Coleen Armstrong taught high school for 31 years. In 1999, she traded in her English teaching job for a freelance writing career. Her new book – "The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me" – offers advice on classroom creativity, organization, and discipline and tips on how to navigate the politics of education. Here's some of what she had to say about the back-to-school season in a phone interview from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
What did back-to-school time feel like for you?
The three-month vacation is a myth. You're spending so much time preparing for the school year and taking additional classes to re-certify yourself; attending workshops; scouting around for fresh ideas; and just sitting, staring at the trees thinking, "What can I do differently this year?"
During the actual last few days that you are free to not get up at 5:30 in the morning, there's a sense of, "Can I really do this again?" And then [there's] that first teachers meeting, the day before the kids arrived, I was always just totally enveloped in this feeling of excitement and enthusiasm.
After a couple of days, [I felt] as though I had been hit with a hammer, because it suddenly hit me just how much work this really was. How I would forget that every summer is still a mystery to me.
How do veteran teachers keep it fresh year after year?
Everything I would learn, I would think, "Is there a way to use this in class?"
The secret to being creative in the classroom is the intertwining: You don't just teach "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne; you teach them about Puritan New England and the morals that were in place and how far we've come in the opposite direction. It's like the whole world is your lesson plan.
What's some advice you give to newer teachers about starting the school year off on a good note?
I had a master teacher once tell me that she'd start the year not with a list of rules, as so many teachers do, but she would just go in and start teaching her subject, which was math, and just assume that everyone would behave properly. And if somebody didn't, she'd take that one person aside. So I tried it. I started the first day getting really excited about what we were going to do that year. The third day I'd hand out a sheet of expectations. My [few] discipline problems just went away.
How can families help kids make the best transition back to school?
Sleep and breakfast. Get those kids to bed by 10 p.m. [during the first week] of the school year. That's going to make a huge impact.
[Editor's note: The subhead for the original version misidentified Coleen Armstrong.]