Turning on Your Teacher Brain

By Catherine Rauchenberger Conley

At the beginning of this school year, I responded to a colleague’s “how are you?” with “I’m still waiting for my teacher brain to kick in.” “I know!” she replied. It turns out that I was not alone in feeling out of sorts at the beginning of the year. I know my curriculum and content, and I am beyond thrilled to have ALL my students in the classroom with me. I know what books I need and how to set up my Google Classroom and all the other apps that have invaded our teaching lives over the past nineteen months. I also know with confidence which apps I can ditch or use less frequently in order to bring the students back to a sense of working in partnership with other people rather than apps. Yet somehow, there’s something missing, something intangible.

Most of us have experienced major shifts in our teaching styles over the past year and a half. Like many schools, mine hit the ground running on March 16, 2020, going synchronously remote and remaining that way for the rest of the year. Our schedules were adjusted from a six-day rotating schedule of 40-minute classes to each class meeting once a week (AP twice) for 90 minutes. Then, the 2020-21 school year started with hybrid block schedules of two 70-minute classes per week, plus one 30-minute synchronous remote class on Fridays. But that only lasted until Veterans Day, when we took this schedule home to fully synchronous remote classes through Easter; then, it was back to hybrid. Our teaching styles had to shift along with the schedules. This year, we’ve returned full-time to the classroom and to our six-day rotating schedule—a schedule I had followed for over twenty-one years before the pandemic—and yet, despite this seeming return to normalcy, I’m having trouble getting back into the swing of things.

By five weeks into the school year, I am usually going full-steam ahead, but this year I still feel like The Little Engine That Could, put-putting along. I know I’m heading in the right direction and moving steadily, but my momentum feels sluggish. And I know I’m not alone. If you, too, are struggling to get back into “teacher mode” after the stressors of the past year and a half, consider these three steps for jumpstarting your teacher brain.

Talk about it

Some of us have suffered with COVID-19 or have watched a loved one suffer. Some have lost loved ones to this disease and to other diseases during this time when we could not be at their sides. But even if we did not, we still experienced the trauma of the sudden and drastic changes to our lives, both personal and professional. As teachers, we were the essential workers who were both praised and vilified. For every meme that read “Thank you for all you do, teachers,” there was a post from a parent complaining that teachers shouldn’t be paid if school is virtual. Even if you knew that their vitriol did not pertain to you and all you were doing for your students, this negativity seeped into your consciousness. Talk about this with your colleagues, friends, family, and/or a therapist. Together, you may relieve anxiety and find a new approach to re-entering the classroom. We cannot just “go back” to how we taught before, nor should we try to. I know it helped me just to have that little affirmation from my colleague that I was not alone in feeling off.

Reduce distractions

One possible result of all this trauma is brain fog. I am still exploring the best ways to counter it, but reducing distractions is at the top of my list. I find myself frequenting the faculty room less this year when I need to grade. As much as I want to interact with my colleagues again, I need a quiet space to get those essays graded; I’d rather gather after work for a drink or a coffee to reconnect. If you need a little background music to block out the noise around you, many music apps are featuring “focus playlists,” usually consisting of classical or jazz instrumentals. However, if you are using a free service, the commercials may defeat the purpose, so your own downloaded music or CDs might be a better option.

Pace, plan, and prioritize

Another side-effect of the pandemic for teachers is an overpacked curriculum. During remote learning, our students did not use or develop many of the skills necessary for traditional schooling. Because of this, we now need to not only teach our content, but also teach them how to be students again. Last year, many of our students were languishing at home, and we worked harder than ever to forge a sense of community during a time when we were so separate. Now our students are back in our classrooms, but they still need that extra attention on social skills. Our sophomores are like freshmen; many have never been in the school building before this year. Our juniors and seniors have forgotten how to go to school without relying on the web for the answers. In many ways, it has fallen to us teachers to fill in these gaps, on top of our usual curriculum, and we are feeling the pressure.

There are posts and articles galore about making up for learning loss and social skills for students, but what about teachers? We must remember to pace, plan, and prioritize. As teachers, we are planners, but we need to take into account the changing dynamic of the classroom as both we and the students adjust to being back in-person. I find that I am overplanning. I expect I can get more done each period than I actually can. This has always been my way; I prefer to have more planned than necessary so I can roll an activity or exercise to the next day if a discussion catches fire, rather than be caught short if the class discussion lulls. But this year is different. Part of this discrepancy is readjusting to a 40-minute period from a 70-minute one, but it’s more than that.  Each activity is taking much longer than expected. Students need daily reminders of things like, “take out your notebook,” “close the computer,” “you need a pen.”  I hope this will change as the year continues and these routines become more ingrained, but for now, I need to adjust my pace and prioritize my most essential content.

I also need to prioritize what needs to be graded and what doesn’t. I’ve been asking myself what I can go over in class with my students rather than taking home with me to grade. This is a good teaching practice that we sometimes overlook in an effort to cover more content. I want my students to keep working and keep learning, but it is important that neither they nor I become overwhelmed amid all the changes that come with our return to the building.

So for now, I’ll keep chugging along; eventually, we’ll make it over the mountain.

Catherine Rauchenberger Conley is a high school English teacher, poet, and writer. For 23 years, she has worked to instill a love of reading in her students at St. Jean Baptiste HS in NYC. She lives in Queens with her husband and cat. The former supports her writing interests; the latter steals her pens. More of her writing is available in Tuck Magazine, The New Verse News, and on her blog at crcreateaday.wordpress.com.

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