For Real Teachers In Our Toughest Schools
Monday January 22nd 2018



5 Tips For Getting Through the Month of October

Beginning the year is the most stressful time of a teacher’s life. You have a bunch of kids you don’t know, and you have to calm them down, keep them from sexually harassing each other, and actually teach them something. September is a whirlwind of balancing in which class sizes are crazy high and students are dropped and added. If you are at a school like mine, you are also starting the year without things real schools should have, like grading systems that function properly, or a tech guy. Truly, at my school of 2,000 students and 100 teachers, we don’t have a grading system that works, and there is no one we can go to for help with computer problems. And yes, we ALL have computer problems. These are the realities of our public schools.

That brings us to October, the most difficult but important month of the school year. We teachers try to get through the month of October like most people try to get through their long commutes—we crawl along slowly trying to avoid our own rage and the rage of others, what should take minutes takes hours, the people around us don’t want to be there, they are angry about it, and we just want it all to be over (“all” is a loaded word in that sentence, isn’t it?).

Part of the reason we dread October so much is because it is one of those months where we don’t get any days off. There are no holidays, teacher-workdays, breaks, ANYTHING. If you add in the end of September and the beginning of November, October is smack dab in the middle of an unrelieved seven or eight-week stretch. Teachers tell each other this: “Just get through October, man, just get through October.”

Just because we don’t have a day off isn’t what makes October the most difficult month for teachers. This is what does: The students are still new, and therefore fighting you about everything. The first couple weeks aren’t too bad because the students are quiet and scared, and don’t really start looking at porn on their cell phones for a week or two. More importantly, October is the month where you must prove yourself as a teacher. It is the month where you solidify everything about your classroom approach and teaching philosophy. This is the month that will define the rest of your school year.

So here are some tips on how to get through the month of October, because it is coming, and really, that 7-8 week stretch has already started. And remember: If you make it through October, you’re almost guaranteed to make it to Christmas. Does that make you feel better?

Tip #1: Own It

I recently had a former student, who is now at Cal Berkeley, tell me about Finals Week. She said it went great, and it was easy to see why. “I just decided to make Finals Week my bitch!” She told me. And that is exactly what she did. In her preparation, her habits, her entire being and attitude, she decided she was going to OWN Finals Week.

This is basic forward-thinking and optimism. If you fear October, and you expect it to choke you out on the mat, it will, and the ref is going to let it go longer because you’re being such a wuss about it. Teaching is one profession in which you can’t operate every day immersed in fear. But if you step into the ring with the attitude that you are going to OWN it—I mean, you are going to make the month of October beat itself with the back of its hand—then you stand a fighting chance of surviving. I’m not saying you won’t get some bruises along the way, but if you’re going to lose, make it go to a decision—make it a close one the judges have to call, go down swinging, and walk away from it knowing you gave it your best.

Tip #2 Acknowledge That October Will Define Your Entire Year

You need to go into October knowing it is the most important month of the year. This is where you prove to your students you are going to come into work EVERY day with your A game. This is where you show them consistency. This is where you back up everything you promise them. This is the month where you make them think.

Kids figure us out pretty quick. They know which class they can roll a joint in, and which class they can’t even look at another student’s paper in. They know who is hard and who is easy, and they know who is teaching them and who is an adult from Charlie Brown—droning on and on about what kids today need to understand…

So know this: October is your entire year. This is it. If you prove yourself here, the hard work will be done and will have set the stage for a strong year of educating the American public.

Tip #3 Get Kids Engaged With Good Warmups

No matter your subject area, get the kids interested in your class by doing the following: Every day when they come in have the lights off and a video up on your screen from YouTube. Have a short article up there from Yahoo. Put something up from the Internet that challenges them, inspires them, and makes them see the relevance of your subject area to their lives. Then have them WRITE about it!

Seriously, with the Common Core, there is supposed to be writing across the curriculum like we’ve never seen. If you can get kids quiet, make connections to their lives, get them engaged, and even increase literacy, all in the first 10 minutes of class, you are EDUCATING. Stop fighting the roll fight. Stop saying, “Okay kids, lets all be quiet. The bell already rang and no one is in their seats. C’mon guys, I’m serious this time.” Instead, when the bell rings, hit play and turn the speakers up. You set the tone of your class in the first minute.

Tip #4 Eat Breakfast and Pack a Lunch

I wish I did this one every day. We know how important a good breakfast is for our students, but are we paying attention to ourselves? A tenet of general good health and happiness is a balanced diet. As teachers we are on our feet so much that we have to understand how our bodies affect our moods and how our diet affects our bodies. Though I am bad at breakfast, I do keep my refrigerator in my classroom stocked with yogurt, fruit, nuts, and water. I snack throughout the day to keep my energy up, and I try and stay very, very hydrated.

I will also say this: Tupperware depresses me. There is something disturbingly not-exciting about people who bring leftovers in oddly shaped Tupperware to work. I feel like if you can start doing that, you are truly an adult. I avoided this for the first few years of my career. But then I lost all my hair and couldn’t pretend like I was a young guy anymore. On days when I bring a nice big lunch to work, I have a nice big load of verbal missiles to fire the way of my students. Think of Tupperware as ammo if it helps, it certainly helps me.

Tip #5 Focus on Lesson Planning

I don’t believe in test prep. That shit is worthless. I asked my 9th grade students last year why they hadn’t read any books or written any essays in middle school. “It’s because all we did was test prep!” they told me. “If you ask us about test-taking strategies, we could tell you all about it.” To that I replied, “So are you good at tests?” They all shook their heads, and it was a rhetorical question anyway. In my 9th grade English class of 33 students, only 4 or 5 of them were actually Proficient in ELA.

I think the best way to raise scores is to teach every day. I believe that if you fight the good fight, don’t take days off, don’t show videos, teach bell to bell, raise your expectations, bring the rigor, scaffold, and be engaging, your scores will be good. Every day of the week, even on Fridays, especially on Fridays, your lesson plans need to be well thought out, you need to think through your transitions, create effective handouts, bring the energy to carry the instruction, and work the rows. This is especially important in the month of October. If you are already taking sick days, showing videos on Fridays, getting lazy with your lesson planning, and failing at consistency, the students will expect it from you the rest of the year. In fact, you will expect it of yourself.

Veteran and new teachers alike know this: October is coming. It is probably going to suck a little bit. But don’t let October define you in ways you don’t intend, you need to own it, and realize that in that month, YOU are defining what your classroom is going to be for the entire year. Don’t be scurred. Eat a good breakfast and pack a lunch, get kids engaged right away, and have air-tight lessons every day. October is it. If you can teach through this month, you can teach through any month.


Reader Feedback

10 Responses to “5 Tips For Getting Through the Month of October”

  1. Renee says:

    Thanks again Matt !!! This was right on time !!!!

  2. Andrew says:

    You guys must start school much later than us. We started August 1st this year (yep…a Friday). I think the month you are describing was my September. I’m almost through with it, and I’m not dead yet. In October we have two weeks off for fall break. So you’ve gotta be describing my September. These tips will be helpful for me next year though I’m thankful to realize I had already done some of them.

    I just stumbled across your blog yesterday and love it. I teach English too, and while I feel I already do a great job connecting with the kids, there is still a ton of useful stuff on this blog to get me beyond just making the connections and making the learning happen. Thanks man. Keep it real.

    • Congrats Andrew, September is now over. I tried to keep the list short at 5, sounds like you’re doing many other things as well, good job. Thanks for contributing, and have fun with your two weeks. Go do something awesome!

  3. Regina Nunley says:

    Damn well said….in California, we began August for the past 3 years now..we have some days the District built in to appease us – but yes October is the stretch….it’s good to have some reward system in place too…so those cool and focused kids get their just rewards – and inspire the medium to low act up kids to keep on an even keel…then you’re only dealing with a few trouble – makers…and it’s easier to make 3-4 strategic phone calls and nip in bud, vs. 1/2 the class….Happy October all!!!!!

  4. Miss Land says:

    Hi Matt!

    These are some great tips, especially for a novice like myself. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for articles or youtube videos that would be appropriate for a 7th grade Language Arts class?

    • I like to show interviews on Youtube with the authors of the books I’m teaching. I show short excerpts if it has been made into a movie. Thugnotes for books after we read them. If you are doing something thematic, like marginalized voices or dealing with death and loss, it is easy to find something topical going on with teenagers posting on social media. Even current events clips from CNN and other news outlets keep kids updated and ask for their opinions on real world issues. You can’t really go wrong. The more you do it, the more you come across great media during your private life you realize would work as a perfect warmup the next day or for your next book. It is fun to be creative and just show a random cartoon about grammar. There is a funny article about “alot” being two words. There are even lectures on literature and grammar you can use to save yourself the trouble, all while getting kids to remember the difference between there their and they’re.

  5. Pmacfar says:

    Yeah, here in my Chinese University, I just had ten days off for the October National Holiday. What a difference!

    Well, there will be no further breaks until January 1, but still, it’s easy. Two preparations a week. Eight block-schedule-type sessions a week. No classes on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, and students who don’t know the meaning of the word “spitwad.” And when you catch them using their mobile phones in class, it’s usually because they’re trying to look up a word in their dictionary.

    Amazingly, when I remarked to one of my American colleagues how easy we’ve got it compared to any public school teacher in America, whether elementary or high school, whether urban or rural, he just stared, dumbfounded and asked “Really? What makes it harder in America?”

    I spent part of the last few vacation days reflecting on how anybody from America could possibly wonder about that.

    Well, good luck on your upcoming month. I’m sorry I missed stopping by this summer. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • Paul! Good to hear from you. Part of your advantage is you are teaching at the University level right? Wouldn’t you agree Professors here in the US have it a lot easier as well for a lot of the same reasons you describe? What I’m wondering is how the elementary and secondary systems are set up over there. Does a high school teacher have it easier in China or the US?

  6. Ralph Bedwell says:

    Matt, excellent advice as always. How much writing do you have them do in response to the videos or other materials you put up there?

    • Ralph,
      My district has adopted a system called Organized Binder and it is perfect for warmups and cooldowns, as well as building on literacy across the curriculum. Check it out below, the founder of OB, Mitch Weathers, is an unbelievable educator and the system works crazy good.

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