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10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in a Public School

public school

A few weeks ago I wrote a little about my experience of switching from teaching at a public school to a private school and 10 things to consider if you too are considering the switch.  Last week I wrote about some advice for private school teachers, and this week I wanted to do the same for public school teachers since that is where I started my teaching career.  I hope these are helpful for teachers new to the public school system, either with a private school background or fresh out of college, as well as teachers who have been in public schools for a while. 

1. Find your team.

Anyone who has ever spent any time in the public school system knows that there are oftentimes crazy and laughable things that go down.  These things can be draining as all get out, or really memorable experiences with your friends, so find your tribe of people to sit through faculty meetings, excessive PD’s, and giggle about outrageous emails together with.  It will make the crazy and weird moments all the more enjoyable!

2. Avoid the teacher workroom or whoever’s classroom all the negative Nancy’s eat in. 

We didn’t have a workroom that teachers hung out in, but there was a classroom that a lot of teachers gathered to eat.  I started out eating here to connect with others, but then kind of found that it evolved into a breeding ground of complaints and negativity.  This just put a sour taste in my mouth and made it hard for me to think positively about my school, my administration, and some of my coworkers that were gossiped about, so I just started eating lunch in my classroom or with one or two of the people in my tribe.  


I’m not even kidding when I say that your relationship with your janitor may be more important than your relationship with your boss.  Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration (see point #4) but they are definitely tied.  I’ve always had the best relationships with my janitors because I always made sure to chat with them when I saw them cleaning out my trashcans or in the hallways sweeping.  I learn their kids’ names and what they like to do in their free time.  I did this all my first year teaching without a selfish motive, just solely because I always was at school so late anyway and the janitor and I were usually the last two people there, so we talked.  What I learned from it though is how above and beyond my janitor has always gone for me because of our relationship.  If something came up, the janitor would always still clean my room even if he couldn’t get to everyone else’s.  At the end of the year when we needed our rooms checked off to leave for the summer, my janitor always came to mine first.  When I did dissections and needed help removing the REALLY HEAVY biological waste containers from my room, my janitor always had my back.  Just know this person is a person and they really value people seeing them that way, and in return, you may get some extra support as well.  And who doesn’t love extra support? 

4. Daily touch base with your administrator. 

Your administrator and your janitor are your two biggest allies at any school, but especially at a public one.  The more you can get to know your administrator and the more they learn the type of person and teacher that you are, the more you can count on them to defend your character with a crazy parent, or choose you for an upcoming training for a new class.  Plus it is just nice that every time your administrator sees you, they don’t assume you are just coming by because you need something.  I’m a firm believer that having real relationships with people makes all the difference!

5. Hide out during your planning so you can actually get stuff done. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’d be running around during my planning period like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get everything done so I wouldn’t have to take work home, and I would just see teachers gathered in someone’s room chatting and sipping coffee.  Or I would be sitting at my desk and have someone come by to ask a “quick question” that turned into a 30-minute discussion.  Ain’t nobody got time for that! I am very passionate about protecting my time at home as much as possible, and so I use every second I am at work to get everything done.  Even if it means you have to move your desk away from your door window, turn off the lights, and lock yourself in during your planning (not that I’ve done that or anything….) just to find some peace and quiet, DO IT! Don’t let others unnecessarily distract you from getting your work done. 

6. Spend one afternoon a week touching base with parents and LOGGING IT!

It can be incredibly frustrating and draining at a public school trying to keep parents in the loop on their kids and get support from home.  But if you give up, your administrator will want to know why you didn’t get in touch with parents (even though every number in the system was disconnected or went to a restaurant that had no idea who you were…) So instead of trying to contact parents daily and just being drained, devote one afternoon a week to staying an hour late (or whatever it takes) to touch base with the parents you need to and make sure to LOG IT!  I just kept an Excel doc that I tracked the date, name of student, contact info called or used, and result (no answer, disconnected, discussed and this is what was said…) This allowed me to very easily have evidence for administration of my efforts, but also hopefully eventually get in touch with those parents that I really needed to!

7. Offer weekly tutoring.  

There can be so many extra expectations for teachers when working in a public school which can make it really exhausting.  I do think though that consistently offering regular tutoring is a huge resource you can offer to students that are struggling.  I was lucky enough that my school had a grant for a tutoring bus for Monday afternoons that would take kids home that stayed after for tutoring for free, so I was able to offer after-school tutoring every Monday for an hour to ANY student.  If that isn’t the case, sacrifice 1 morning, 1 lunch period, and 1 afternoon a week to be available for students.  You can even call them your “office hours.”  This will help protect your time (so you aren’t showing up every morning with kids waiting at your door) but also give students many opportunities to get the support they need.  Plus it is more evidence for administration of the ways you are going above and beyond to help students while still maintaining healthy boundaries for yourself.

8. Set realistic expectations for your students. 

It is especially important in a public school setting where you have so many students walking through your classroom door in a year that you take the time to know each student’s background and capabilities.  I remember having several students I would be so frustrated with not meeting my expectations of getting their homework done only later to find out that they were living in an orphanage and it was too loud to concentrate at night, or they were heading straight to work right after school until 11 pm to try to help their single mom keep the family afloat.  Once I was aware of the harsh realities of some of my students’ lives, I was able to set more appropriate and realistic expectations for them.  This allowed me to differentiate my curriculum appropriately so that each student could find success and confidence in my classroom.  

9. Arm yourself with differentiation tools for your classes.  Because they will be so DIVERSE. 

Like I said above, each class of 30+ students that walks in your doors will have such a wide range in capabilities and resources, from students who have no place to shower to students wearing the newest designer clothes.  College Prep (CP) classes in particular will be the most diverse.  You can have students that are capable of honors-level classes that are just lazy and want to take the easy road mixed in with students who can’t read and first-time English language learners.  Be prepared to adapt on a daily basis.  If stability and consistency are your love languages, you may not thrive best in a public school setting where you have days that your lesson plans just straight up fail you.  This isn’t the job (if you actually want to be good at it) where you can use a standardized district curriculum year after year hoping to sit back and relax and enjoy your extra vacation time each summer.  There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in the education world, especially not in a public school.  This is one reason why I LOVE finding resources on Teachers Pay Teachers because I know it is coming from a teacher who understands adaptability in a practical sense (not a theoretical sense like lots of district curriculum can be) and will be the most useful for implementing in a diverse classroom. 

10. Use the gifts of your team.  Work smarter not harder. 

My first year teaching we evenly divvied up the workload amongst our team in order to be fair.  What we found though was “even” and “fair” weren’t what was best utilizing our gifts.  Figure out what each teacher on your team is passionate about and good at and divide the work that way.  Whether if it’s by subject (I know this is common in elementary schools!), unit topic (someone takes evolution, someone else takes photosynthesis, etc.), level (CP, Honors, ELL, etc.), or type of curriculum (assign someone to do all of the tests, or all of the PowerPoints, or all of the review materials…) do what is most efficient and effective for your team so that you can present the best curriculum to your students using all of the gifts that your team has. 

Public school teachers, what did I miss?  Anything else you’d add to the list to help other public school teachers out?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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