Imbalancing Your Life during the Holidays

The need for balance in your teaching responsibilities, personal life, and other family events in the holiday season is coming up fast! Since time “in” school (actually at the workplace) is obligatory, what we’re really talking about is how we deal with all of the rest of the time “outside” of school. 

Over the next couple of months, you’ll be immersed in the “extra” things that make this time of year both memorable and…well…horribly stressful.  Between family, kids, kids’ events, and significant others’ events, we often overextend ourselves in order to avoid confrontation or hurting anyone’s feelings.

I won’t pretend I have a magic method to deal with all of this, but I do have to confess: I enjoy myself during the holidays. In fact, I MAKE SURE I do because then I can come back to my students renewed, refreshed, and ready-to-go.

What’s the secret to balancing all of these aspects of your life?
                                             Knowing that it’s not a balance.

Things aren’t even. Everything isn’t equally weighed.  For example, I made my personal fun and my family’s fun the priority.  We tipped the scales, and I made sure that things that restored me, personally, took the ultimate priority. 

We struggle with that concept, though, putting ourselves first, particularly over the holidays. But I’m sure you’ve noticed how rejuvenating even one afternoon or one evening for yourself can be. And when YOU are feeling restored and relaxed, you can more meaningfully deal with others.

One strategy that can help you out is to use a version of Covey’s Matrix as a decision-making tool. Our focus, here, is for you to be able to prioritize yourself. Instead of Urgent and Important, we’ll think in terms of Personally Restorative things that bring us back to well-being) and Fulfilling (things that make us feel happy and satisfied).

What this matrix helps us do is deal with things that are in more of a “grey” area. 

For example, if someone you love is in the hospital, you’ll obviously prioritize that situation. Though that situation is stressful, it’s a different kind of stress. One that is more concrete. The stress of other situations, those “iffy” events, are the ones that can really drain us.


Another strategy is practice effectively saying “No.” You’re going to have to practice saying this, probably, in front of the mirror. You’re going to practice saying, “No, I can’t [do whatever] because [I’ve set that time aside to__].” Give it go, right now! 

What you’re NOT going to say is:

                “I’d love to, but….”
                I’m sorry, I can’t….”

You’ll want to take those apologetic cushions out of your “no-ing.” Not because you aren’t sorry you can’t do whatever (maybe you are, probably, you’re not), but what that apology does is create a gap that a manipulative person can use to get you to change your mind. 

Plus, know that you do NOT have to do everything that is asked of you. It is okay to say, “No.” It is okay to say, “Not now, but (next week, tomorrow, etc.)…” 

I know it might feel counter-intuitive; it might feel too selfish. And you can continue to exhaust yourself year after year, trying to be all things Martha Stewart and Gandhi to all people. But at the end of the day, if you do not feel happy and at peace, then what is the quality of what have given them?

Consider how much more effectively you might be able to do for others, if you put yourself, first. 

Let the holidays begin!


Guest Blog Post: Working through Panic Attacks and Stress in the Classroom

Randi Tolentino (@mizanoa on Twitter)

Randi is the PD coordinator and Technology Trainer in her district. First in her family to graduate from college, she went into teaching ten years after graduating after working in the corporate sector. She is a busy lady with three sons andhas coached JV and Varsity softball. Like most teachers, she has a hard time saying no! Hi, Stress. My name is Randi.

What my schooling didn't prepare me for was how to handle all the anxiety of the school environment I was in. During my first semester, I developed health issues and was put on several medications (including one for depression and one for anxiety).

I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, and couldn't even enjoy a surprise family vacation to a beach over fall break because of the intense panic attacks I suffered.

I truly believe had I been in a different school, or larger district, my first year may have been more positive; however, I wouldn't trade my experiences, since they have helped shape the educator I am today.

And, more importantly, our classes wouldn't have reached the level of trust we did.

I was having multiple panic attacks a day, and it wasn't until the most severe of the attacks (and several doctor visits later) that I had my realization.

Some of my students must feel exactly the same way. Being expected to learn about the Civil War when they don't have a place to sleep, haven't eaten in a week, have to work at night to support their siblings-- these were just some of the numerous situations that they were experiencing.

It was at that time I realized I needed to find ways within the relationships of my students to work with them to find ways to help them be successful, without compromising the high expectations I had for them.

Gaining the trust of the kids I worked with was not an easy thing to do-- many of them had come to rely on people leaving them and not caring, so it took them a long time for them to believe that I did care and would not leave. Once that trust was established, and they knew they were safe in my room, they were able to tell me some of the heartbreaking stories that were their lives.

At that point, we were able to adjust due dates when necessary, rework assignments to meet the various learning styles (without them realizing that was what we were doing), and whatever else I could do to help them find success.

Once they truly believed I was on their side, they were willing to work hard for me (and themselves).

On those days when the panic would take over, I would feel overwhelmed and like I wasn't going to make it.  I was able to tell my kids it was a rough day, and through our mutual respect for and trust of each other, they understood, and would take themselves down a notch -- but it took us quite awhile to get to that point.

Up until then, I was a basket case-- crying every night and jittery every day due to my nerves. Those kids have a permanent place in my heart and reaffirmed the reason I went into education in the first place. Those kids are the reason I advocate for meeting kids where they are, while still holding them to high standards. Those kids are the ones who need to know someone cares because all their lives they have been told that no one does.


A Tale of Two Posters

If you're a student, choose which class you'd prefer to be a part of. Choose which teacher you'd most likely work harder for.

This one?
Available for 8.95 on eBay

Or this one?

                                                              Feel free to download.

 If you're teacher, choose wisely.   Words matter.


What Entry Point? Where? Some Thoughts on Prescribed Curriculum and Backwards Design

As districts and administrators lean more and more towards curriculum demands on teachers, it’s no wonder that the significance of the entry point in backwards design is somewhat lost. It’s also no wonder that many teachers are wondering how they can ever be considered designers of learning when so much of it is “required.”  

English teachers are told, “Students need to read Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Giver.” Math teachers are told, “Students need to be able to calculate the area of a circle, solve quadratic equations, and apply the Pythagorean theorem.” Science teachers must “cover” concepts from Geology, Astronomy, and Meteorology. 

So anything to do with real “choice” on an entry point is nowhere to be found. It’s “done been chosen.”

Thus, while planning a general unit might be fine with a requisite entry point, it’s very difficult for teacher to plan units using the backwards design approach because it requires much more thought and careful decision-making. And making careful decisions about something that may not interest you just won’t end up being of the same quality. Though the design might be fine, it lacks the pizzazz of other units we’ve created. So, how can we muster up enthusiasm with prescribed curriculum?

Confession: I’m an English teacher who really doesn’t care for poetry. I do see its significance, and I know how to analyze it ten ways to Tuesday. But when I’m told, teach these poems in a poetry unit, I get a little de-motivated. 

  Okay, I get really de-motivated. 

        Okay, okay, I would rather have a root canal.

That’s when I know I need to get creative. That’s when I know I have to get that pizzazz back in designing said unit.

One strategy— if you’re faced with a required entry point of a text, standard, topic, or skill that just doesn’t seem to move you— is to consider what aspects of that entry point are relevant to students’ lives right now, today. 

For example, if you’re required to have students write a Rogerian argument paper (a skill required by your district), you’ll want to reach outwards towards their reason for writing the paper (to convince their parents of something that they determine is necessary). More than likely, since the topic is inherent, the students will be a bit more juiced about the focus, which, as you’re planning, will get YOU more juiced and creative in your backwards planning.

If your district requires a particular standard, say, 3.NS.1: Read and write whole numbers up to 10,000. Use words, models, standard form and expanded form to represent and show equivalent forms of whole numbers up to 10,000 in the second nine weeks, and that particular standard is…ehhh…one that you kind of dread, another strategy is to challenge yourself in determining how you can focus on and stimulate students' kinesthetic intelligence. Sometimes, giving ourselves a creative challenge, particularly one that will ultimately benefit under-served learners, is enough of a boost to get us pumped for teaching the unit. The design flows more freely. 

Finally, if you’re required to teach a topic that is taught on an annual basis (such as bullying, drug abuse, character choices) and, thus, is likely to garner unwilling, unmotivated whininess from students (“We did this lasssssst yearrrrrr…."), consider where you can incorporate student choice. Students often “tune out” of topics that they think they know all about, so in that instance, planning for them to take charge of the topic is one way to handle it. There is a unique joy to planning a student-led project that allows for greater passion to emerge. You can “see” it happening, and it’s exciting! 

Any and all of these strategies might work for entry points. For my dreaded, required poetry unit, I've tried the kinesthetic challenge and life-relevance. Both worked out beautifully separately and in combination. So much more was learned because I took the time to challenge my own creativity in order to spur on my passion.

So, where is your entry point, ultimately? It’s in your enthusiasm, creativity, and passion. Go get ‘em, tiger!


Want to effectively integrate technology? Make it invisible.

I facilitate online professional development for teachers on integrating technology in their classrooms, and one of the participants—a high school art teacher—came up with a powerful insight into the whole concept of integrating technology. He said: 

The technology should be invisible.

In that one short statement, he was able to capture the essence of effective technology integration. We don’t want the tool to be the focus, nor do we want the tool to drive the learning. Rather, the goal is to put the learning first and allow the use of the tool to be so seamless, so natural, so smooth as a means to reach the objective, that it is…invisible. 

For example, you may have just discovered PowToons or Quizlet. These are both fabulous tools! However, if you’re thinking, “Oh wow! I want to use those with my kids!” then you’ll want to stop.

If your goal is to use the tool, then the technology will not be invisible—it will be a glaring neon sign that reads

                                     Heyyyy, We're Doing Technology Nowwww

Further, once the novelty has worn off, your students will potentially be turned off to the tool as they will not see its value of transfer. They’ll only know that they “did a PowToon” or “did a Quizlet” in class.
Maybe that’s how we can judge whether or not our integration of technology is effective. If you ask a student, “What are you doing in class?” and the answer is anything along the lines of “I’m making a video” or “I’m drawing a Bitstrip” then, your technology is too visible.

Rather, your goal is to keep the learning as the objective. You want the kid to say, “We’re trying to solve a mystery” or “We’re coming up with solutions to a problem in our community.” 

HOW they look for ways to solve that mystery (through internet research) or share that solution (video, blog, infographic) shouldn’t be the focus. 

So, the question is, how do we make our integration of technology invisible?
       1. Ask big questions. What kinds of questions do you want kids to be thinking about as they move into the lesson/unit? Generally, the use of clearly relevant how, why, or what if questions tend to stimulate more thought.

       Why is there still racial tension in the U.S., today? (high school)
2. Based on those questions and your state standards, create learning objectives. What should the student be able to do by the end of this lesson unit? 

       By the end of this lesson, unit, the student will be able to:

  •  Discuss multiple perspectives on the issue.
  •  Identify at least four valid reasons for the persistence of racial tensions in the U.S.
  • Support their identified reasons with evidence from recent data and statistics.
  • Posit two or more plausible solutions for easing tensions, based on research.

 Standard: Students are able to develop well-reasoned argument, posit solutions with the      
use of evidence from research.

3.  Determine what technology tools will aid the students in reaching those objectives. Even   better, offer students a choice of tools. In the examples above, the most logical technology tools are:

  • A curation tool to gather and house research (Pinterest, Symbaloo, or other)
  • A word processing tool (Google docs, Word, or other) OR
  • Another publishing tool (Podcast, blog, Glogster, or other)

 Nothing fancy. Hopefully, in response to the question, these kids would say, “We’re talking about why there’s still racism,” and not “We’re making a Glogster thing.” 

Make it invisible

You'll find more teaching strategies in our book, Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!


Think Classroom Leadership, not Classroom Management

Classroom management is not just the application of theories, strategies, and methods. We can also think of it as a form of leadership.  Many of the kinds of decisions we make in the classroom are those that leaders make, such as a vision and mission for the class (through the development of curriculum), guidance towards objectives (through assessment), and the day-to-day interactions that encourage collaboration and cooperation (behavioral discipline/procedures). 

Of course, we have some duties that we see as managerial, such as completing paperwork on deadline and adhering to policies, but leaders have duties. Those duties don't drive their focus, though; they are professional in following through. A manager thinks:  "I've got to finish this report.:" A leader thinks:  "This report is going to help me better understand what this student/class needs to be successful."

This idea of leadership mindset in place of classroom management is relatively new, however.  In their review of the nation’s teacher preparation programs, Teacher Prep Review 2013, Greenberg, McKee, and Walsh (2013) emphasize the movement away from the traditional training regimen of classroom management (that of presenting strategies and methods) to instilling a “professional mindset" (p. 6). The idea being that those learners with a leadership mindset have the basics they need in order to respond to a variety of issues or circumstances.

The ability to respond to a variety of issues is what new teachers struggle with because they may have learned Strategy A, but they don’t see how strategy A works in Situation B. However, if they can grasp that they are leaders of people and not managers of behaviors, they may have an easier time. This image offers a strong visual:

In general, a manager functions more like a boss, making all decisions and expecting compliance. The leader involves his/her followers in the decision-making and models expectations, which leads to the embracing of principles as opposed to mere compliance.  The difference in students' behavior and contributions to the class when the teacher possesses and conveys a leadership mindset, particularly at the secondary level, is remarkable. 

In his study of teachers in Mississippi, Burkett (2011) found a strong correlation between a teacher’s ability to manage a classroom and his/her leadership traits.  His study showed that those teachers who were effective leaders demonstrated greater efficacy in classroom management. It isn’t such a huge leap, then, to consider that when teachers understand that classroom management is a form of leadership, they may approach situations more effectively. 

Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (2013) takes this theory of classroom management as leadership very seriously, to the extent that they have renamed their secondary management course to Classroom Leadership and Management: Secondary. The course emphasizes that a “tool box of simple management behavioral techniques” (Stanford, 2013) will only get new teachers so far with students. By exploring the core of behaviors and philosophies, the teacher candidates are exposed to a completely different mindset in moving forward, that of leadership and decision making.  In essence, they are provided with instruction in how to be classroom leaders, which offers a cohesion of theories and methods introduced to learners.  

One secondary educator noted that in his teacher preparation coursework he was "inadequately prepared in the day-to-day, immediate management techniques that would have made [his] first few years successful” (Greenberg, et al., 2013, p. 46).  I wonder how he might have felt more prepared had he known that he was a leader and not a manager, had he known that he didn’t need a bunch of techniques as much as he needed a mindset that conveyed greater collaboration with his students.


Burkett, M. C. (2011). Relationships among teachers’ personality, leadership style, and efficacy
of classroom management
. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (UMI
number 3455430) 

Greenberg, J., McKee, A., & Walsh, K. (2013). NCTQ teacher prep review 2013 report. Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality. Retrieved from http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/Teacher_Prep_Review_2013_Report

Milton, S., Curva, F. & Milton, A. L. (2011). Teachers from Florida teacher preparation
                programs: A report on state-approved teacher preparation programs with results of
                surveys of 2009-2009 program completers. Retrieved from: http://www.fldoe.org/profdev/pdf/ProgramCompletersSurvey2011.pdf

Stanford Graduate School of Education. (2013). Classroom leadership and management:

You'll find more strategies for implementing a leadership mindset in our book,
           Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best 
           strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!