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Educators' Survival Guide

The go-to source for safely surviving common classroom conundrums.
Published: June 19, 2020

Life is unpredictable. You never know when you might have to escape from quicksand, wrestle an alligator, or maybe even land a plane. But what about the potential pitfalls of your own classroom? While there may not be quicksand or alligators to wrestle, there are unruly students, hovering administrators, and all those treacherous tests to worry about.

Fear not. Our survival guide outlines common and complicated classroom scenarios with strategies to navigate them with ease. We’ve teamed up with a panel of your most adventurous and intrepid colleagues to provide tips and tricks for handling harrowing situations in life and in school. To get you started, we offer this strategy for safely surviving all situations, including this article: Keep a sense of humor at all times!

How to Prevent Paperwork from Pulling You Under

A desk is an ideal place for paper to pile. And pile. And pile. That’s why educator Sarah Hudson devised a fool-proof method for eliminating the towering piles before they buried her. “I got rid of my desk!” she says.

Sometimes educators get attached to their papers. This is very dangerous and should be avoided, according to Mary Pat Spon. “Touch papers only once,” she advises. “Then skim, file, or toss.”

There’s strength in numbers, so don’t be afraid to enlist the help of your students, says Sherell Lanoiz. “Review and correct assignments in class with students,” she says. “They get immediate feedback on how well they have done and they can ask questions about mistakes.”

While her students are working, Kathy Schaub circulates the room, not unlike a hawk or other predator seeking its prey. When she sees that a student is finished with an assignment, she grabs it and grades it. “That way by the time they’ve finished, it’s been checked, they’ve had an opportunity to make corrections and I can give them the help they may need.”

A common sense approach to avoid being buried by paperwork is to limit its growth, says Susan M. Peyton. “I don’t make too many extra copies, and I save most of my handouts on computers. Also, I keep student work organized in folders that I take home to grade. If I don’t plan to grade it, I don’t have the students turn it in.”

Another key survival strategy is to have your red pen ready at all times, like Russell Ibera. He grades papers during recess, in the lunch line, and during lunch. If he’s feeling ambitious, he grades papers between weight-lifting sets. (Weight-bearing exercise is a key survival strategy in and of itself.)

But the best strategy is being able to choke the paper monster at the source. It’s the 21st century—go paperless! Take advantage of technology, like Bernice Krieger who is paper free and stores all of her lessons and grading on Google Docs.

“Stop handing out papers and start doing more meaningful work with your students,” is Lisa Sato’s paperless strategy. “Project-based learning is a more effective way to teach curriculum while connecting it to real-life problem solving,” she says.

Even with digital technology and paperless assignments, Beckee Morrison admits that paperwork is still winning in her school life, but she hasn’t given up. She performs regular staff mailbox triage. Only the things she needs are immediately taken to her classroom. She allows the rest to pile up until she’s ready to deal with it properly.

Morrison also has a “Ready to Grade” box, with a slot for each period. “Kids like handing you their finished paper, so sometimes I play a triumphal march for kids strutting up to the ‘Ready to Grade’ box,” she says. “Copeland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ works well.”

How to Corral a Chaotic Class

Regaining control of an unruly class is not unlike herding escaped lobsters, though oven mitts won’t do you much good unless you use them to cover your ears. A more sound strategy to maintain your classroom mojo is to take advantage of Class Dojo, behavior management software recommended by teachers from around the country. It instantly provides feedback to students about their behavior in class, rewards good conduct, and generates reports that can be sent to parents as well as to the principal, whose office is one hot pot of water every student wants to avoid.

If software isn’t your strong suit, you can use time-tested, old-school strategies, like making noise. Just as loud noises can scare off a bear or a mountain lion, they can silence an out-of-control classroom. Just ask Dama Marie Wise.

“One time a novice teacher was across the hall from me and totally lost control (kids on the desks, screaming, running around.) I heard her yelling at them trying to get their attention,” she recalls. “It was so bad I told my class to stay in their seats, grabbed a yard stick and ran over to the other room where I slapped the yard stick as hard as I could on a desk. Startled them so bad you could have heard a pin drop. Then I very sternly told them to get in their seats and listen to their teacher. Not my most stellar moment, but effective in a chaotic situation!”

Not all sounds have to be startling. Sometimes zookeepers play classical music to soothe angry tigers because “music has charms to tame the savage beast.” As it turns out, it also has charms to calm overexcited kindergartners. When her classroom gets chaotic, Rosemary Whitten Williamson sings a song the children know. Almost instantly they all sing along and stop acting out.

“I teach broadcasting to high school students, and chaos is normal,” says Deborah Barnes. “However, if I have to get their attention, I turn on the stereo in the front of the room and play the Sharing Song by Jack Johnson. It grabs their attention every time.”

Sometimes the sound of silence can be just as effective.

Tara M. Dembitz, a sixth-grade teacher, silently stares at the disrupters and waits for the other children to notice. “Then they pressure the ones who are being disruptive to settle down.”

Cathy T. Hesse goes back to her desk, quietly sits down, and waits until her students “hear themselves.”

If all else fails, fight fire with fire. Take back the minutes the little time bandits have stolen from your lessons, like Jan Davis Shultz, an elementary educator who simply starts writing on the board how many minutes will be shaved off recess. “I rarely make it to three minutes before order is restored,” she says.
Cindy Meints Randolph carefully looks at her watch. “Every second of learning time is made up after class,” she says. “It worked in middle school, and it works at high school.” The second hand doesn’t make it very far before she hears her students whisper, “Be quiet, she’s looking at her watch!”

If students still don’t get the message to settle down, revert back to strategy number one: loud noises. Educator Maureen Powers blows an English bobby’s whistle. Even neighboring classrooms receive that message.

Handling Awkward Back-to-School Nights

The letters went home, the packets were assembled, the presentation was prepared, and the butterflies were tamed, but only three parents showed up to back-to-school night. Awkward? Yes. Embarrassing? Maybe a little. A disaster? Definitely not. The best way to deal with a sparsely attended back-to-school night, according to our intrepid educators, is to go on with the show!

“I overlook the fact that there are only three there and give them a great presentation on my expectations and what they and their child can expect from me!” says Sherri Greene Ottis.

Rosa DuCree agrees. “You highlight the parents that came.” But she also recommends providing an incentive for parents to come, like a recognition luncheon or a pizza party, to prevent the situation from happening again.

According to our panel, the top three incentives to get parents to come to back-to-school night are food, child care, and prizes. Everyone likes a tasty snack and the chance to win prizes—especially for their children. And many parents have small children at home with no one to look after them on back-to-school night.

“Serve cookies and coffee,” advises Sally Palmer. “Announce that refreshments will be served in the note home ahead of time, and definitely provide another classroom for child care.”

Maureen Kowker sent out handwritten party invitations inviting parents for cookies, coffee, and conversation. “I had almost 100 percent turnout,” she says.

It also worked for Jenny Smith. “I served pizza and soft drinks, showed a video of the kids in activities throughout the day, and then held an open question and answer time,” she says. “It was great as the parents got to interact with each other, too!”

Deirdre Aine has never had to suffer through an awkward back-to-school night. In fact, her events are usually standing room only and she sometimes runs out of time before talking to every parent. Her trick? Giving out raffle tickets to the parents who attend and letting the students know ahead of time what prizes will be raffled off—things like homework passes or extra points on quizzes. Every year, her students encourage their parents to attend. Turns out they have survival strategies of their own.

As for preventing no shows at parent teacher conferences, our educator panel offers two words: home visits.

How to Survive Standardized Testing

One teacher says on weekends she “wines” a little. She’s fond of Chardonnay. Another says she “protests.” She’s from Seattle. All teachers say they object. They’re from planet Earth, and they realize the standardized testing regime is unfair, unreasonable, and untenable. But until a better method for assessment is finally put into practice, educators have figured out some methods to thwart stress.

First, do not panic. Stress and tests don’t mix and you want your students to be comfortable, even if you aren’t.

Christopher Carey admits to finding testing more stressful than many of his students do. “How very unfortunate: They’re used to it,” he says.

For those who still struggle, help them relax.

“I help my students mellow out by playing games with them during testing weeks,” says Elisheva Creve. “Their brains need a break so they can think clearly.”

Michelle Drummond Mayo advises tapping into what called you to the profession. “Teach, teach, teach with all your heart, and when testing time comes, rev up your students and pack them full of enthusiasm and confidence,” she says. “I always tell my kids we’re going to show the people in Little Rock (our state capitol) what we can do!”

Christy Mansfield tries to model “standing up for what’s right” behavior by not teaching to the test, but around the tests.

How to Jump From a Failed Lesson to One That Works

“Abandon with grace. It happens,” says Jane Scruggs. “That’s why you always have to have a back-up plan (or two).”

If survival strategy number one is back up, survival strategy number two is own up. Just as important as backing up your lesson, says our panel, is owning up to the fact that, for whatever reason, your lesson failed to launch.

“I’ve sometimes said, ‘I think we’ll wait on this. I don’t think we’re quite ready, sorry guys, my bad,’” says Kelly Eddy.

James Cassara is also direct with his students, and while he regroups, he asks for their input on where the lesson went wrong. “It’s a great way for the kids to assess and understand,” he says.

Before making the leap to the next lesson, it’s important to clear the passageway. The best way to do so, according to our panel, is through movement.

When Terri Fontenot scraps a lesson, the whole class shakes it off before starting anew. Amanda Sessions Oldham’s class gets up to do a wiggle dance and a few stretches.

Rita O’Brien gives her students various “brain breaks,” encouraging them to focus on their breathing, dance, sing a song, or ring the classroom chimes.

Emily Pendergrass Clay puts a little drama into her transition. “I toss things over my shoulders, stand on the furniture and claim we all need a new perspective.” Then the students wad up their papers, toss them over their shoulders, and they all take a deep breath and try again.

How to Manage Hovering Parents and Aggressive Administrators

When you see an administrator or angry parent charge, or perhaps we should say “approach,” your instinct may be to run in the opposite direction or climb a tree, but our educators advise instead that you run for scrub. And by scrub, they mean documentation. Surround yourself with a forest of documentation that can protect you against any false communication or miscommunication.

Other laws of the jungle: Keep a low profile, hone your communication skills, establish clear expectations, and if you must go in for the metaphoric kill, do it with kindness.

Also recognize that a parent trying to protect her young will become much more cooperative once she knows you are both acting in the child’s best interest.

“Helicopter parents care deeply for their child. They are not there to make your life miserable,” says Tanya Wilson-Smith. “Give them patience, caring, and reassurance and they will quit hovering.”

The same is true of administrators, Smith says. “Give them a daily check-in on what they are looking for. Administrators are under a lot of pressure too, so communication can go a long way.”

But once an administrator is on the offensive, it’s advisable to call on an expert: Your union representative has a lot of experience in the administration wilderness.

“Keep your union rep informed if you think your administrator is targeting you. Bring your rep with you to any meetings with your administrator if you feel the meeting is headed towards discipline in any way,” says Camille Yuasa. “You have Weingarten rights, which ensure union representation at investigatory interviews. Use them.”

Some teachers recommend getting back to basics to ward off an attack.

“I think the best way to survive a difficult administrator and a helicopter parent is to do your job exceptionally well,” says Michelle James.

Finally, our intrepid educators have learned to wait it out with administrators and welcome in hovering parents, who are usually friends merely disguised as foes.

“The sands of time are on your side with a tough administrator, because they aren’t just tough on you,” says Robert Ciani. “As for the helicopter parent, I am always grateful they are involved. I just try to offer direction for their energies.”

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