When I was an undergraduate student, I had this recurring dream that I missed an entire semester of an English class. The first part of the dream is me sitting in a basement classroom with 20 other students and a teacher introducing the Creative Writing class we are enrolled in. The dream does that fast-forward thing like in the movies and the scene moves to me sitting in my dorm room realizing that I actually never went back to the class. What was the thing that jogged my memory into place alerting me to my absence…the big fat “F” next to the course as I logged onto my grades. As I sit staring at my computer screen, I can feel my heart in my stomach and my thoughts are racing. “How could I have forgotten to go to class?” “What in the world made me miss this class?” And then I wake up, soaked with sweat and the sinking feeling in my stomach that the dream was actually real because it was one of those that feels so real.
This recurring dream came up nearly every semester of undergraduate school and followed me to graduate school as well. It typically popped up at the beginning of every semester as I always had this worry that I was going to go to the wrong classroom or miss a class as I was learning my new schedule. It would return again various times in the semester when I found myself overwhelmed with many projects or exams. Once I was done with PT school, I thought I left that dream behind me…then my first semester of my PhD program, my old friend returned in my dreams.
It is back to school season. A season filled with excitement for many and a season filled with worry and stress for others. Since the return of my stressful dream, I have become more hyperaware of how students must feel when returning to school for the semester. To some it is a completely new environment, to others it is coming home but to brand new challenges. The beginnings can cause some anxiety and stress, but as educators and leaders we want that to be a healthy dose of anxiety and stress. As I’m thinking of my students returning, I wanted to reflect on how we can be a part in making sure this is a healthy transition into the back to school season.
1. Invest in your students.
This can be as simple as knowing each student’s name. I’ve written about the importance of saying someone’s name here and I have also written about some ways to remember names here if you would like some launching points. If you already know your student’s names then work to get to know them deeper. I like to spend the time before class starts migrating around the room and asking questions. I ask things like, “What is your favorite Netflix binge right now?” or “What did you do on break this summer?” This is really new to me because to be honest I am actually slightly socially awkward and was intimidated to start conversations with students. I lacked confidence that I had anything interesting to discuss with them and I also had a thought in my mind that there was an invisible barrier between me (faculty) and the students that I couldn’t cross. Most students love chatting and it actually eases their anxiety and stress to make personal connections with their faculty members. We both see each other as real humans that have all sorts of various emotions. By investing in students you create a feeling of being significant to the student which pays off dividends for their development and learning.
2. Invest in your product.
Spend some time sprucing up your content. If you have taught the material before, is it time for revision? What didn’t go well in previous years and how could you do it differently? Is there a different activity you could do with your students to help them learn a concept deeper? Do you PowerPoint slides need some updates of pictures or design? Your investment in your product communicates a clear message to your students. If you have a deep and meaningful investment…students can see you care. If you have a surface investment…students will think you lack care. It is easy as the new school year begins to just rest knowing everything is ready from the previous year, but nothing ever stays the same. Updating your material for evidence-based content should be a must, but even looking at creating a different order of material or activities can pay off as well.
3. Invest in the moment.
Sometimes things happen that are unexpected. Discussions may take a turn into a direction that you aren’t expecting but may still be worthwhile. I have found myself in these moments before and quickly redirect the students (this is necessary when the topic has moved so far off track that you aren’t even in the same universe anymore), but more recently I have let those tangents go a little bit and lived in that moment. I have found some fascinating revelations during those moments. Those moments allowed students to critically think and circle back to the original topic in an unexpected, but meaningful way.
Also, if the students have something going on, acknowledge it. Taking the time to understand where their headspace is in that moment can allow you to be more productive in your teaching. Maybe you have a 50-minute lecture planned to cover new material, but they have just sat through 3 hours of lecture and have a unit exam in their next class. In that moment, how much attention do you think your content will have? Investing in that moment means having the ability to change to an active activity or something else to maximize the student’s learning.
Back to school season is upon us. There is no stopping this freight train heading towards us. The trick is we don’t have to be run over by it, we just have to learn how to jump aboard.
How do you plan on making the transition back to school? What are your go to tricks for easing the transition?