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Moving the Obstacles: Smoothing the Path at the End of the Year

May 22, 2024

Moving the Obstacles: Smoothing the Path at the End of the Year

Navigate the "fake end of the year" with ease by understanding capacity limits, embracing emotional endings, and preparing for the future—discover practical tips and reflections to help you and your students finish the school year strong.

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Have you ever heard of “fake summer”—those days in spring when the temps are hot, and you pull out your flip-flops and sunscreen, only to need to turn the heat on the next day? Well, if you get that concept, let me throw another at you: fake end of the year. In the Northeast where I live, school is in session until the last week of June, so as the temps get warmer, state testing wrecks our schedules, and spring sports are ramping up, it feels like we must be near the end, right? Not really. I always notice that I hit a wall in mid-May, and this year I’ve gotten reflective about it. Here are the three things I’ve been thinking about lately, and I hope they’ll help you and your students finish strong, especially if you still have a while to go like we do! 

We Are at Capacity

State tests. Assemblies. Family vacations. Information overload. If this list makes you queasy, now imagine that you are 13 years old, hormonal, taking those state tests, having your schedule disrupted by the assembly, managing missing school for a not-so-perfect family vacation, all while your counselor is trying to talk to you about high school, which is more of an idea than an actual place. As much as I feel that I’ve reached my capacity, I see it in my students and my own kiddos around this time of year. What can we do? Honestly, simply raising our attention to this common experience is helpful. As a geeky English language arts, I was thinking about what “at capacity” really means. One day last week after a state assessment, I asked my students if they knew what that meant. Most had an idea, but then I explained that being “at capacity” is kind of like a movie theater having 100 seats, and more people keep coming in. We talked about the chaos that ensues when there are more tasks than we have the time for, and we discussed how it makes us feel. I shared with them that I really hate being overloaded because then I don’t feel good at anything. They seemed relieved that it was possible for adults to feel this way too. It also led to a good discussion about choosing what to commit to in high school. For the younger kiddos in elementary school, I love this Stress Busters activity from the Share My Lesson Partner Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which is an incredible resource. Being Kind to Ourselves, also from the foundation, is another great lesson that is appropriate for middle to early high school. 

There are fun ways to combat this feeling too. If you must drill students with content for final exams (as I must), gamify it. Students love Kahoot, Quizizz, and any interactive game. My daughter, who has just recently started substitute teaching, came with her own bag of tricks! Students worked for a set amount of minutes, and then they competed to do Wordle or the New York Times Connections. This lines up with Daniel Pink’s observation in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing: “Elite performers have something in common: They’re really good at taking breaks.” In a professional development session that I’m running virtually, I’ve made sure that we take actual breaks and move away from the computer. When we return, I have a funny and relatable video, usually from We Are Teachers cued up. They also have a “Life and Well-Being” section that is filled with real-world-from-the-classroom ideas. For many of us, breaks are the first thing we shove aside when we are at capacity, but that is the exact opposite of the approach we should be modeling for our students. Stop and play a game, watch a funny video, take kiddos on a nature walk, or have a spontaneous chat. 

Amber Chandler and colleagues

Endings Are Hard

Though they might not show it, students become very accustomed to their schedule, their teachers and their routine. They find safety in the predictability of school and our classrooms. Even if they are ready to move on, endings are hard. Most students don’t know how to say goodbye, and I’m terrible at it myself. A few weeks ago, I shared an activity that a colleague did to help students be reflective, and I was inspired to add a reflective piece to our final exam. We are asking students to look back at their school year, asking them to tell us about their “roller coaster ride,” making sure to include the highs and lows of the year.  

Socially, the end of school can be emotional because students are leaving for college, switching schools, moving, or simply experiencing the many “lasts.” I’m not a teary person, but our school has an awesome tradition of waving the students off on the last day of school. We line the front drive, bring bubbles, and as the buses pull away, the entire staff is there to wave goodbye. I don’t know if it is the exhaustion, relief or just genuine “endings are hard” feelings, but I cry every single year. It’s a good cry. Here’s a video of us. Giving students the safe spaces to be emotional about transitions is very important, and classroom teachers can do this by providing opportunities for reflection and especially by helping them grow their gratitude. 

The Future Is Scary 

As an eighth-grade teacher, I watch students evolve from being meek seventh-graders to feeling as if they rule the school. As they strut down the hall, laughing at how tiny the fifth-graders who are touring the building are, I know that it is all bravado. The reality is that the “next step” for any of our students—whether it is a new building, a job, college or the armed services—is really scary. Watching my son walk into freshman orientation was considerably worse than watching him head off to kindergarten because I knew that high school can be rough. My daughter goes to college an hour away, and during her first two months of college, either my husband or I drove down to give her a pep talk over coffee or dinner about twice a week. The great news is that as students persevere, they develop the “mental muscle” to do it again. Post-pandemic, I have found that students’ “stick-to-it” and “stay-strong” muscles have atrophied both academically and socially. 

The best way for any of us to help students close one door and open the next one is by making sure they know what is actually behind the door. This is as simple as having an “ask me anything” discussion about the next grade or level. I’ve done this with eighth-graders, whose many questions include, “What do I do if I get lost?” and “How do I get into a club?” and “Is there a lot of homework?” They want to be reassured, and if you have regular conversations with your students, they will feel comfortable asking what is on the other side of the door! 

The end of the year is really about moving obstacles for our students. My mentor, Dr. Peter Loehr, always asks me—literally every time I’ve ever met with him—“What obstacles can I clear out of your path? What can I move for you?” This practice is one I’ve stolen, and I ask this of my mentees and students all the time. As you consider the obstacles that face you and your students now, here’s a little more inspo for right now. Check out some of my other musings—What can I say? Endings are hard!—over the years: EdWeek’s “Bite-Size Advice for Teachers to Finish the Year Strong,” Getting Smart’s “Words of Wisdom to Inspire and Motivate Educators,” or one of my personal faves, “Dear Future Me.” What advice do you have to share about ending strong? 

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Amber Chandler
  Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification. She is the 2018 Association for Middle Level Educators’ “Educator of the Year.”  Amber has enjoyed a wide variety of... See More
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