We know how stressful the last few weeks of the summer can be – getting our children ready for school, and crossing school supplies, summer reading and uniforms off our check lists. Now imagine what it must be like for the teachers, who put so much time and effort into the school day. What is their back-to-school preparation like? How do they disentangle themselves from the long, lazy days of summer so they can reenter the classroom ready for the grueling task of educating our children for the 10 months ahead? We asked teachers from various community yeshivot to describe their experiences during this transitional season.
A Teacher’s Summer “Vacation”
“I take quite a few weeks to veg out,” admits Lauren Grunsfeld, who teaches 7th and 8th grade English at Barkai Yeshiva. “Your mind needs that after the long year. But then August arrives and I start having anxiety dreams – showing up without my lesson plans, without my roll book – which tells me it’s time to start preparing.”
Paulina Salem, who teaches 2nd grade at Yeshiva of Flatbush, operates similarly. “Once August hits, you go to Staples, buy what you need for your classroom, get your bulletin boards up…. I go into my classroom a lot during this period, making sure everything is perfect.”
Though the hardcore preparation may not occur until August, our teachers agree that the mentality is always there – activating as early as the last day of school and continuing into the summer. Paulina, who was recently told she’d be moving classrooms next year, began making the switch as soon as the final bell rang. Ariella Falack, who teaches Torah and Halacha at Magen David High School, also began her preparations for the coming year right at the conclusion of last year, tweaking her lesson plans and updating her files. The summer is actually the ideal time for this busy work, she says, as teachers are on “break,” so-to-speak, and need the preoccupation to keep their brains sharp. “In the summer, I need to read books and do brain teasers to keep mentally active,” says Paulina. “When you’re working every day and then suddenly stop, the lack of structure feels strange.”
Ariella agrees: “Especially in the summer, when I’m not working, I like to keep busy, thinking about next year.”
In truth, there’s much to be done during this two-month hiatus, such as assessing the previous year and the changes that need to be made. “During the summer, I do a lot of reflecting on how to make things better,” says Paulina. Lauren adds: “It’s important to go over the previous year while it’s still fresh in your mind. What worked? What didn’t work? What can you do differently the following year?”
Education as a Creative Art
During the summer, teachers work tirelessly to prepare their material and determining the most effect way to present it. In many schools, teachers are told what to cover and by when, but how they present the topic – the creativity they bring to the execution – is entirely up to them. The possibilities are endless, and all three of these teachers consistently succeed in finding innovative, kid-friendly ideas.
Ariella always includes an activity or video in her lessons. These put the material into context and turn concepts that could seem ancient and esoteric into current and relevant information. Paulina feels strongly that kids learn the most through games and humor. So she works to come up with elaborate schemes, silly examples and motivational incentives, all while teaching to the kids’ interest. Lauren believes in experience. “Kids remember things they do,” she asserts. “They may not remember content they’ve read, but they’ll remember something they’ve read in front of a class.” So, within her lessons, Lauren finds places for active learning – learning which engages the brain and helps ensure long-term retention.
The mapping out of lesson plans is perhaps the most intensive thing teachers do before the school year begins. Ariella relearns much of her material, first studying the sections or the units she’ll be teaching and then thinking about how they might be applicable to the kids’ lives. She follows a particular technique of breaking down each perek (chapter), always looking for connections to previous lessons and including a guiding question, so that even those who struggle with note-taking will have something to take away.
Lauren spends much of her summer reading. She rereads the books she’ll be teaching, focusing on passages that were previously unclear and rethinking others in light of her students’ insights. She reads more current books, too – Young Adult (YA) literature the kids might be interested in pursuing themselves. “I read more YA than I ever thought I would!” she quips. She also revisits old lessons in order to ensure mastery over the material so she could teach it more effectively. “Old lesson plans get a bad rap,” she insists. “When you master a lesson plan, you can manage the kids responses better because you’re not struggling to process it yourself.”
“Always Trying to Make Things Better”
Then there are basic administrative concerns. Lauren looks at the school calendar to see how her lessons will realistically fit into the days allotted her. “The school year is very punctuated,” she says. “You can’t always rely on doing it tomorrow.” With this mindset, she maps out her weekly curriculum till January, deciding when tests will be given, when projects will be due and which materials need to be photocopied and ordered. All of this happens during the summer.
Paulina prefers a more flexible approach to curriculum planning. “When I first began teaching,” she says, “I tried to lay all my lesson plans out in advance, but found that things kept changing.” So now she plans only for the first two weeks of school during the summer, while thinking more broadly on a month-by-month basis. Once the school year starts, she diligently plans by the week, but knows that her adherence to that plan will vary from week to week. Paulina teaches with openness and adaptability, and she says her students benefit from it. “I don’t look back at my old plan book,” she says resolutely. “I don’t like to do the same thing year after year – I like to make it challenging. I’m always trying to make things better, more interesting. You have to, because you change, the kids change, and pop culture changes.”
In addition to lesson planning, these teachers prepare for school on a mental, emotional and even physical level. “I’m very shy by nature,” says Ariella, “but I psych myself up for my classes. I tell myself ‘if anyone can do it, why can’t I?’ and that I have to be confident or it’s not going to work.”
“Emotionally, I feel a lot of anxiety,” agrees Lauren. “That anxiety comes out of high expectations for myself and for the kids. And also a concern that what you planned won’t work. The kids might not be there yet.”
For Paulina, the most exciting part about the approaching school year is getting her class list – seeing the group of kids she’ll get to teach, and what the gender breakdown will be. Each year when school ends, she struggles to leave her group of students, having grown so much with them and taken pride in everything they’ve accomplished. With the new class list comes the exciting opportunity to reinvest herself in a new group of children.
The teachers agree that anything they think they know about their new batch of students is superficial at best. Sometimes they ask the previous year’s teacher for input, as it is vitally important for them to know about chronic or circumstantial issues, like a sensory problem or a parents’ divorce. But more often than not, they wait to get to know them first. They feel very strongly about gauging students with their own eyes, all while keeping an open mind.
Time to “Suit Up”
On the physical level, there is a definite wardrobe change required. Teachers must step out of their sandals and reacquaint themselves with shoes, preferably high heels for maximum effect. “You have to look professional and be tzenuah (modest) to be a good role model,” says Ariella.
“You have to have an appropriate presence in the classroom,” adds Lauren, describing the importance of formal attire.
For these teachers, all of whom have children, balancing motherhood with their teaching preparations is the greatest challenge of back-to-school season. “The difficulty is preparing my kids for school, just as I’m preparing myself,” says Ariella. “On that first day, when I have those first-day jitters, that stomachache, they have it, too, and I need to be there for them. It’s a balance.”
We all feel an enormous debt of gratitude to these teachers for putting so much forethought and care into the upcoming school year. For them, shifting into back-to-school mode is a far more demanding and pressured process than it is for the rest of us. We wish all our readers much success as they make their preparations, expressing particular admiration and affection to our kids’ teachers, who put more work into their planning than we ever thought possible.