February school days are their own kind of special. The holiday excitement has worn off, the days are still short and chill, and the school term is barely half-way done, with the second half stretching into the dim future. I sensed early in my teaching career that morale tended to drop to its lowest in February, and it became imperative to learn some good coping mechanisms. While I, too, was tempted to sink into apathy, I couldn’t indulge myself or I risked having my entire classroom slide into the doldrums with me.
The following list is comprised of ideas I tried in my teaching, with varying degrees of success. I have done some as a brick- and-mortar teacher, while others have worked better in a homeschooling setting. Certainly, we do not do all the things in one February!
- Pay attention to your clothes. Wear cheerful colors. This may seem like a no-brainer, but there was a reason why Soviet prisoners wore grey uniforms in grey prison buildings. Costume days for the children are lots of fun. You can earn all the mothers’ gratitude by doing this in a low-key way. Simply instruct your students to wear the brightest things they already own, in as many colors as they can layer.
- Switch up the routine. Once I selected a day to write all our subjects on slips of paper and inserted them into balloons. The children got to pop a balloon at the beginning of each study session to see what they would do next. This was more fun for the students than for the teacher, but it did keep me on my toes! You can also vary the ways you teach a subject. Instead of traditional spelling tests on paper, try a spelling bee, or learn states and capitals to a familiar tune. A day of novelty can be the break that everybody needs to get back on track with ordinary days.
- Decorate your space. It should be a place where students like to be. A string of lights hung on command hooks creates instant ambience when the weather outside is frightful. Light a scented candle or diffuse some fresh smelling oils. When my husband taught junior high, he bought some wing chairs and end tables at a thrift store and set up a corner for free-time reading, complete with a stereo for playing classical music at appropriate times.
- Invest in plants. Winter is a great time to force bulbs in a vase of water on the windowsill. Another simple project is sowing a handful of grass seeds in a shallow pan of potting soil for a tiny lawn inside. Children will expend great effort to earn the privilege of “mowing the grass” with a scissors, and the whole thing becomes a wonderful fairy garden base. Sprouting trays full of alfalfa seeds is another great way to almost instant gratification if you want to not only grow greens but eat them too.
- Buy or borrow some new books. Read-aloud time after recess was my favorite part of the day, both as a student and as a teacher. When energy is flagging, that is a great time to read a comedy or a mystery that makes everyone beg for another chapter.
- Do simple free-writing exercises in tiny notebooks. We have found some of the cutest little journals at dollar stores. The point is for them to not look like regular notebooks. Give your students five minutes to write on any subject you wish, such as “The Most Important Thing in my Treehouse,” or “If I Had a Hundred Dollars.” When the five minutes are up, they can quit writing. Nothing gets checked or graded. Generally, all it takes is one spontaneous writer sharing their paragraph for the contagion to hit the less enthusiastic writers.
- Tea and poetry is a perfect combination for dreary days. While this is considered a homeschooling classic, it could be adapted for the classroom if every child brings a mug and the teacher has facilities to boil a large pot of water. Brew and sweeten a whole pot to avoid sticky spoons and soggy teabags everywhere. Poetry read in this atmosphere is for simple pleasure. Read a bunch of limericks, a rhyming children’s storybook, or an epic poem. The wonder of words in cadence will lift even the droopiest spirits.
- Incentives are every teacher’s ace up the sleeve. I once bought a stash of tiny stuffed animals from a party supply store. Then I propped them all around my classroom and gave the students a list of challenges diverse enough that everybody had a chance, even if they weren’t academic stars. By the end of February, all of them had achieved at least one prize.
- Learn something new as a class. In my seventh grade year, a lady with the patience of a saint came to teach all the girls to crochet, and someone else taught the boys simple wood burning techniques. You can learn some fresh games, or a catchy song, or do a version of “Word of the Day” where you pick a new word out of the dictionary and explore its meaning. Bonus points go to any students who use it properly in ordinary conversation at school.
- Don’t forget to smile. I remember one grim mid-winter when I had heavy things on my mind, and I simply wasn’t feeling it in the classroom. To remind myself, I put smiley stickers all over my planner and made a point to actually look into each student’s face and smile genuinely every day. The atmosphere became lighter immediately and I recognized a universal truth: if the teacher’s not happy, nobody’s happy.
They say, “Variety is the spice of life,” and they are right. There is no need to have a clumpy porridge quality of life when cinnamon and cream are available! Sometimes we object to spicing things up for lack of funds, but imagination doesn’t cost anything. Given that most of us remember best what we learned when it didn’t seem like a lesson, keeping up the spirits in the classroom pays off richly in the long run.
CONTRIBUTOR: Dorcas Peight