Beyond the




Tracy Derrell is a writer with an extensive background in education. She has studied journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and spent sixteen years as a middle school English teacher.

Tracy Derrell

Better Work-Life Balance for Teachers: Four Strategies to Make Your Life Easier


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Better Work-Life Balance for Teachers

With all these options, all you need is one more thing to do. NOT. 


When I began my career, no one was talking about work-life balance for teachers, but I was a prime example of how not to achieve it. Every afternoon, I arrived home, fixed a cup of tea, and planted myself at my desk, where I spent the next several hours reading student essays and creating lesson plans. Evenings consisted of cereal for dinner and mindless television. If I was feeling wild and crazy, I treated myself to pizza or Chinese takeout; this was the extent of my "social life." There was little time for relaxation or quality activities. After my first year, the process got easier, but I had to work to get better at carving out time for myself.

If you're a teacher seeking better work-life balance, here are four ways to rethink your approach and craft a more sustainable schedule:

Environmentally Friendly Classroom: 5 Simple Tips for Going Green


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Creating an environmentally friendly classroom

It won't take much effort or time to take these simple steps towards creating a green classroom. 


When I started my career, I was a literacy teacher at an under-resourced school. I had seven classes of varying abilities and no books. My only option for sharing poems and short stories with my students was making copies, which is the antithesis of maintaining an environmentally friendly classroom. When I asked a colleague about where to make those copies, she laughed before explaining that teachers were entitled to a mere 100 copies a month—I had 200 students—and that was only if the one machine available to us didn't break down.

I helped keep my local office supply store in business that year, and because I spent my own money, I had to think of creative ways to minimize the number of copies I made. Though difficult at the time, this experience generated a desire to find additional ways to help create an environmentally friendly classroom. Here are some ideas you can use in your own class.


3 Internet Research Tips to Bring to Your Classroom


When my classroom first got computers, I couldn't wait to let my students use the Internet to research the topics we were covering. However, the need to provide them with Internet research tips quickly became apparent when one student excitedly showed me a research paper she'd done for another teacher that consisted of two pages that were copy and pasted directly from Wikipedia. I chatted with my colleague, who was new to teaching, and realized she was unaware that her sixth graders weren't keen to the ins and outs of modern research, so she never provided them with the purpose, process, and pitfalls of writing a research paper.

Let's be honest: Because today's students are already so tech-savvy, it's easy to assume that their ability to search for Pokémon can easily translate to searches about the Civil War. But the Internet is a black hole of information, and certainly not all of it is accurate. In order to help your students learn to be proficient researchers, here are three tips to help you guide them.


5 Presidents' Day Projects to Inspire Your Students


When you think of Presidents' Day, great sales at the mall may be the first thing to pop into your mind. But for teachers, this holiday provides an annual opportunity to focus on the contributions of past American presidents. Designated as a federal holiday in the late 1800s to honor the birthday of our first president, George Washington, it has evolved into a day that celebrates the contributions of all presidents.

Incorporating Presidents' Day projects into your curriculum is a great way to engage students in a range of relevant educational activities. Here are a few ways to celebrate with your students. Each activity can be altered based on the grade level you teach, and the time and resources you have available.

Create Your Own Trivia Game

Kids of all ages love to play games and share unique facts. Presidents, as it turns out, are a quirky bunch, and it's fairly easy to find an array of trivia about them. Did you know William Henry Harrison only served 32 days before dying of pneumonia? Or that at 5'4" and 100 pounds, James Madison was the smallest president? Ulysses S. Grant even got a speeding ticket on a horse. These unusual details can be incorporated into a trivia game, and students will be able to expand their knowledge and enhance their teamwork skills by working together. This activity can range from a low-tech board game to a high-tech online activity, depending on your access to materials and technology.

Use the Holiday to Practice Research Skills

Allowing your students to study a president of their choosing is another effective way to teach or reinforce research skills. However, instead of a typical research paper, have your students present their findings with a slideshow or video. Increase the novelty factor by requiring your students to choose from some of our lesser-known presidents, such as John Tyler or James Garfield.

Older students can analyze data and work to answer the question "Who was the best or worst president ever?" Historians have made their cases, but there's always room for further examination and debate, and an approach like this could help students build on their critical reading and thinking skills. Your students could also examine post-presidential accomplishments. For example, Jimmy Carter is an active volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and earned the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office, and Theodore Roosevelt explored Brazilian jungles with his son and wrote scientific articles and history books. These are just a few ideas that can be explored in depth, giving your students a different perspective on past American presidents.

Celebrate Our First Ladies

Often overlooked by history books, the role of first lady has evolved significantly since our country's early days. These women have had an impact on history, too, and many have been inspiring, involved, and sometimes even controversial. The aforementioned trivia and research activities can easily be modified to include or focus on these women and their accomplishments. Studying past first ladies in February can also provide a relevant transition to Women's History Month (March).

Teach Your Students to Be Leaders

Help your students think about what it means to be a leader and why leaders are important to society. Studying the leadership traits of our presidents, and how those characteristics have helped bring about change, is a way to connect to the past while allowing your students to think about how they want to affect the future. They should also recognize that leadership isn't just for adults. Robby Novak, the internet personality known as Kid President, has an important message: Kids can change the world. This video, one of many featuring Kid President, uses humor to share ways to bring more positivity into the world. Showing this video, and others that are similar, can inspire ideas for leadership-based projects such as planning a food drive to benefit local soup kitchens.

Study the Speeches

If a public speaking unit is part of your curriculum, or if you want to introduce your students to examples of outstanding speeches, have them study past presidential addresses. Some of the most well-known speeches ever given have been delivered by American presidents, and they're easily accessible online. You can even find some speeches, such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, on YouTube.

These Presidents' Day projects give you the opportunity to introduce important history to you students. Not only will your class be on the road to becoming informed citizens, but they'll be sharpening their academic skills as well.

Presentation Tips for Students: Take the Fear Out of Public Speaking


During my own days in school, public speaking was not my thing, which is ironic given my decision to become a teacher who speaks in front of tiny humans 180 days a year. Even though my class is a small audience, it's not always a friendly one, especially when tests and homework are on the agenda. My own education included dull, carefully researched, and deadly boring presentations on acid rain, Abraham Lincoln, and The Scarlet Letter.

When I started my career, I wasn't sure of the best way to teach presentation tips for students, but I knew how I didn't want to use the skin-crawling approaches my own teachers employed. I wanted to help my students begin to become skilled, confident public speakers without resorting to the tired old cliché about imagining the audience in their underwear.

Your students may not realize the only thing more painful than speaking in public is teaching kids to speak in public. But that's why I'm here. Before you officially assign your students a public speaking project, take a look at these presentation tips for students, which I've used successfully over the years.

Be Open to Unexpected Topics

If helping your students build public speaking skills is your primary goal, I would encourage flexibility with your choice of topic. For your first attempt, veer entirely away from academic areas and let your student prepare a presentation about a favorite hobby, special skill, or memorable experience. This way, they can focus on the presentation aspect while not stressing about learning new subject matter content. Once your students have started to grasp public speaking basics, you can follow up with additional presentations that are more scholarly in nature.

Even though I taught English Language Arts, one of my favorite public speaking units involved science. The unit culminated with each student writing a multi-step speech and presenting a simple science experiment to the class. This was a great way for the more anxious students to settle their nerves as they devoted most of their attention to their demonstration. The speaking element, while important, became less pressured. Some students felt comfortable enough to not even need their written notes, and most of them found the science experiment aspect to be more engaging than just talking about a deceased author.

Take Advantage of Technology

If you have easy access to computers or tablets, having your students incorporate them into their presentation is a great way to increase their comfort level with technology and public speaking at the same time. Having them create visuals and other media to accompany their speeches will not only help them energize their presentations, but help them build and solidify skills to use in future academic and professional endeavors.

And, like the strategy above, letting the students add technological elements may take the edge off as their presentations become more sophisticated. The interest many students have in anything involving a screen (within reason) can even create a more engaged audience for your more anxious speakers.

Start with Presentations to Small Groups First

Chances are, you have a mix of attitudes among your students, as has been my experience. Some of my students are comfortable being the center of attention, bordering on theatrical, while others would rather endure a steady diet of cafeteria food for the rest of their lives than speak in front of people—even their peers. But many land somewhere in the middle: happy to post endless selfies but not eager to actually talk in front of people. Asking students to begin by preparing short speeches and sharing in small groups can help the shyer kids build confidence by working their way up to a larger audience. And it can help the students who may feel so energized in the spotlight that they get off task and don't successfully complete the assignment.

Small groups also provide a low-pressure outlet for each group member to give one another constructive feedback, which will be useful when they present in front of a larger group.

Consider allowing students to present as a team of four to five students, as well. It's a great way to scaffold the experience to the benefit of everyone. Some may never really enjoy public speaking, but easing them into it by having them practice alongside their (equally nervous) classmates can increase their comfort and success.

Think about Group Presentations

There is always safety in numbers for kids who are nervous about public speaking. Creating a task that can be broken into parts for a group may help ease frazzled nerves by fostering teamwork that wouldn't have existed otherwise. Students who are anxious about public speaking may feel more secure as part of a team, as opposed to presenting solo. A group structure also provides students with a chance to develop stronger interpersonal skills, which are useful in school and in careers. While managing group dynamics may provide you with additional challenges, it can also benefit the students by giving them valuable opportunities to collaborate and support one another as they craft their presentations.

Chances are, some of your students will never enjoy public speaking, and that's OK. It's still possible to teach your students the basics of public speaking, though, providing them with a foundation they can build upon and apply again and again as they get older.