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Make This Your Best Year Yet!

Educators share 10 tips for creating a great school year.

Welcome back to school, and a brand new year, filled with promise and opportunity. To help you create a year that’s unsurpassed, NEA Today asked educators to suggest ways to make this school year your best yet.

1. Find More Time!

Jennifer Isgitt is a high school English teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, and the author of the blog Here are her tips for better time management.

Make time for yourself

“Do not apologize for this. Do not feel guilty. Teachers are caregivers, I get that. But friend after friend of mine has left the profession due to failure to take care of herself. Stop it. Figure out what time of day you are most productive and protect that time like a mama bear. Do not allow interruptions except for bleeding or standardized testing training or perhaps baked goods in the mail room. Turn off the email client; shut your door; get to school early; eat your lunch in peace.”

Make time to network

“After you’ve taken the time to get yourself healthy, take some time each day to network with knowledgeable colleagues. If you are blessed to have dynamic teachers on your own campus, then be sure to spend some time each day building relationships with these people. Even the few minutes of passing periods can be energizing if you spend them in the company of a colleague you admire.

“If you are hungry for even more networking I’ll tell you where the best of the best teachers are these days: Twitter. I have met amazing people from whom I have gleaned amazing resources. Conversations with people who enjoy teaching as much as I do energize me, which means I accomplish more in the wake of all that energy boosting.”

Make time to plan

“One time I took a learning styles test and discovered that I am ‘abstract sequential,’ which basically means that I enjoy taking big complex messes and putting them into general order: lists, sequences, bullet points, or tables. I really love tables.

“But seriously, this saves me so much time. I make a rough plan of my units for the year, and then I create a calendar for the semester. I pore over the district and campus calendars for in-service and testing days; I poll my students for the dates of upcoming field trips and band competitions. I then decide on due dates for all assignments. Once I have a general plan, I can start making copies and acquiring supplies. I skip the ‘what am I doing tomorrow, today, in 15 minutes’ conversation with myself and sip my coffee instead.

“Oh, and while I’m at that plan, I make sure to leave some unplanned-as-yet days so that I can adjust the calendar at a moment’s notice to accommodate the latest testing, assembly, pep rally, fire drill, water main break, ice storm (yes, we have those in Texas), everyone’s-dentist-appointment-is-today day, etc. I always build in some extra days and then adjust one day behind or ahead as needed.“If a semester is too daunting, try one grading period. You’ll never go back.”

Make time for students

“Teachers like to be in control. We love the adage, ‘If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.’ But being in control all the time is incredibly time-consuming. At the beginning of the year, take the time to teach students procedures and skills so they will work at least as hard as the teacher. They should know: how to write and ask their own questions, analyze their own learning objectives, work in groups, discuss as a class, set learning goals, reflect on feedback, and ask for help.

“When I put students in charge of their learning process, I don’t spend time teaching them what they already know. I don’t prepare many lectures. Rather than a preparer, I am now a discoverer: of great mentor texts, of moving literature, of intriguing resources. I provide my students with challenging material to help them meet course objectives, and I watch what they can do.”

2. Build Better Lessons


Crafting better lessons is just a click away at, where members of NEA’s Master Teacher Program showcase their lesson expertise and creativity for the online education community.

The comprehensive lessons, offered through an open platform, provide a narrative explaining the “how” and “why” of a lesson, with video to show the lesson from start to finish, reflections from the master teacher; and student examples. Each lesson also includes a list of resources. It’s much more than a list of standard “tricks and tips.”

Jamie Ewing, a National Certified Board Teacher, is one of 90 master teachers who share their lessons.

“The initiative,” says the elementary school teacher from Seattle, “gives teachers the tools to improve their craft, meet Common Core standards, and, most importantly, find ways to make sure our students get the tools they need to be successful in the classroom and in life.”

3. Create Calm In Your Classroom


You’d think Therese Phillips would be stressed with a capital “S.” She’s a long-term substitute at Watkins Mills High School in Gaithersburg, Md. That’s right—a substitute teacher of high school students. But Phillips isn’t frazzled. She’s focused. She says creating a calm classroom starts with respect and trust.

“From the beginning, I set classroom guidelines so that my students understand exactly what will be tolerated and what won’t,” she says. “Everyone knows that there is room to disagree, but only if we do so with respect to one another.”
Phillips also lets her students know that she is someone they can trust. Many of her students have difficult home lives, and they’re looking for someone who truly understands and cares. Phillips does.

“I’m someone they can go to for advice about their education and about their personal lives,” she says. “I’m not just an authority figure barking orders.”

Phillips is the calm in the storm for her students, which helps them keep their cool, but sometimes it takes a little more. Here are some tips on creating calm from our Facebook fans.

When Kate Hahn sees class chaos about to erupt, she calls out, “Brain break! Everyone stand up! No running. No touching other people or their stuff. You have 10 seconds to touch something blue. You have eight seconds to touch something shiny. You have six seconds to touch something organic. Ten jumping jacks and back to your seat.”

William West says that kids need the time to connect with each other and either they’re going to be given the time to talk and be kids, or they’re going to take the time.

“If they come in and they’re all chatty and rowdy, I just stand in the back of the room and give them a few minutes to talk and get what they need to get out,” he says. “Then, one or two will notice I’m standing there, they’ll start to quiet down, and within a few seconds I’ve got a classroom full of students who have had their opportunity to communicate with each other and are ready to participate actively in their learning.”

 If all else fails, educator Megan Sanders turns off the lights. That always gets their attention. 

4. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate

Aristotle said “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and even though collaborating with colleagues can take time—a precious resource for any educator—there’s a definite return on investment.

Pamela Mink, a second-grade teacher at Meadowview Elementary School, in Meadowview, Va., says collaboration is essential to effective teaching. It brings together a community of educators for a common purpose—to create rich learning experiences for students.

“All teachers are molded by their previous educational and life experiences. Through collaboration, teachers can share unique ideas and thoughts to bring a fresh outlook on lessons or problem solving that one teacher working in isolation wouldn’t have,” she says.

At Meadowview, most collaboration takes place within grade-level meetings and professional learning communities. The entire school—including administrators—is committed to making time for collaborating. But some of the best collaboration takes place informally, says Mink.

“At recess, we may collaborate on what went well with each lesson or not. We might mention at the copier that our kids didn’t have a strong base on a concept that should’ve been mastered in a previous grade, and we’ll have an impromptu brainstorming,” she says. “It can happen any time and anywhere as long as it’s woven into the fabric of your school’s belief system.”

How to Collaborate—Mink’s Top Tips

  • Get your administrator on board so that scheduling does not interfere with common planning.
  • Be open to—and trust—the ideas of others. Use the “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” theory.
  • Share the responsibility for each student’s learning and achievement.
  • To create a focus, set “mutual goals” early. “What do we want the children to learn?” “How are they going to learn it?” “How will we know that they learned it?” “What will we do if they don’t learn it?” Use your data, discuss your results, and create a plan of action.
  • Involve everyone who is available. We all bring something different to the table, which provides students with a variety of learning and life perspectives.
  • Share accountability. Recognize when a lesson or assessment went wrong and analyze what your team could have done differently. Change it up or revisit it at another time. Take responsibility for every student you contact, whether they are in your class or not. We’re all in this together!

5. Stress Less!

Life is stressful, and nobody knows it better than educators. But it’s vital to tackle stress before it tackles you. Look for healthy ways to manage stress, and remove its negative impact on the body. You might not be able to make the stress go away, but you don’t have to allow it to manage you.

Exercise is one of the best strategies for alleviating stress. Meditation, yoga, and other relaxing activities are also effective. Extended and slow inhalations and exhalations from the diaphragm, and visualization are proven ways to lower the heart rate and ease stress symptoms.

In order of popularity, here are the top stress-busters recommended by NEA Today Facebook fans.

  1. Dream of summer vacation!
  2. Get support from colleagues and friends—have a coffee and vent.
  3. Exercise. Try to sweat it out a few times a week. Or at least take an evening walk to unwind.
  4. Hobbies. Find something you like and do it often!
  5. Spend time with furry friends. Research shows that petting a dog or cat can lower stress.
  6. Feathered friends help, too. Let negativity roll off you like water from a duck.

6. Toot Your Own Horn

Educators have been under attack for far too long. It’s time to fight back, but not with more negativity. Let’s spread a positive message about educators. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel encourages teachers and education support professionals to go out and set the record straight. “Wherever you are, talk about [teaching] and what it means to do what we do,” Van Roekel says.

Here’s what our NEA Today Facebook fans say to promote the positive work we do every day.

“Educators witness miracles every day. The moments that matter most are when a teacher opens the world of possibilities to a student and that student realizes that they have the power to change their world.” —Darcy Cali

“We believe, we inspire, we teach!”—Terri Fontenot

“Educators do it all!”—Cathy Stephan

“We love children and believe all children can learn!”—Monica Williams

What is your positive message about educators? Every week, or even every day, find a way to share the importance and the passion of what you do. It’ll add up quickly, drowning out the naysayers!

7. Educate the Whole Child

Although we want students to achieve academic success, we know that’s not enough for them to reach their full potential and experience lifelong success. To develop well-rounded students who can think creatively—in school and in life—public schools must focus on the whole child.

This means building a foundation of values—one that includes having respect for others, and understanding the value of responsible citizenship, community engagement, and a sound work ethic. A math whiz who doesn’t complete assignments or constantly disrupts class won’t succeed without a shift in educational values. By partnering with parents to develop a student’s character, educators can help pave the way for student success inside and outside the classroom.

At Brownwood Elementary School in Scottsboro, Ala., Donna West provides students with transferable skills that will serve them for life. When students sign up for a program requiring them to wipe down cafeteria tables, mop floor spills, or tutor other students during school breakfasts, they are learning more than what meets the eye.

“We’re equipping our students with the opportunities to discover their own strengths of responsibility, leadership, and teamwork,” says West, a child nutrition manager. “Our goal is to help students believe in themselves and ultimately to help them become productive citizens.”

Stephen Covey’s The Leader in Me: How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time is required reading for West and her Brownwood colleagues.

“We’ve learned from the book that there are no quick fixes to helping students reach their full potential,” she says.


Steven Juain Young, attendance secretary, from Booker Arts Magnet Elementary School in Little Rock, Ark., uses a different approach to educate the whole child, but his commitment is the same: to prepare students for future success while instilling values and encouraging them to pursue their dreams.

As founder and director of Artists United (AU), Young oversees the after-school production of student plays, musicals, dances, and other performing arts.

“Our students are sometimes faced with behavioral issues and intense circumstances at home,” says Young. “At AU, we try to instill in participants Golden Rule values like respect for yourself and others, non-bully behavior, hard work, and accountability for your actions.”

Young tells students: “The world is our stage, therefore it is our responsibility to be the best performers we can be. It doesn’t matter where you come from in life. What matters is where you go, so explore your talents and believe in yourself. We are all superstars…so let your stars always shine wherever you go.”

8. Stay On Top Of Tech

If you think Vine is where the grapes for Chardonnay begin—rather than a popular video-sharing app—you might need a technology update. Fortunately, there are lots of other educators who are already up on technology trends. These blogs will keep you on the cutting edge.

Edutech for Teachers was voted one of the top education blog sites of 2012. Their tagline is “Cool tools for the 21st century classroom.”

Edudemic is a great place for teachers to share their technology experiences. The site has how-to postings for teachers and teachers’ guides to tech-related classroom ideas.

Around the Corner is a blog and resource for teachers who use Moodle to create interactive tests and classroom materials.

The Innovative Educator is a blog about integrating and embracing technology in curricula of the 21st century. Contains excellent videos and other resources to get teachers thinking about new tech ideas.

Integrated Tech explores the latest technology ideas for the classroom, including how to turn texting, tweeting, and chat rooms into good lessons. The blog also explains how to make good use of Skype and Chatze in classroom discussions.

Free Technology for Teachers shares information about free technology teachers can use in the classroom.

9. Advocate For Public Education

It’s simple. If we don’t advocate for public education, those advocating against what’s best for our students will win.

“If you are not politically engaged then you won’t get very far in your advocacy,” says NEA Speak Up for Education and Kids Facebook fan Karen Kast. “All our education policies are dictated by laws and regulations from the federal to local levels. One of the reasons we are where we are today is because those with deep pockets and their own agendas have always known that the way to get what they want is to be extremely involved with politicians and politics.”

How do you become an advocate?

“Write, email, and call. Get to know your elected reps. Be concise. Be specific. Don’t be accusative,” recommends Tennessee educator Donna Heald. “Ask questions. Educate yourself and educate others. Make alliances with parents and other state employees. And check out the news.”

NEA offers two great news sources for public educators— and You can also sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, NEA Today Express. And don’t forget to check out NEA Today’s digital version in the App Store and on Google Play.

10. Become A Lifelong Learner

As educators we strive to feed the curious, hungry minds of our students. But what about our own minds? If we want to create lifelong learners, we need to model the behavior by continually growing and learning ourselves. Before long, you’ll start living a fuller, richer, and more well-rounded life.

Ready to broaden your horizons? NEA Today’s Facebook fans have some ideas.

“I surround myself with people who inspire me and challenge my thinking!”—Sharon Davison

“I subscribe to a podcast I can listen to in the car on the way to school. I also search iTunesU for interesting subjects.”—Bill Iam

“I read the classics and mentor my kids in them.”—Carrie Hamilton Ouellette

“I learn quite a bit from social media, from listening to National Public Radio, or from simply looking up things I’m curious about—using Google, Wikipedia, and IMDb. And when I make an interesting genealogical discovery, I like to share it with my students the next week.”— Beckee Morrison

“I am constantly reading! Letting the kids see you read and hearing about what you have read instills a love of books. I also try to read, watch, or attend conferences to further my education and knowledge.”—Karla Heyduk

“I develop new hobbies.”—Pam Butcher



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