Walk, Don’t Run: Seven Simple Tips for a Successful School Year

By Justin Ashley, author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy

Walk, Don’t Run: Seven Simple Tips for a Successful School YearI was lying by a friend’s neighborhood pool, minding my own business, when my wife poked me and suggested I get out of my chair and join a group of kids in the cannonball competition that was playing out in front of us.

I politely reminded her that I was 32, not 13, and declined.

That’s when she started chanting my name, signaling to the adults and kids around us to join in. Justin. Justin. Justin. Everyone was saying it. How could I say no?

I rose out of my chair, did a few old man stretches, and walked over to the lifeguard. After getting the “go” signal, I decided to give myself an extra edge by sprinting just before I jumped. The result?

I wiped out.

I broke the golden rule at the pool: no running. And I paid for it, big time.

I think many of us start each school year the same way: We run into it with wild ambition for the sake of the adults and kids around us. Fast-forward a few weeks, and we’ve already lost sight of our goals. We stop exercising like we did during the summer. We deprive ourselves of sleep. We get too tired to hang out with friends. We zone out at the dinner table with family. In essence, we slip, stumble, and fall.

If you want to make a big splash this school year, I encourage you to walk, not run. Keep your social and emotional well-being, relationships, and health at the top of the list. Teach strategically—with consistency and caution. These seven tips can help you ease into making a big splash this school year.

1. Set up a vision board.
What do you want this school year to look like? What projects do you want your students to do? Where do you want to travel on the weekends? Who do you want to become?

Organize images, drawings, and text into one big collage of your future. Put it up near your desk at school or in your kitchen at home.

2. Set a fun, short-term goal.
What do you really want to accomplish in your classroom this school year?

Come up with a small goal—not a SMART goal or some big resolution, just something simple that excites you. Make it something you can accomplish in 13 weeks or less to create some quick momentum in the first quarter of the year. Just commit to doing one thing each day that relates to your goal.

That’s what I did with my students to make “Straight Intta Oregon,” a music video about westward expansion. Check it out!

Some days, we watched documentaries about the Oregon Trail. Other days, we read books and worked on the song lyrics. Eventually, we filmed and produced the video. The project was something I looked forward to each day.

3. Step up your planner game.
The Panda Planner and the Simple Elephant are two of my favorite planning tools. They help you structure your days, crush your goals, mind-map, and record things you’re grateful for, successes, and areas for growth. Each school year bring chaos, but planners like these bring calm to the storm, structure to the chaos.

4. Rewatch your favorite teacher movie.
No matter how many times I see Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating never gets old to me. There’s so much to learn—from his relationship-building skills to his ability to help students challenge the status quo, draw out the deeper meanings of texts, and examine the world from multiple perspectives.

At home before your workdays begin or while you are setting up your classroom, watch your favorite teacher movie and try to channel the characteristics you love about that teacher this year—the passion, the drive, the ingenuity.

Or check out a new movie you haven’t seen yet. Here’s a list of the “Top 12 Must-See Teacher Movies” according to TeachHUB.

5. Plan a family field trip for each month in the fall.
We take field trips with students—what better way to protect your sanity this school year than to take a few with your friends or family? Family field trips are typically one-day trips on the weekends within two hours of your home (so you don’t have to pay for a hotel). These are places where you can escape from your schoolwork, where lesson plans, unit assessments, and parent emails can’t follow.

Plan one out-of-town adventure for each month this fall before you begin teaching. One study showed that just planning and thinking about your next family vacay can raise your endorphin levels by 27 percent.

6. Check out classroom decor ideas on Pinterest.
Flexible seating is a big trend you could get into right now. There are also a ton of themes to help get your creative juices flowing so you can create an environment that is warm and welcoming for your students and you.

7. Review thank-you notes from last school year.
Look back over those thank-you cards you’ve received from kids, parents, and staff members. These are reminders that you are changing the world, one child at a time. And they are a preview of what you can continue to do in the year ahead.

Well-wishes to you as we begin again. Whether you are a rookie teacher or a veteran, I hope you make a big splash this school year. Don’t forget, the size of your splash is determined by how you start, not just how you finish.

Young eyes are watching you. Be strategic. Be calculated. Be careful.

And walk, don’t run.

Justin Ashley is an award-winning teacher, motivational speaker, author, and public education advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began teaching in 2007. He is also a highly sought-after speaker for professional development. He has been an inspirational keynote presenter for thousands of current and future teachers, creating an atmosphere that bounces back and forth between rapt silence and raucous laughter. In 2013, he became the only teacher ever to win both North Carolina History Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year in the same year.

Balanced Teacher PathJustin Ashley is the author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy.

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