When I was teaching, I remember the stretch between January and the mid-winter break feeling long–for both me and my students.. In part, it was feeling more cooped up because of bad weather combined with a general knowledge that we’d be in school for several more weeks before having some time off. The result was usually an increase in unwanted behaviors and more tending to the classroom dynamic in the hopes that those behaviors wouldn’t go too far astray.
There is a different kind of caring that I found was needed during the winter months. The fall holds a certain kind of promise for the year, and the spring fuels hope differently, too (maybe it’s for the summer or maybe just a more positive attitude given the increase in temperatures outside), but winter is its own bear. Preserving and ameliorating classroom culture is a crucial part of ensuring social and emotional wellbeing and academic success, especially when morale is low. Here are a few suggestions for ways to do this in winter:
1) Counteract each negative interaction: Teachers tend to be highly intentional (not every job has planning periods built into it). We often engineer group projects or small group work to create the best conditions for success, but we aren’t always mindful of engineering positive interactions after we’ve had a bad one. Sometimes, we even put the onus on the student to make things right after something has occurred, but because of the power differential that exists between students and teachers, it’s important for us to take the lead. The next time you have a less than stellar moment with a student, find (or create) three positive moments you can have with that student, and try to have those occur within three or so days. By not allowing that negative moment to take root, you’re signaling that you care about that student and your relationship, and supplanting the difficult feelings (which might be shame, guilt, or embarrassment) that will help that student want to show up more fully in class.
2) Surprise your students: I know very few people who aren’t delighted by a little bit of a break. When you notice a student, group of students, or your whole class could use a boost, give them one. It could be some time in class to start an assignment early or a reprieve on nightly homework; whatever the “treat” is matters less than explicitly acknowledging that you see things are feeling tricky, and you’d like to do something about that. This reminds students that you are a person who likes and cares about them, and that’s always a lesson worth imparting.
3) Read the room and do something about it: Teachers are constantly on high alert reading the energy of the room. If you aren’t aware of the mood, things can go awry quickly. Particularly in these winter months, have some go-to strategies or activities to lean into to help students bounce back if you see things getting away from you. For younger students, this might be a movement break, an opportunity to end difficult work a couple of minutes early, or giving more transitional time to help them work it out before the next activity begins. For older students, doing some deep breathing exercises, turning on some music, or giving them 10 minutes outside or a round of CatchPhrase can help relieve tension.
4) Do something nice for yourself: Much like students feel better when their teacher recognizes they’ve been working hard and could do with a break, so do teachers. When a staff member can recharge themselves, the energy they bring back to their classroom is better. Giving yourself a night off from assessing student work, treating yourself to your favorite latte, or prioritizing a fun activity with your family or friends can all help you feel more yourself and more able to rise to whatever challenge comes next.
Demonstrating your care for your students (and yourself) isn’t always easy, especially in the doldrums of winter, but it is always worth it. Try some of these ideas out, and let us know what they do for your students and your practice. And if you have any other ideas, send them our way! We’d love to know what works for you.