This post was written by one of our team members, Lesha Dalton, a former teacher and administrator with over 30 years of experience in education. To learn more about her and our other consultants, visit our Team Page.
Can you believe it’s already countdown time? You know, that time of year when we count down to the last day of school. Most teachers I know are looking forward to days when they can sleep in late, binge watch TV, travel, and catch up on hobbies or time with friends.
Many students are counting down to some of the same things…. except that some students AREN’T.
Instead, some of our students are dreading summer. Some are facing mornings without breakfast and afternoons without lunch because they won’t be at school to go through the cafeteria line. Some students are facing a transition to a non-custodial parent who may only see them over the summers and doesn’t know their routines or what they like for dinner or that they need the light on to sleep at night. Even worse, some of our students may be spending the summer with someone who constantly yells at them and never says ONE NICE WORD to them.
These are the kids who aren’t keen on countdowns. Seeing “ONLY 29 days left” or “ONLY 28 days until summer break!” written on the board, for them, is a daily reminder of how little time they have left with you. These are the kids who might begin exhibiting more inappropriate behaviors than you saw before. They might be shutting down more often. They might be more disrespectful or uncooperative. And instead of telling you how much they are going to miss the structure and nurturing you provide, they will find ways to distance themselves from you so the pain of losing you, yes…YOU, won’t hurt so much when summer comes.
My Mistake: How I Learned to Stop Doing Countdowns in My Classroom
Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I made the mistake my first year of teaching of doing a countdown to Christmas Break. I was so excited about the break and some of my colleagues were counting down, so I joined in. Each day after we came back the Thanksgiving Break, I would come in, change the number on the chalkboard (yes, that was back when schools had chalkboards) and my students would get more squirrely with each passing day. I thought that if I threatened them with “telling Santa” about their actions that would magically make their behaviors better. At the same time, I was also giving out holiday color sheets and word searches they could do after they finished their work. Now I just cringe when I think about that.
I taught at an inner-city school in a behavior unit classroom filled primarily with boys who qualified for Special Education and who had been retained once or even twice. Seriously, what was I thinking? Every message I was sending them was all about how we wouldn’t be together for 2 weeks, how happy that thought made me, and how everything was leading up to this magical Christmas fun. Except for them, the thought of NOT coming to school (their safe haven) for 2 weeks made them sad and confused and filled with dread although they were too cool to admit that. Truth be told, they didn’t want a break from me or from the structure of school. They wanted to be able to count on breakfast and lunch and the way school made them feel safe.
A No-Countdown Zone: Creating a Safe Haven for Students
It took a mentor in that district to teach me that for some students, countdowns can be scary. So, I fixed that. In the Spring of my first-year teaching, I made my classroom a No Countdown Zone. I told my friends who visited my classroom that we weren’t talking about countdowns and that I wouldn’t be doing that in my classroom. I’m pretty sure my kids heard countdown talk around the building, but we weren’t focused on it in my classroom. My kids knew that summer was coming, but I decided that I wasn’t going to be the one to remind them verbally or with any other kinds of clues like dismantling my reading corner or removing posters from the wall. Instead, I had this mindset that I was going to make every minute count and that I was going to teach up to the last minute.
Taking Care of Our Students' Emotional Well-Being
And you know what? The time leading up to our summer break wasn’t perfect or without incident, but it wasn’t nearly as squirrely as it had been before the winter break. So, while you might be tempted to post that daily countdown on your board, I caution you. Think about the message it sends to kids and what sort of anxiousness it might create for some of them. Think about how much you might be able to get done with your students in preparing them for next year if you made these next few weeks more learning-focused and less summer-focused.
Go ahead…keep your countdowns going…in your heads, on your phones, or with silent signals to colleagues in the parking lot, but just not on your board.
Thanks for thinking about this with me. I hope you take care of yourself and each other.