Life After Leave: Taking Back the Classroom
by Josie Pack on October 12, 2017
Whatever the reason for your leave, it’s not easy handing over your students to a new teacher. It’s even harder coming back after someone else has been leading the class in their own style.
I recently returned to the classroom following maternity leave. Everyone was anticipating the transition but no one capitalized more than my homeroom students who took the opportunity to create their idea of a new normal for the classroom. The room was buzzing. The gentle hum of harmonizing fidget spinners. The forceful slurping of unicorn drink straws. The moans of apathy. Did you know fifth graders can come down with their own form of “senioritis?”
There was no guide for this day in any teaching book on my shelf. No blog post to be found discussing the subject. I had plenty of information about how to survive leaving my own child at home but there was nothing to guide me on how to handle the children I was coming back to.
The Hand Off
The long-term substitute who took the reins could not have been more perfect for my students. Mr. S. was immediately invested in each and every one of them, taking the time to get to know them and figure out how they learn best. He implemented his own classroom system and made sure learning did not stop during the transition. When it was time for me to return, I sat down with Mr. S., and we worked together to create a smooth hand off. It was clear there would be some pushback from students when changing leadership, so I knew I had to come in with a plan.
So, there I was, back in front of my fifth graders with four weeks of school left. I was determined to take back control of the classroom quickly and painlessly, leaving as much time as possible for unit wrap up, final testing, middle school prep, and all the exciting events that make the end of elementary school so memorable.
Hitting the Reset Button…Again
I treated this as a classroom reset. We returned to all the basics for classroom rules, rituals, and routines. I brought the students to the carpet and briefly discussed what that meant, with their help. Although I had been gone for several weeks, many students knew exactly what I meant when I said we were going back to the way things were:
• Listen and follow directions.
• Raise your hand before speaking or leaving your seat.
• Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
• Respect yourself, your classmates, and your teacher.
Water bottles were OK, but the unicorn drinks had to go. We also had a brief discussion about fidget spinners and how to use them properly in the classroom. Seating was reworked simply by shifting a few students instead of the whole room. We lined up, sat down, and lined up again. We had discussions for the sake of discussion, remembering proper habits and practicing. All in one day, we made miles of progress toward a cohesive classroom of students ready to finish the year strong. There was a sense of relief once the familiar structure began to take form. I believe students find comfort in the predicable, especially after undergoing so much change.
Keep on Teaching
While it’s important to spend time establishing the classroom norms, it’s even more important to pick right back up with instruction as quickly as possible. This allows students to immediately put their skills to practice and continue learning in the environment a teacher has worked so hard to create. This is very relevant to the end of the school year in particular, when routines are commonly disrupted by field trips, assemblies and other special events. My students got started right away with the final lessons in their unit on natural disasters. On my first day back, we dove right into a close reading followed by a writing prompt. Luckily, Mr. S. had been working on this unit with fidelity and had students build anchor charts for their topics and objectives. We referred to these constantly for support and target reminders.
Planning to the Minute
In my experience dealing with classroom management issues, I have found things tend to fall apart during those extra minutes after a lesson is complete. For my first week back, I spent time making sure I had solid plans for each day and materials were ready to go. When expectations have been well established and students are comfortable with the system, it’s easier to go with the flow of the day and see what there is time for. However, I knew any slack left in my plans could be exploited during these important first days and I created explicit instructions for next steps after each lesson. This included additional independent reading time, a bonus math rotation, and even a station of brain teaser activities. No minutes of the day went to waste.
With cooperation and perseverance, we wrapped up the school year beautifully. It was so wonderful to see these students off to middle school and celebrate all they had learned. Coming back to this group and working hard to make sure they finished on a high note was extremely rewarding but I think the students also were very proud of the work they had done and the growth they showed along the way.