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The Joy of a School Countdown

Schoolchildren running out of class while teacher holds the door after a school countdown

When I first started teaching, I didn't like the school countdowns I'd sometimes see posted on classroom blackboards. The focus on summer vacation, I thought, made school seem miserable—like we'd rather be somewhere else.

But I'm a convert. These days, I have a countdown to school vacation, to spring break, to field trips, and to graduation on my whiteboard. Countdowns, I've come to realize, help students live in the moment.

Here are a few reasons I love a good school countdown.

Countdowns Provide Excellent Reminders

Most of the students I teach are seniors, and senior year is filled with deadlines: FAFSA filings, college applications, yearbook photos, the end of the term, prom. Countdowns make it easy for seniors to keep up with those never-ending due dates; when they know what's coming, students manage their time better and procrastinate less.

Further Reading: 3 Signs It's the End of the School Year

It's not just seniors who benefit, either. Countdown calendars help all school children realize how much time they have before grades close or classes change. I've found that a countdown helps students make better decisions and stay focused because it lets them prioritize as necessary.

Countdowns Can Build Excitement

I took my students on a field trip to New York City last November, and we started the countdown for the trip on the first day back to school. Each day the calendar ticked down, the students got more excited about the trip. As it turns out, it's not always the trip that makes you happy—the anticipation of the trip does, too. A 2014 New York Times article discussed a psychological study in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life that noticed a connection between anticipation and happiness. The researchers discovered that vacationers were actually happier before they took their trip than they were on it.

And when things get tough, countdowns can provide hope. I teach in New England, and the winters here are long, cold, and dark. But the one bright light in winter is our weeklong February vacation. A countdown to a February vacation—any vacation, really—can reinforce to teachers and students that a nice little break is coming up. And sometimes knowing that a brief respite is just around the corner can help make dreary days a little more doable.

Countdowns Help Us Live in the Present

You could argue that a countdown tempts us to live in the future. I'd argue that a countdown helps us live in the present—and that's a very powerful concept for today's student. Countdowns help us conceptualize time. They remind us how quickly life goes by. When I asked my students if they liked having a countdown on the board, they overwhelmingly said that they did, and many of them remarked that it reminded them to have fun on their journey to the end of the countdown.

Countdowns Work for Teachers, Too

I've been teaching for almost 25 years, and sometimes I'm just exhausted. But I have a countdown to that 25-year anniversary date—which comes with a longevity raise—on my phone. Knowing that my raise is within spitting distance is a nice little perk that lifts my spirits when they're down.

I also have a retirement countdown. Though I love my job and will probably teach past my retirement date, it's a positive point on a rough day to know that in just 1,065 workdays, my most pressing assignment will be finishing the stack of books I've accumulated by my bedside.

Some Caveats

Don't start your countdown to summer vacation on the first day of school. If the countdown is too long, it loses meaning—my students say that, unless it's an upcoming field trip, they prefer countdowns shorter than 100 days. So wait until Thanksgiving break or winter break before posting that end-of-the-year countdown.

Watching a countdown too closely can also be psychologically exhausting. Sometimes, when you're counting down the days for a certain date to arrive, the wait seems excruciatingly long. So don't continually focus on a single school countdown; countdowns are better if they're examined periodically rather than daily.

Further Reading: 4 End-of-the-Year Teacher Strategies to Liberate Your Summer Vacation

Countdowns might not be for everyone, but give them a try and see how they work in your classroom. You might find that your students are more aware of due dates, more likely to live in the moment, and more hopeful about the future.