Self-Made Survival Concepts for Going Back-To-School from a Distance

As virtual doors are reopening over the next few weeks, I decided to create 10 “commandments” for myself. There is a need to start mentally preparing for a wacky beginning in an uncertain time. Some schools around the country have already started the process; my cousin in Tennessee has been Zooming since August 4th! (Lord bless her)

Since I was devising 10 concepts for myself to keep at the forefront of my mind, I figured I could expound on each and pass them on to fellow educators. 

As you read, you might think, “No duh. That’s obvious.” In fact, you might have that reaction to all 10 of the points I share. But my thinking is if only 1 thing sticks out to you, and it saves you a few (or many) hours of stress, time, or discouragement, then it’s a list worth sharing. 

Read through at your own leisure! In the wise words of C.S. Lewis: “If this [post] means nothing to you, if it seems to be trying to answer questions you never asked, drop it at once.”

Mr. Graham’s Self-Made Survival Concepts for the Beginning of the School Year:

1. Be real with yourself and your expectations

This school year is going to have enough crazy-ness as it is. I challenge you to have realistic expectations for yourself and for your students. In an educational world of virtual interactions, be real with yourself: if you feel like you’re stretched too thin, tone it back; if you find yourself feeling like you’re still in summer break, chances are you could step it up a little. 

Honest evaluations are critical for proper growth and personal assessment.

When we evaluate our students, we take into account what they’re able to do on an individual level, and we measure success and expectations based on what they’re realistically capable of doing. I encourage you to do the same for yourself. Evaluate what you’re capable of in the current situation, check to see if you’re being efficient, and honestly strive to do your job in a way that doesn’t put added strain on you, your family, or your students.

It’s a hard thing to do, especially for teachers who find themselves constantly sacrificing their needs “for the children”. But it’s an important skill if you want to be an effective teacher for your class. Taking care of yourself will pay huge dividends towards taking care of your students — even more so in a virtual setting.    

2. See this as a challenge that won’t last forever

Last March, we had the mentality of “Just get through the year. We’ll never have to do this again.” Well, here we are.

I ain’t no doctor, but I have a feeling like we won’t have to balance health and school after this year (and hopefully sooner than that). I don’t foresee Distance Learning being a viable fix in the future of education; chances are it will be over soon (but not soon enough).

So with that in mind, try to think of this new year as a crazy new challenge that probably won’t happen again; try to attack this challenge with a mindset of resolve. A CPA buddy of mine has the same phrase every tax season that rolls around: with sleep-deprived eyes, he recites, “I can do anything for 30 days.” I’m choosing to have that type of response.

This too shall pass. And if I’m wrong, blame it on my accountant friend.

3. Get comfortable being virtual

This part might be hard, especially for those of us who aren’t Tik-Tok famous. For me, being in front of a screen or watching myself on video can be fairly cringy. 

For this year, I’m going to try to be more animated and amusing for my students. If I’m going to be competing with the famous YouTubers for the attention of the 11-year-old’s in my class, I better at least try to be entertaining.

In-person, I feel fairly comfortable in front of an audience of kids; now I need to try to be comfortable in front of an audience of my webcam (and Big Brother, of course). 

(If you can, explore a little bit on content-creation and how to make simple, easy videos. Can you reach students in that medium? Can you get better at putting together an exciting video? Can you use other simple, easy tools to have an academic edge for the sake of your students? If it’s too much, don’t worry about it. But if you have a little extra time, I bet that’s a place we could all improve in!)

4. Find a few things to be good at and stick to them

With concepts 1 and 3 in mind, stick to a few of your best practices. We educators like to learn “all the things” when it comes to utilizing new resources and skills. So when our lives migrated to a virtual platform, we all (at varying levels of desperation) went out searching for helpful apps, resources, and websites.

Since it’s the internet, there are hundreds of useful tools and resources (like Mr. Graham’s Easy Classroom!); and since there are hundreds of useful tools and resources, it’s easy to “miss out” on a system or item that someone else found, or not use one to its full potential. 

Your school or your district or your colleagues (or your friends) will probably present more than a few options for conducting Distance Learning. Find a few that you can navigate well, and then try to use it for all it’s worth. It will be better to get good at a few things than to be bad at a lot of things. 

5. Reuse, borrow, and steal materials

If you have old activities that might translate to Distance Learning, use them! If a teacher (or YouTuber) offers to give you some materials or helpful links, use them! If your district or school provides resources for you, use them!

Within your own arsenal of items, there’s a good chance that reusing them can work if you take a little time to creatively think of a few helpful changes. For example, I am uploading a ton of my Literacy Slides for my kids to use and click through. It might not be what I’ve always done, but it’s a resource that will probably work for the time being. 

Very similarly, if you’re hesitant to use offered materials because “I don’t usually do that for my math class”, just try it out! The situation we’re in is going to stretch us in many ways — both predictable and unforeseen. If you can commit early to helpful tools, you might save yourself in the long run.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Consider using wheels that have already been invented.

6. Accept failure, but don’t ACCEPT it.

When I say “accept failure”, I don’t mean to take failure as adequate. What I mean is accept that failure is going to happen. It might be semantics, but I believe there is an important distinction between the two. If you have the expectation of never or rarely failing (either expressed or subconsciously), you’ll be disappointed — in a virtual classroom, physical classroom, or even in your relationships outside of a school setting.  

Be flexible with yourself, with your students, with your administrator, with your governor, with your parents, and with your therapist. There is going to be a whole lotta failure on the horizon: if you anticipate it, you won’t be nearly as triggered.

Again, this COVID opening is a challenge that we probably won’t face again any time soon. When a challenge proves overwhelming, or you don’t quite meet the expectations that are put on you, be ok with the fact that we’re all struggling together.

7. Time block

(This is advice mostly for myself. Feel free to listen in on the internal dialogue)

This practice will save you mountains of time and loads of stress. Some districts or schools might already have “set schedules” for when online classes are to be taught. Some might not offer any real guidance. 

To the best of your ability, I highly encourage you to time block the minutes of your day that aren’t accounted for already. Instead of sporadically checking email throughout the morning and afternoon hours, or begrudgingly creating online material 10 different times a week, really sit down and purposefully set aside certain tasks for certain times in your day and in your week. 

If you have a few hours in your morning each day, plan them accordingly. For myself, I do my best “creation” in the mornings when I’m consuming my extra-hot-non-fat-soy-1 ½ pump-no-foam-half-calf-iced-caramel-mocha-venti. (JK I drink creamer with a little bit of coffee.) 

So in my mornings I use my productive hours to create, tweak, and develop assignments or projects; and in my afternoons when I’m a little less inspired, I do things that require less ingenuity like answering emails or making phone calls. 

Evaluate your hours, decide what will be productive for you, and stick to a time block. Make adjustments when necessary, but do your best to use your time and protect your sanity. (As a bonus, you can use this to communicate with students and parents for when you can be most available for them!)

8. Find a support group 

Most educators like to talk. That’s one reason why they go into teaching: 30 kids have to sit still while they tell stories or share information. Heck, some of us like to talk so much that they create blogs…

We talk in the classroom, we talk at home, we talk to ourselves, and we talk in our sleep.

But we also communicate with our colleagues. We tell a joke during our lunch breaks. We share stories with one another before morning meetings, or while waiting for a parent to show up to an IEP. We pause in the hallway to connect with a co-worker, even if it’s a simple half-smile. (You know, the one you do when you’re passing each other but don’t want to begin prolonged eye-contact 50 feet away, so you just pretend to not notice what’s happening and then flash an awkward, yet perfectly-timed smile for when your within 3 seconds of passing one another? That one.) 

All of that is about to go away. And it’s going to be hard to navigate the absence of the interactions and venting and joking and vulnerability we’re used to.

So my suggestion is this: find people you can talk to about school. I encourage you to have a “support group” with teachers (because they’ll understand), and in addition, have one with non-teachers (so they can be impressed with our struggles, but also can tell us when to shut up when we are being a wet sandwich). 

Intentionally having people to talk to might be one of the best ways to keep you sane for the first few months of the new year. You’re about to start a really hard task, and talking about it might help you process what we’re dealing with. Find teachers, non-teachers, and maybe even a neighborhood golden retriever who will listen to you regardless of what you share. 

9. Exercise 

Now that we’re teaching from home, we’ll have significantly fewer opportunities to walk to the copier, pick kids up from the lunchroom, run around the classroom (shout-out to Kindergarten teachers!), and navigate to and from our building and parking lot.

On average, I take about 8,000 steps a day at my school as a 5th-grade teacher. Now, by teaching from my kitchen table, I have to make up those 8,000 steps somewhere. It’s simple math, right?

Health Professionals, PE teachers, and iWatches tell us to do 30 minutes of exercise a day. With fewer chances to walk the halls and pace in the classroom, it will be important to be intentional about moving our bodies. I suggest you do an outside, away-from-the-computer type of activity.

Creative teachers might have to devise creative solutions. Do you have a neighborhood that is walk-able? Go for it. Do you have a gym or spin bike within a 12 minute drive? Sounds feasible. Do you have a body that can handle squats, crunches, or arm-circles? You probably do to some capacity. So get that hiney moving.

10. Remember why you went into teaching

In conclusion, I’m going to appeal to your feelings and emotions just a tad. When October is concluding and everyone is ready to give into Seasonal Affected Disorder, remember why you went into teaching

Simon Sinek once told me (via a YouTube video, not in person) that there is vast value in the why of an operation. Understanding why you do something is a powerful way to find clarity in what and how you do it.

Did you go into teaching because you wanted to support kids in their educational careers? Continue to do that by making their virtual experience as educational, informative, and connecting as you can.

Did you begin teaching because you wanted to bring about generational change with how kids treat one another, talk with each other, or see the world? Continue to do that by being a virtual example, provide opportunities for open communication, and model online etiquette and manners in the midst of your instruction.

Did you become a teacher because you have a passion for learning and enjoy the scholarly atmosphere? Continue to do that by bringing quality instruction and content in a medium that is challenging for both educators and students alike. 

Or did you become a teacher simply because, for some inexplicable, intangible reason, it was the right thing to do? Then I challenge you to, for some inexplicable, intangible reason, do the right things for yourself, your students, and your community in a way that only you can. 

5 thoughts on “Self-Made Survival Concepts for Going Back-To-School from a Distance

  1. This may sound funny, but one thing I disliked was people being too interested in my learning, more so as I got older. I guess my attitude was, thank you very much, but I’ll learn it on my own. It wasn’t that I was difficult, but my intrinsic interests led the way. Pouring through children’s encyclopedias, digging under rocks, watching a catepillar build a coccoon, playing with friends, building tree forts, and more. I think with all the “caring”, young people’s intrinsic motivations are being stunted. While growing up, if we didn’t do the work, we failed, some repeating grades, but we were taught, by circumstances, that we determined what happened. Great lesson.

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      1. October Sky was one of my favorite movies. A young man and his friends, supported by a kind, hard-working teacher, studied math on their own and created rockets, leading to careers in NASA. She encouraged, but encouraged in what they were already interested in, and they had to do all the hard work. They were motivated by their interests.

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