to yoga in our classrooms each day but with the pressure to meet rigorous standards and constantly implement new curriculum, we just don't have the time. Yoga and mindfulness do NOT have to be something separate in your day! These practices can be even more effective when they are embedded in your typical academic schedule. My co-teacher and I attended the PD together and excitedly discussed how we will work yoga into transitions in math class. We will start math class with everyone standing in mountain pose and taking deep breaths. Before ringing our bell to signal our group switch, we will invite students to take 3 breaths in tree pose, and before the class lines up we will engage them in a new pose each week. That will take about 2-3 minutes out of our class, and will actually save us instructional time by allowing our students to be more focused and on-task!
Takeaway #5: Make it FUN!
Scientific fact: kids will be 500% more engaged in yoga if we make an effort to make it FUN! While it can be a very calm, centering practice, it also is a great way to allow our students to appreciate their bodies and increase their self-confidence by incorporate fun yoga activities! One of my favorite activities today was 'Yogi Says'. You guessed it--it's a lot like Simon says. One student acts as 'Yogi' and announces yoga poses instead of more basic actions. The best part--pick one of your "too cool" students to be "Yogi" and suddenly they are no longer too cool! Another awesome idea was "Musical Yoga Freeze"-- cards with yoga poses are spread out on the floor (or on desks) and as music plays students walk or jog around the room. When the music stops--students need to freeze in the pose closest to them (but remind them--you can ALWAYS choose to stand in mountain if you are not comfortable with the pose in front of you!).
So, do you practice yoga with your students? What have been your biggest successes? Struggles? Are you thinking about starting and in need of more support? Share in the comments and I'd be happy to discuss with you further. Namaste!
If you're looking for a super easy and FUN way to get started with mindfulness practices in your classroom, try a Relaxation Vacation! I recently attended a training on yoga & mindfulness in the classroom and learned a lot about guided visualizations. Guided visualizations are a mindfulness strategy that can be used for a variety of purposes, from coping with anger or frustration to overcoming fears. One way that guided visualizations can be used is to deliberately clear the mind of stressful thoughts and transport one's self to a calm, happy place.
I don't know about you, but my classroom after lunch/recess used to be my own personal hell. My students would enter the classroom hyped up and filled with energy after a hectic half hour in the loud, overwhelming lunch room, running up to me to tell me about the drama that exploded on the playground. But soon after my yoga & mindfulness training, I decided to turn this chaos into calm with one easy strategy. Now, students come into the classroom after lunch knowing exactly what to expect. The lights are off and they see a calming video up on the board, and they settle into their chairs, ready to relax. I then open up one of my Relaxation Vacation scripts (on my phone or printed on paper) and we are instantly transported to another place, relaxing our bodies and minds. I have to admit, part of me loves this because of the amazing sense of calm it brings about for me in the middle of a hectic work day!
It took me a little while to get comfortable reading these scripts with confidence, but after practicing a few times (and listening to a LOT of calm.com guided meditations) I felt totally comfortable putting on my 'calm voice' and leading my students through this practice. It can be as short or as long as you want--you may only have time for a quick 3 minute read-through (I know our daily schedules are PACKED), but if you have more time you can build in more silent breathing between sentences to extend the practice.
After our first Relaxation Vacation, I asked my students how they felt. It is so important to get students to reflect on the effects that mindfulness practices have on their physical and mental state so that they can start to utilize these strategies on their own. I then asked my class to brainstorm a list of places they'd like to travel to on our Relaxation Vacations--they came up with some fantastic ideas (the best: "New Jersey!"). Getting them involved is a great way to get your students to 'buy in' to the idea of mindfulness, which can feel strange at first.
You can download one free Relaxation Vacation below, and please check out my pack of 5 for sale on my Teachers Pay Teachers store! Each script comes with an accompanying video to play, which can be especially helpful when you are starting out and students are new to this practice and need some support visualizing.
If you try this in your classroom please share how it goes! I would love to hear about your experience!
Ahh, winter break. It's been SO nice to have 2 slow, easy, relaxing weeks off, but in 2 days it's back to reality for me! I head back to school on Monday and while I'm excited to see my students, it's tough to give up the relaxing, carefree days of break. One commitment that I am going to make as I head back to school is to TAKE CARE of myself. For me, self care doesn't have to mean a full-on spa day experience or luxurious bath (let's be honest, I'm grossed out by my rental bathtub, so that really isn't an option for me). Taking small breaks every day to give yourself a little extra love and care can really work wonders for my attitude, stress-level, and overall mental health on those long teaching days. Here are my favorite quick and easy self-care activities:
Give yourself a massage
As I apply face lotion in the morning and before bed, I massage my cheekbones, brow bones, sinuses, forehead, chin, and temples. It feels super relaxing and only takes a minute! An added bonus--stimulating the face muscles with a massage can help bring oxygen to the skin as well! This can also be a quick foot or calf massage after a long day.
Try a face mask
It may feel like you're twelve at a sleepover, but face masks can really feel like you're giving yourself a mini spa experience! I recently purchased the Trader Joe's face mask trio and I absolutely love it! I use at least one of the masks once a week and when I apply the mask I give myself permission to rest as it sets for a few minutes before continuing with my day.
Enjoy a favorite meal
Indulging in comfort food can be very calming and relaxing (hence calling it "comfort food") but so can eating clean & green! Whatever brings you a sense of joy and happiness, go for it. Sometimes I know that eating a big bowl of mac 'n cheese is what I need, other times I know I need to go the fresh route. One thing I've tried to start doing every time I eat a meal is to eat mindfully-- really savor each bite, feel the texture of the food, and notice the flavors.
Buy yourself flowers
Once in a while (especially in the winter) I buy myself a bouquet of $5 flowers from TJs on my weekly shopping trip. It's a nice way to give a gift to yourself and bring some freshness and brightness to your living space.
Even in frigid Chicago temperatures, taking a walk can work wonders to clear my head and bring me down when I am feeling stressed. Sometimes I will just go for a few blocks, either listening to my favorite music or podcast, or listening to nothing at all. Going with a friend, significant other, or family member is great, but walking alone can be amazing as well.
Try out essential oils
I'll admit it, I've become an essential oil freak. To be honest, I was pretty skeptical about the benefits of essential oils at first, but since trying just a few, I recognize the effect they have on me. Spritzing some lavender essential oil (mixed with water) onto my pillow before bed or sprinkling some lemon essential oil into the shower in the morning can have a huge impact on my overall mood. I encourage you to try it!
Here's a challenge-- stop reading, close your eyes, and identify 3 positive things about your day or week. 3 things that you are grateful for. Make sure at least 1 of these things is something you are grateful for about yourself. See how you feel after! An even bigger challenge--do this for a month, once a day. I've been gratitude journaling for about 3 years and it has dramatically changed my mindset.
Read old notes from students
Am I the only one who hoards old notes, letters, and drawings? One of my tasks over winter break was taking a stack of papers out of a large envelope and putting them in sheet protectors in a binder--I call it my 'feel good file'. After a bad day or week, it is helpful to take a look and remind myself of the impact I have had on so many students!
Did you know that laughter has endless health benefits, like lowering blood pressure & boosting immunity? Go ahead, allow yourself to laugh. In the classroom, I often find that I am so tense and concerned about a million things, I don't always stop to see the humor in my students. I challenge you to try to laugh at 1 thing (at least!) each day during the school day(bonus points for laughing with your students) and see how this effects you!
So, what small things do you do for yourself throughout the day? How do you take care of yourself? I would love to hear your ideas! Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup--refill yours first!
Have you heard about gratitude journaling? Back when I was in college, I had a few really tough years. Don't get me wrong, I loved college, but it was definitely a stress-filled time in my life. I had a bad physical accident and although I made a full recovery, it took a pretty big toll on my mental and emotional health. Add that to the stress of full time student teaching and leading a student organization on campus, all while still taking a full course load--I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and emotionally and physically depleted. I don't remember exactly how I heard about gratitude journaling (or if it was even much of a 'thing' back then) but I bought myself a cute notebook and started writing down at least 3 positive things before bed each night. Years later, I am still at it, and I think it is one of the best things I have ever done for my mental health. Looking for the positives in each day has totally changed my mindset. Even on the worst day ever, I can find 3 positive things, no matter how small. Knowing I can find the good in each day is extremely comforting. Here are some tips for starting your own practice of gratitude journaling!
Buy a cute journal--seriously.
Set a reminder until you get in the habit
Think in categories
I've played around with different formats for my journal entries and to be honest, there is no 'wrong way' to write about what you're grateful for. However, being the Type A person that I am, I found that it's easiest for me to think of things I am grateful for when I think in categories. For example, I usually try to include one item related to my work/school, one item related to the relationships in my life, and one item related to my own self. That last one has been hard for me, but explicitly acknowledging things I love about myself has really helped my confidence. When it literally has been the #worstdayever and I truly can't think of ANYTHING for one or more of these categories, I remind myself of the basic human needs that I so often take for granted. That really helps me check in with reality and remember how fortunate I am.
So, I would love to hear from you about your experiences with gratitude journaling. Have you tried it? Do you do it differently in any way? Never tried it? I really encourage you to start! I promise, it will slowly become part of the way you think. Eventually, you won't just think about the positives when you're journaling, you'll recognize them more frequently throughout the day. As teachers, we need to stay positive through all the challenges that come our way.
Calling all Special Education teachers! Are you starting to prep materials for your caseload as you plan for back to school? I always start off the year by providing general education teachers and specials teachers with easy-to-read IEPs at a Glance, Behavior Intervention Plans at a Glance, and Accommodations Cheat Sheets. Let's be honest, general education teachers have SO much to do at the start of the year; reading through all of the IEPs of students they will see in their class just isn't always the priority, and I get it. By providing these easy to read, brief 'at-a-glance' documents, I can better guarantee that my co-teachers will read them.
I also try to connect with all of my students' parents before heading back to school, to introduce myself and ask them about their child. This year, I created a parent survey that I am going to email and hand out at our Open House.
I've attached my Caseload to do List, IEP at a Glance template, BIP at a Glance template, Accommodations Cheat Sheet template, and Parent Survey for free at the end of this survey. Feel free to snag them to help you get organized before starting the year!
If you have been following along on my Instagram, you probably saw the #MindfulMonday series of tips that I've been posting every Monday for the past month. I wanted to share some strategies that have worked to incorporate mindfulness in my classroom as teachers around the country are preparing for the year ahead. If you haven't considered incorporating mindfulness before, I strongly encourage you to read these tips and consider a mindful practice in your classroom. I am not going to include a lot of research in this post, but check out this link to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness in schools. Okay, here are my top 4 tips!
Tip #1: Start with yourself
I cannot stress this one enough. Honestly, I tried to implement mindfulness practices in my classroom before actually using them in my own life, and it was so phony. I couldn't relate to what the students were experiencing until I experienced it for myself. So, I discovered calm.com and started doing brief mindfulness exercises before bed and before school in the morning (in my car!). Practicing mindfulness in my own life not only helped me be a calmer, more present educator, but it also allowed me to better connect with my students during mindfulness practices in the classroom.
Tip #2: Give your students choice and flexibility
This might be my golden rule for incorporating any new practice in the classroom, but particularly something so personal such as mindfulness. There truly is no 'right way' to practice mindfulness, and every person is different in their preferences. Students won't buy into the idea if they feel that it's being forced on them, or if they feel they don't have any choice in it. When I do mindfulness exercises in the classroom, the only rule is "you may not take away anyone else's calm" translating to "you must be silent". Other than that, I encourage my students to do whatever is comfortable for them. I offer a choice of closing eyes or just looking down, sitting up straight or resting their heads on their desks. When they feel they have more freedom, they are so much more engaged.
Tip #3: Start small
If you want to try out mindfulness in the classroom, try starting with a 'mindful minute'. Have students sit comfortably and close their eyes or look down. Tell them that for one minute they are going to try to think of nothing, just their breath. At the end of the minute, ask students to share how long they were able to keep their minds clear, and what strategies they used. If they don't have any strategies to share, you can cue them in on some great mind-clearing tips. One tip is to picture your thoughts floating on clouds, and slowly the clouds float away. Another tip is to picture your thoughts as individual balloons, being released and disappearing into the sky. I find that my students love a challenge, so I also try to emphasize the challenge component of mindfulness: "Last week we were able to do one whole minute of mindfulness. This week, let's see if we can do two!".
Tip #4: Establish routines, but keep things fresh!
Another golden rule for anything in the classroom! Routines provide great structure and relieve anxiety, but switching things up once in awhile is a surefire way to boost engagement. I try to remember to do a 'mindful minute' every single morning in our homeroom. Pro tip: Pick a student to lead the 'mindful minute' and ring the chime. It is also that student's job to remind you that it's time for the mindful minute, so you don't have to add it to your list of things to remember in the morning! Don't have a chime? I love the free app Insight Timer, it has a chime sound you can play on your phone! As teachers, we know that routines and habits in the classroom are wonderful things. But, we also have probably all seen students get bored with the same ol' same ol' every day. So, once in a while, I like to switch it up, and do something special like a mindful listening exercise or a guided meditation. It helps to always keep there interest up!
So, there you have it! Have you tried mindfulness in the classroom? If not, I encourage you to try it this year! I'd love to hear about your experience!
Have you ever written a manifesto for yourself? What about a mission or vision statement for yourself as a teacher, your classroom, or a committee on which you serve? I was recently listening to one of my favorite well-being podcasts, 'Happier with Gretchen Rubin', and got the idea to write myself a manifesto. I thought this would be a great way to identify what is important to me as a teacher (specifically, a 'mindful educator') and put a few 'non-negotiables' in writing as a reminder to myself throughout the school year. I am going to print it out and keep it in the front sleeve of my teacher binder so that every day I see it and remind myself of the essential manifesto items that have selected. Other ideas include modge-podging or taping your manifesto to a clipboard that you use often, hanging it up by your desk, or saving it as the desktop background on your school computer!
You can download my Mindful Educator Manifesto to use or, even better, write one for yourself! I would love to hear what you would include in your personal manifesto.
I will be writing additional blog posts throughout the school year going into more detail about these manifesto items, but for now I wanted to share with you all so that hopefully you will be inspired. What a great way to start the school year on a positive, focused note!
PS--Credit for the beautiful watercolor background goes to Hanna from We Lived Happily Ever After :)