As someone who is about to graduate in May with an education degree, I have received countless tips and anecdotes about teaching. Interestingly enough, they come from all sorts of people, from fellow rookies to unimpressed veterans and, way too often, noneducators.
One such tip is how to survive what those in the business call the DEVOLSON (Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November). However, I would have appreciated a bit more advice on how to survive the Dark, Evil Vortex of January and Never-Ending February, March, and April (DEVOJANEFMA?). Call it a raging case of cabin fever, the lingering effects of seasonal affective disorder, or just plain whining, but I am beginning to think that this winter will actually go on for forever. Why is that? It’s a fact that the more that the year progresses, the more tired that everybody gets of being cramped in the same room for hours per day with each other. It is compounded by those agonizingly teasing, gorgeous, and sporadic 70 degree days that promise warm weather ahead. It’s an unsurprising, if not well-known phenomenon. The already fidgety kids get more fidgety (as do I) and even the statues get restless. Middle schoolers can be difficult enough to engage without such conditions. As it turns out, monotony (which is not a synonym for “routine”) is the sworn foe of engagement.
Extremely frequently, the insights come from students themselves. The opening dialogue in “Getting to Know You” (from "The King and I," the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a British teacher who cares for the children of the king of Siam in the 1860s) illustrates this and has been a recurring theme in my student teaching experience. “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought: if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
I’ll always be grateful for the day when a few of them taught me the practical value of play. Sure, I’ve done my course assignments and read the articles about play-based learning and the importance of physical activity and brain breaks for students, including students in the older grades, but reading about a concept and putting it into practice day in and day out when you are also responsible for everything else are two very different things.
It was under yet another cold, gray, heavy sky a few weeks ago that I had had enough of the same boring routine. I took my class outside for recess, which is enough of a rarity by itself to be adequately interesting. We all desperately needed a change of scenery. These kids kick, flail, and shake with pent-up energy that their early-adolescent bodies desperately need to release. Rather than stifle and punish this instinct, I am all for building physical movement into my lessons as much as is possible and makes sense.
This time, several of my girls played a game of hopscotch and asked me to join in their game. I nodded and I hopped. Just like my students, I hopped and jumped around (while keeping a close eye on the rest of the playground, of course). The girls laughed and imitated my funny way of keeping warm in the 30-degree chill. It felt so good and so rejuvenating! While I find energy and stimulation in my craft, I can’t deny that I often feel trapped and cooped up even while I’m walking around in the classroom. I can sympathize with the kids who can’t seem to sit still because, these days in particular, I have a very difficult time doing that too. When recess was over, we all returned to the afternoon’s work with a bit less dread and significantly fewer ants in pants. However, I will not be naïve and count on recess as the silver bullet of classroom management problems or the be-all end-all cure for boredom and cabin fever.
It is understandably easy to listen only to what we are required to do as teachers. There is always more to do, more to cover, and more for students to be tested on by the end of the school year. It is easy to tune out those who are doing, those who are working and being tested, and those who are sitting in front of us, but doing so is beyond costly. Now more than ever, it is critical to listen to those voices so that they can help us help them by giving them what they need, whether it’s a new seat, a different pace, or a little bit of hopscotch.