By Gregor Trpin
180 school days. It’s a long year, and we teachers often feel like we are endlessly dashing to meet deadlines, new curriculum initiatives, and students’ needs. A continuous cycle to regurgitate, reiterate, recalibrate, remind, require, reorganize, repeat or just rewind. All in an effort to have students ingest, invest, digest, suggest, compress it all together in preparation for a “test.”
At least, sometimes it feels that way. Although we love our jobs, it can be exhausting, impersonal and uninspiring for both the students and the teachers. How do we refresh and find value in the daily grind and artistry in our profession while engaging our students?
“ My mindfulness of students’ basic social-emotional needs enhances a positive feeling. Their needs are met, they feel cared for and validated. Isn’t that what we all want?”
One way I’ve found is to look beyond the surface and embrace our students’ emotional needs. Sensitize our feelings and approach curriculum with a finger on the pulse of students’ social-emotional states of being. With a tremendous amount of empathy, I try to inquire, include and integrate my instruction into the tangled web of an adolescent’s mind, and meet my group entering the classroom with an inquisitive and responsive sensibility.
I’m listening to their discussion. I’m engaging in pleasantries. I’m sharing quick conversations as they come into my room with their emotional and physical baggage in hand. Late night soccer practice, studying for tests late into the evening, overloaded homework, difficult transitions between divorced parents, fatigue, parental court battles, intense social media drama, anxiety over grades and tests, etc. You name it, I’ve heard it.
As students enter, I’m aware of their energy and adapt my ideas and agenda for the day, actively envisioning a way to customize and intertwine our dual needs. One that takes time to stabilize the emotional temperature of the room, while not diverting from the pace and plan of my lessons.
Of course, a complete improvisation or revision of my lesson is not what I am suggesting. More like an awareness and receptiveness toward the students — an additional layer of dimension to my “plans,” when the opportunities present themselves.
If students are fatigued, I build in mindful meditative moments. If stressed, I consider artful escapist lesson infusions (often silly and fun). If frustrated, I consider opinion-writing activities. If sad, I shape in opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. If bored, I build in playful competitive games or special talent exhibitions (my sixth-graders love this one). If unchallenged, I establish more academically rigorous extension activities. If hungry, I let them eat their snack outside of my classroom.
I’m always fully prepared to veer back into the lane of my curricular pacing objectives. With any emotional temperature, the class appreciates the “step outs,” sees these as breaks or opportunities to refresh, and then is able to connect back and invest more willingly into the scheduled groove.
These are moments, not monuments of time. Quick opportunities for student expression and release. Brief openings to connect personally and truthfully to our students and build trusting relationships. My mindfulness of students’ basic social-emotional needs enhances a positive feeling and climate in the room. Their needs are met. My students feel cared for and validated. Isn’t that what we all want? We know the benefits of positive psychology and learning. Juxtaposing the curricular and social-emotional needs in a classroom is feasible and manageable, and it reinforces student engagement and learning.
Suppressing student energy, I find, exacerbates disengagement and ultimately makes those 180 days feel like 1,080 days for the students and the teachers. So why not build a culture of authenticity and awareness? The results: more engaged learning and a positive, productive classroom atmosphere for students and teachers.
Gregor Trpin, Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, is a middle school humanities and social studies teacher. He recently gave a TEDx talk titled “180 Days: Ode to My Students”; see it here.