Every teacher who’s taught at least one year knows which times of year are especially challenging: at the end of the school year when everyone is ready to be done (including teachers!), right before spring break when everyone is excited about their vacation, and the three festive weeks before winter break! That last one is especially tough — even normally good students can get distracted more easily, as everyone is looking forward to the holiday season.
In addition to all the seasonal distractions, you’ll often find yourself obligated to attend extra activities at school, like holiday programs and parties. Plus, many teachers have to close out their gradebooks before the end of the year, and that’s no fun. All of this craziness, compounded by all the family things you need to get done yourself before the December holidays, can make you dread this time of the year.
Before you completely lose your mind, we’ve come up with five tips that can make these arduous three weeks a breeze!
How to keep your students engaged before winter break
1. Keep a tight leash on your lesson plans
With all the chaos, you may be tempted to forego creating detailed lesson plans or even lesson planning at all. Don’t! Your students need order more than ever right now. Of course, you don’t want to go overboard and make their lives miserable before the break, but make sure that your students are still busy and focused. Keep them occupied, and the next three weeks will go by faster.
I personally like to take the time to review what we’ve covered throughout the year. Before the holiday break, my students aren’t usually in the mood for new material, so I try to capitalize on that. For example, I’ll create a study guide that we go through as a class, hand out short quizzes to prepare for the upcoming midterm, and then give a midterm the beginning of the last week before break.
Remember, students tend to be more motivated to study when they know that a substantial portion of their grade depends on the amount of effort they put in. They know that they can’t tune out completely because 30 percent of their grade is riding on the midterm. I like to give the test on the Monday or Tuesday before the break because I can keep my students busy for the longest amount of time possible without being completely ruthless. Who gives a big test on the last day of school before winter break, anyway?
2. Anticipate the craziness, but don’t get derailed
Anyone with at least one year of teaching experience knows that these last few weeks are crazy. It’s easy to be optimistic, hoping that this year will be the exception. But it just won’t happen! If you’re at least prepared and acknowledge that your students, in their excitement for the break, won’t be as focused on schoolwork as before, their behavior won’t catch you off guard.
At the same time, don’t get derailed from your ordinary teaching routine. Your students will likely ask you all sorts of questions about your holiday plans and whether they can have a party in your class. Answer them, of course — don’t be the teacher who kills the holiday spirit — but stay on track and cover the material you want to cover before anything else.
For a portion of one class period a few days before winter vacation, I like to ask students to share their opinion of the class and give them the opportunity to offer feedback. I’ve found that this is useful for a variety of reasons:
- Students don’t want to study right now, but they always like giving opinions, so it’s an easier way to spend part of a class period productively.
- Students like to be asked what they think, and they are likely to be more honest since they’re less worried about their grades with midterms out of the way.
- I can take the feedback they’ve given me and make corrections for our second semester when the school year seems to really drag on forever!
3. Be flexible
It always helps to be flexible as a teacher, but it’s especially true before breaks. You’ll be asked to attend or coordinate a variety of activities like holiday programs or parties for your class. Your school may also have traditions like a Festive Sock Day or Secret Santa. Be prepared for these events that your head of school or principal may ask everyone to participate in.
Although I always like to list things I want to cover in class in order of importance, doing so is especially useful during the three weeks before winter break. That way, if an unexpected event pops up, I know what material is not essential for me to cover (relatively speaking, of course).
4. Sprinkle in fun activities (including seasonal ones!)
Students love classes where something unexpected happens and where they have the opportunity to try different things. It’s always a good idea to include fun activities here and there when you have time. So don’t be afraid to mix things up!
For example, I finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream with my students early this year, so I’m going to have them complete a Facebook profile page for one character in the play. (Each student will receive a different character.) I haven’t yet tried this activity with my students, but I know that they will enjoy it because it’s different.
You can always bring in seasonal activities, but I’d encourage you to keep these to a minimum, as anything holiday related will take your students’ attention away from school. But there are exceptions. If you’re teaching about world history and other cultures, for example, then you could easily dedicate a day to festive activities and treats, where students not only get to learn about how or what festivities other countries celebrate but also have a bit of a breather for a change.
You can also consider how some of the other material you’ve taught ties into the winter season. For example, if you’re teaching medieval literature like I am, you could cover Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in December because the original scene takes place during a Christmas celebration, and the rest of the poem harkens back to that. Or you could discuss the origin of a carol like “Good King Wenceslas” when you discuss life in the Middle Ages. That way, you can kill two birds with one stone: 1) cover material and 2) talk about the holidays!
5. Stay on top of your grading
This tip doesn’t pertain to managing your classroom, but many of you likely will have to close out the gradebook around this time of year. If you’re allowed to use some of your break to finish grading, you may be tempted to leave the work until then so you can focus on managing the chaos in your classroom. But this really isn’t the best option.
I encourage you to stay on top of your grading and complete it before going on break. That might mean staying a little bit later at school during the week or an extra hour or two later each evening, but you’ll appreciate it in the end. Because no matter how much time you get for the break — whether it’s one week or three — you deserve having that entire time to yourself! You’ve spent the entire school year focusing on your students, after all. Naturally, you need some time to recuperate in preparation for the next semester. So don’t spend any of that time on grading.
Harness your students’ excitement!
Who doesn’t love the holidays? It’s always fun seeing family and friends and celebrating with gifts and food. But it’s also an overwhelming time, especially for teachers! When your students (and you!) are just ready to be on break, you can incorporate these five tips to make the dreaded three weeks before winter break more tolerable. Students will always be a little crazy during the holiday season, sure, but at least you can capitalize on that excitement and energy for a productive three weeks!