5 Ways to Break the Mid-Semester Blues

Does this sound familiar? You make it halfway through the first semester and just when you find your groove, it hits: the mid-semester slump. The novelty of the new school year has faded, the rules and routines that worked so well during the first grading period have become a source of tension between you and your students, and your once organized and well-managed class is becoming a room full of distracted, and, at times, openly defiant children. It’s enough to make even a seasoned educator count the days until winter break!

Fortunately, fellow educators can help. We’ve collected their best advice for tackling five common mid-semester challenges.

Manage Defiant Students

At one point or another, every teacher encounters a defiant student—one who exhibits rude behavior, talks back, or just refuses to work. Those students are frustrating and disruptive for sure, but teachers agree that building a positive teacher-student relationship is crucial for taming obstinate behavior.

“When a student exhibits defiant behavior, I take it as a plea for help because often it is a red flag that something is not right in his or her life,” says Brian Sites, a high school  math and social studies teacher in Richland, Wash. At those times, Sites talks with the defiant student privately to find out if some- thing in the student’s personal life is motivat- ing the disruptive behavior.

Often times, defiant students simply seek attention, says Monica Hulubei Piergallini, an English language learner specialist in Yakima, Wash. Showing the student you care about his or her wellbeing or share a common interest can build a connection and defuse the behavior. “If a defiant student knows you are an ally and not a dictator, behaviors can change,” she says.

Teachers also can discourage disruptive actions by praising positive behavior.

Shannon Rasmussen, a middle school language arts teacher in Federal Way, Wash., allows students to earn individual positive behavior tickets they can redeem for small prizes. The class as a whole earns credits toward special group rewards when everyone adheres to the rules.

More structured actions may be necessary, though, for students who demonstrate defiant behavior repeatedly. In those cases, teachers suggest developing a behavior management plan with input from the student, parents, and possibly a counselor or principal who outlines behavior expectations and consequences for repeated infractions.

Address Holiday Distractions

Keeping students focused on instruction can pose challenges even on a normal school day; but, with the anticipation of harvest festivals, Halloween candy, Thanksgiving turkey, and presents from Santa, the approaching holiday season adds an extra level of distraction during the first semester.

Teachers say the best thing to do this time of year is embrace that holiday excitement, rather than fight it.

“Holidays are fun and are supposed to be!” says Piergallini. “It’s quite normal for kids and adults to be anxious and distracted as holidays arise.”

To tame that anxiety, Piergallini plans small holiday celebrations to encourage students to remain focused and on task. These festive events offer students the chance to socialize and represent a tangible reward they can work toward. “Allowing students the opportunity to celebrate helps them focus more in the present, knowing the day to let loose is coming,” Piergallini says.

Teachers also can incorporate holiday and seasonal themes into their lessons to keep students engaged.

During Thanksgiving, Virginia high school social studies teacher Angelique Clarke has her students research the social customs of early Americans, including the foods they ate. Clarke’s students develop a cookbook of recipes from their assigned time periods and prepare food samples the class enjoys the day before Thanksgiving break.

English teachers, meanwhile, can incorporate plays, poetry, and American folk tales, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, into their instruction to capitalize on seasonal themes, suggests Gail Epps, program manager for the Montgomery County, Md., New Teacher Induction Program.

Host Successful Parent Teacher Conferences

Start any parent-teacher conference with a positive comment about the student before addressing any areas that need improvement, suggests Epps, and have samples of the student’s work to support your comments.

Consider including the student in the conference as well. Shannon Rasmussen helps her students compile work samples and then, with her guidance, present them to their parents during the conference.

“Student-led conferences are successful if parents feel like they are getting the same information they would as when it was just a parent-teacher conference, but it is even better when they get it from the students themselves,” Rasmussen explains. Remember, parents often feel nervous about meeting with their child’s teacher and worry the teacher will judge their parenting skills, so the teacher needs to set a positive tone for the conference, says Toney McNair, a middle school choral director in Chesapeake, Va.

“Teachers should never appear to be condescending or inactively listening to the concerns of the parents.” Teachers can reassure parents by offering concrete ideas to support the child’s learning and by encouraging parents to visit the classroom at any time, McNair adds.

Stopping Students From Cheating

To discourage cheating, Maryland middle school language arts teacher Debbie Jackson creates multiple versions of her assessments and prints tests on different colored paper so students do not know who has the same version of the test. On essay tests, Jackson supplies several questions and lets each student choose which one to answer. She also provides multiple options for completing assignments, so students can choose whether to create a poem, compose a speech, or write a newspaper article to demonstrate their knowledge.

Several teachers also suggest separating students’ desks or positioning students back-to- back during tests to minimize the temptation to peek at a classmate’s work.

When teachers catch a student cheating, most say they offer a warning for a first offense and make the student redo the assignment. For repeat offenders, however, teachers meet with the student’s parents and school principal and impose more serious consequences such as detention or a comprehensive discipline plan.

“A lot of times students will cheat if they don’t feel comfortable, but if you provide them with preparation…they won’t feel so nervous and will want to demonstrate  what they have learned,” says Clarke. “The best way to prevent cheating is to provide structures and routines in the classroom that allow students to feel confident in what they know.”

Regain Your Composure

Teaching is stressful and when stu- dents push your buttons it’s easy to fly off the handle and lose your cool in front of a class. When that happens, teachers say the best thing to do is simply apologize for your behavior and talk with your students about constructive ways everyone can handle overwhelming emotions.

“Students appreciate humanity and being human more than being perfect,” says Rasmussen.

Identifying your triggers, and strategies for cooling off in the moment, also can help you avoid blowing your top.

“Losing my cool doesn’t happen too often,” says Rita Wells, an elementary orchestra teacher in Billings, Mont. But when it does, “I try to step back, take a deep breath, and change the direction I’m going. Flexibility goes a long way in keeping myself sane.”

Jackson, meanwhile, plays music to calm a disruptive class, a cue that tells her students that she needs some “quiet time,” she says.

If you still feel on the brink of a melt-down, though, ask a colleague to watch your class for a few moments while you step outside and compose yourself, suggests Epps. “Whenever I have a situation where a student is disrespectful, I have to remember it’s not personal,” says Clarke. “If you can keep that perspective, you will keep your composure. Focus on the students and their learning, and even on those hard days you won’t feel like giving up.”