The Heart of the Underdog: 3 Tips for Teaching in a Short-Staffed School

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

The Heart of the Underdog: 3 Tips for Teaching in a Short-Staffed SchoolWhat are the challenges teachers are facing during this pandemic?

Since I can only write about 1,000 words for this blog post, I can’t fully answer that question. But if you’re a teacher, you know the list is a mile long. One challenge that’s at the top of the list is working in a short-staffed environment.

To me, teaching during this time feels like being the underdog in a big game. A game we want to win. A game we need to win for our students. But a game with so many team injuries, so little equipment, and such powerful opponents that it’s almost unwinnable.

If your school can’t hire or pay for substitutes, this likely means even more work for you. Perhaps you’ve needed to cover classes during your planning block. Or maybe you had to take dispersed students into your class. However short-staffing is affecting you and your school, hopefully these three tips can help you execute a game plan that works.

1. Own the A.M.

Before 2020, I would work out at a boxing gym every day right after school, but once the pandemic hit, teaching became so exhausting that I no longer had it in me after the final school bell. After contact tracing, digital lesson plans, extra Zoom meetings, and new training, I had nothing left in the tank. When I got home each evening, I chose the couch over the speed bag.

Within only a few days, my depression and anxiety began to increase, and I was reminded of a study that I read about a few years back in Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath: people who participated in moderate exercise three to four times a week experienced an increase in positive emotion as potent as the strongest antidepressants on the market.

By foregoing movement, I was missing out on a much-needed endorphin release. But I was still too wiped out after school, so I moved my workouts to the first thing in the morning. It took a few days to adjust to waking up in darkness while my wife and kids were still in bed, but I eventually began to enjoy it. The momentum of my day shifted with the early rise. I was winning my first waking hour. I was owning the a.m. As a teacher, heading into the classroom each day, you know there are going to be many uncontrollable situations—no matter how much you plan. So try to start each morning with a victory. What can you do in the morning to begin your day with a win?

2. Be Game Ready

Because of COVID exposure, family obligations, and teacher and substitute shortages, you may be receiving dispersed students from other classes that have no teacher for that day. This may be only a few students, or it could be several. Regardless, these kids sometimes finish their assigned work early. When this happens, they sometimes become bored and attempt to talk to students they know in your class, unintentionally causing disruption.

What I’ve started doing to work with this new challenge is to have curriculum games ready for these students to play as an extension—games like For Crown or Colony?, Win the White House, Executive Command, Do I Have a Right?, and The Oregon Trail are all good choices for history extensions. As a US history teacher, these are games I’m familiar with that I know to be engaging and can help students through. Often these games don’t necessarily align with the subjects dispersed students are supposed to be learning during that block, like Spanish, math, science, or English language arts. But finding games for those subjects is not in my sphere of influence. If students have finished their coursework, I’d rather they play an academic game about US history than one that requires low cognition and provides no academic value.

What educational games for your content area can you have ready that require little instruction from you to play? I’m learning to view dispersals as pandemic-style differentiation. Even though these students aren’t on my roster, they are in my class, and I should make the effort to teach, support, and love them too.

3. Feed Off Your Fan Energy

This March, when students resumed coming to school full-time, I wanted to plan a Cinderella ending to a tumultuous school year of virtual and hybrid learning.

My idea was to buy this giant US wall map from Teacher’s Discovery and play a game I created called “Tap the State,” where I would give each kid 60 seconds to tap as many states as possible while I called them out, one-by-one. The only problem: the map was $400, and I couldn’t pay that out of pocket. My school and district didn’t have the money either. So for my birthday in April, instead of gifts, I asked for friends and family to donate money toward the map. It was fully covered.

This taught me that some people know what we are going through as educators and want to help. With the holiday season coming up, how can you get your fans (family members, friends, social media connections) to help fund a dream that your school or district can’t afford right now? There’s no fanbase like an underdog’s.

image of two men and a U.S. map

Justin Ashley (left) stands with school resource officer (right) in front of U.S. map they hung on the wall for students.

Once the map came in the mail, the school resource officer helped me hang it up, and we rolled out the game. The kids loved it! Jumping up and down, shuffling side to side. Sweating and competing. It was intense.

They began quizzing themselves before and after school using an online game, even asking to practice during homeroom. We played Tap the States off and on during the last quarter, and I promised a twelve-box set of Nerds to the first student to get all fifty states in one minute. In the last week of school, two students set the class record with 49. They didn’t quite reach their goal, but they learned and had fun in the process. It was such an uplifting way to end a difficult school year. It was our buzzer-beater to end the game.

And maybe that speaks to this era of education. Lofty goals are set (like closing the gap from COVID learning loss) that we can’t quite reach, but in the process, our staff and students can still experience joy instead of sadness, get on the move instead of remaining sedentary, and learn something rather than nothing. Maybe that’s our best game plan as we recover from this global pandemic.

So, for those still able and daring enough to answer the call to step into the classroom, we are the underdogs. Our hearts still beat with passion as we play this unwinnable game for our kids. We have been vilified, undervalued, underfunded, injured, broken, and bruised. And yet, we still lace up our shoes, throw on our jerseys, and sprint onto the court to teach with an open heart.

Author Justin AshleyJustin 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 is the author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy.

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