The Heart of the Underdog: 3 Tips for Teaching in a Short-Staffed School

What are the challenges teachers are facing during this pandemic?

Since I can only write about 1,000 words for this blog post, I can’t fully answer that question. But if you’re a teacher, you know the list is a mile long. One challenge that’s at the top of the list is working in a short-staffed environment.

To me, teaching during this time feels like being the underdog in a big game. A game we want to win. A game we need to win for our students. But a game with so many team injuries, so little equipment, and such powerful opponents that it’s almost unwinnable.

If your school can’t hire or pay for substitutes, this likely means even more work for you. Perhaps you’ve needed to cover classes during your planning block. Or maybe you had to take dispersed students into your class. However short-staffing is affecting you and your school, hopefully these three tips can help you execute a game plan that works.

1. Own the A.M.

Before 2020, I would work out at a boxing gym every day right after school, but once the pandemic hit, teaching became so exhausting that I no longer had it in me after the final school bell. After contact tracing, digital lesson plans, extra Zoom meetings, and new training, I had nothing left in the tank. When I got home each evening, I chose the couch over the speed bag.

Within only a few days, my depression and anxiety began to increase, and I was reminded of a study that I read about a few years back in Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath: people who participated in moderate exercise three to four times a week experienced an increase in positive emotion as potent as the strongest antidepressants on the market.

By foregoing movement, I was missing out on a much-needed endorphin release. But I was still too wiped out after school, so I moved my workouts to the first thing in the morning. It took a few days to adjust to waking up in darkness while my wife and kids were still in bed, but I eventually began to enjoy it. The momentum of my day shifted with the early rise. I was winning my first waking hour. I was owning the a.m. As a teacher, heading into the classroom each day, you know there are going to be many uncontrollable situations—no matter how much you plan. So try to start each morning with a victory. What can you do in the morning to begin your day with a win?

2. Be Game Ready

Because of COVID exposure, family obligations, and teacher and substitute shortages, you may be receiving dispersed students from other classes that have no teacher for that day. This may be only a few students, or it could be several. Regardless, these kids sometimes finish their assigned work early. When this happens, they sometimes become bored and attempt to talk to students they know in your class, unintentionally causing disruption.

What I’ve started doing to work with this new challenge is to have curriculum games ready for these students to play as an extension—games like For Crown or Colony?Win the White HouseExecutive CommandDo I Have a Right?, and The Oregon Trail are all good choices for history extensions. As a US history teacher, these are games I’m familiar with that I know to be engaging and can help students through. Often these games don’t necessarily align with the subjects dispersed students are supposed to be learning during that block, like Spanish, math, science, or English language arts. But finding games for those subjects is not in my sphere of influence. If students have finished their coursework, I’d rather they play an academic game about US history than one that requires low cognition and provides no academic value.

What educational games for your content area can you have ready that require little instruction from you to play? I’m learning to view dispersals as pandemic-style differentiation. Even though these students aren’t on my roster, they are in my class, and I should make the effort to teach, support, and love them too.

3. Feed Off Your Fan Energy

This March, when students resumed coming to school full-time, I wanted to plan a Cinderella ending to a tumultuous school year of virtual and hybrid learning.

My idea was to buy this giant US wall map from Teacher’s Discovery and play a game I created called “Tap the State,” where I would give each kid 60 seconds to tap as many states as possible while I called them out, one-by-one. The only problem: the map was $400, and I couldn’t pay that out of pocket. My school and district didn’t have the money either. So for my birthday in April, instead of gifts, I asked for friends and family to donate money toward the map. It was fully covered.

This taught me that some people know what we are going through as educators and want to help. With the holiday season coming up, how can you get your fans (family members, friends, social media connections) to help fund a dream that your school or district can’t afford right now? There’s no fanbase like an underdog’s.

Once the map came in the mail, the school resource officer helped me hang it up, and we rolled out the game. The kids loved it! Jumping up and down, shuffling side to side. Sweating and competing. It was intense.

They began quizzing themselves before and after school using an online game, even asking to practice during homeroom. We played Tap the States off and on during the last quarter, and I promised a twelve-box set of Nerds to the first student to get all fifty states in one minute. In the last week of school, two students set the class record with 49. They didn’t quite reach their goal, but they learned and had fun in the process. It was such an uplifting way to end a difficult school year. It was our buzzer-beater to end the game.

And maybe that speaks to this era of education. Lofty goals are set (like closing the gap from COVID learning loss) that we can’t quite reach, but in the process, our staff and students can still experience joy instead of sadness, get on the move instead of remaining sedentary, and learn something rather than nothing. Maybe that’s our best game plan as we recover from this global pandemic.

So, for those still able and daring enough to answer the call to step into the classroom, we are the underdogs. Our hearts still beat with passion as we play this unwinnable game for our kids. We have been vilified, undervalued, underfunded, injured, broken, and bruised. And yet, we still lace up our shoes, throw on our jerseys, and sprint onto the court to teach with an open heart.

More tips for teachers, counselors, parents, and kids on the Free Spirit Publishing Blog.

A Surprisingly Simple Technique to Help Students With Anxiety

For my students who struggle with anxiety, I teach them the DARE method.

61Eztqw4CzLI confess to my teens that I came across this when I was struggling with anxiety-based-insomnia last school year. For many nights, I was unable to fall asleep until 3 or 4 most mornings. I then would have to wake up at 7am to take my son to school and go to work. At one point, I went for 6 days on 1 or 2 hours of sleep each night.

That’s around the time I came across Barry McDonagh’s book, “DARE”. It taught me, not to get rid of my anxiety, but how to work with it in a more skillful way. I use it each day and encourage my students to do the same.

So what does the DARE actually stand for?

The D is for Defuse

Most of our anxiety is future-based, where we worry and ask ourselves, “What if?” What if I can’t fall asleep tonight? What if I fail this test? What if I have an anxiety attack and pass out? What if my friend ditches me? What if my parents get divorced? What if I don’t get into a 4-year college.

The defuse is the response to the “What if?”. Answer with this question-“So what?”

What if I can’t fall asleep, so what? I can still get out of bed, go to school, and try to teach. I may not be at my best, but at least I can try.

What if I have an anxiety attack and pass out, so what? Someone will pick me up and help me.

What if I lose my friend, so what? I’ll make a new one.

What if I don’t get into Chapel Hill or Duke, so what? I’ll go to a cheaper college and have less college debt after getting the same degree.

The A is for Allow

Even after you defuse the anxiety, there will still be some residue left over. Accept it as a sensation, a part of the human experience. Remind yourself that this is natural and be willing to work with it.

The R is for Run To

The instinct is to stay in bed, vape, or isolate yourself-essentially to run away from your anxiety. But the best way to work with it is to run to it.


I use the example of Rocky when he faces Apollo Creed. In one of the final rounds, you can tell this underdog has been beaten up by his opponent. His eyes are nearly swollen shut. There’s blood coming from his nose and bruises forming all over his body.

He gets knocked down and the crowd thinks it’s over, but Rocky pushes him up and stands. Despite his bruises and pain, he rises and signals for Apollo to bring more punches, lunging towards his adversary. This broke guy from Philly survives all 15 rounds against the champion of the world.

It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses. He survives.

I remind my students that you don’t have to beat your anxiety. You don’t have to win the battle, but you can stay in the fight. You can run to the fear. I don’t care how big your anxiety is, you CAN go the distance.

The E is for Engage

I view the 4th step as a reward for completing the 1st 3. You engage in something you enjoy where you can be fully present. For me, it’s playing Mario Kart or Yoshi’s World on our Nintendo Switch, spending time with my family, singing to my favorite songs, or reading a book.

There’s a misconception about anxiety-you can just eliminate it. In reality, it’s not that easy. No matter how hard you try, it comes and goes.

It sucks, but it’s manageable, treatable, and it absolutely makes you stronger.

Get out of bed. Take that test. Speak up with confidence in class. Make new friends. Try something new. Play your heart out in that game.

Be brave! I DARE you. This is what I tell my students. This is also what I tell myself as a teacher.

My Struggle with Insomnia, Depression, and Anxiety (And My Solution)

Since I went to rehab for depression, anxiety, and prescription drug dependency in 2014, I believe I’ve done a decent job of managing my propensities.

I joined a boxing gym, went to counseling, got completely clean from the pills, began teaching effectively again, and fully repaired the damage I had caused to my family.

For the last few years, my life has been good, but for the last few months, my life has been hell. I have experienced a resurgence of depression and anxiety, perpetuated by a new challenge-insomnia.


I’ll get in bed, toss and turn for a few hours, fall asleep around midnight, then wake up between 2 and 3 am, unable to fall back asleep. For 5 to 6 nights every week, this is my night. And then it’s zombie mode throughout my days. I feel like it’s Hell Week rushing for my old college fraternity, except now it’s Hell Months.

This has been extremely frustrating because I’m doing all the right things now.

  • I exercise
  • I eat healthy
  • I work hard at school
  • I take care of my kids
  • I support my wife in her career
  • I’m not doing drugs
  • I’m not drinking alcohol

I’m way more physically stable than I was 5 years ago, and yet, emotionally, I’m right back in the same place I was in when I checked into rehab.

I’m working with my PCP, a sleep doctor, and I’ve even read several books and research studies about sleep. Based on this research, I’ve been following a sleep checklist that would probably help most normal people sleep better. I get out of bed each morning, and from the moment my feet hit the floor until the moment I return to bed, I’m doing things that are supposed to bring about a good night’s sleep. It hasn’t helped. The harder I’ve tried to fix this, the worse it’s gotten. This is my conundrum and I can’t run from it any longer, so I’ve just had to accept it. All of it-the insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

the wisdom of no escape

There’s a story I recently read in The Wisdom of No Escape that has helped me through these hard days.

tiger-2320819_1280It’s about a woman in a field, who happens to be spotted and chased by a pack of tigers (This is not a story about the Alabama and Clemson College Football National Championship Game😂).

She runs and she runs, but the tigers still get closer. She eventually reaches the edge of a cliff and notices a few vines there. She climbs down and holds onto one.

Whew! She’s safe for now.

But then she looks down, and there are more tigers below her! Even worse, she looks back up and there is now a tiny mouse, gnawing away at the vine she’s clinging to.

In desperation, she looks to her left, and she notices a bunch of strawberries that have grown out of the grass above.

She looks up-tigers above her. She looks down-tigers below. She looks to her left, she grabs a strawberry. She eats it and enjoys it thoroughly.

This resonates because this is my story. I can see the tigers above, snarling at me. I can see them below, salivating and just waiting for me to fall, just like they were 4 years ago, but my solution has changed-it’s not more pills. It’s not suicide. It’s not running any longer. It’s simply staying in the moment, staying in the breath, accepting my suffering as reality, but also seeing this strawberry here in front of me. Choosing to smile in my struggle. Counting my blessings in my pain.

imagesThis clarity, this peace, has come to me, only through prayer and meditation. Talking with God and using Headspace off and on throughout each day, has changed my perception of suffering and life.

And while I love this story, I would actually like to add an alternative ending to it-

After eating one of the strawberries on her left, the woman looks to her right and notices several others in the same predicament-men and women, boys and girls-holding on to their own vines for dear life.

She reaches back over to the strawberries, picks a few more, and begins to pass them down the line.


I’ve been trying not to be so wrapped up in my own pain that I can’t see others who are suffering, too-from addiction, stress, fear, cancer, body-shame, inadequacy, and divorce.

I want to help them stay in the breath and enjoy what they have within this moment. That’s why I’m writing this post. That’s why I’m giving out a lot of hugs lately. That’s why I’m playing basketball with my son and barbies with my daughter. That’s why I’m doing laundry for my wife. That’s why I’m holding the door for strangers, tipping my servers 30% at restaurants, and complimenting my students at my school.

This moment is painful, but also my moment to teach, share, and love. I’m not the only one who could use a strawberry right now.

In closing, please remember my friend, that the past has already passed. The future may never come. All we are guaranteed is this breath, this moment, and no matter how fucked up our situation is, we need to simply eat the strawberry and savor each bite.

16 Things You Can Do To Be Happier At School Tomorrow

Spring Break is behind you. The End-of-Year tests are ahead.

Depressing, I know, so here’s 16 little things you can do tomorrow at school to keep your happy tank full.

  1. Plan a family field trip.

During a quick break or while eating lunch, plan out an out-of-town adventure for the upcoming weekend and put it on your calendar. One study showed that just planning and thinking about your next family vacay can raise your endorphin levels by 27 percent.

  1. Buy your custodian or cafeteria lady a soda from the teacher’s lounge.

Image-1Research has proven that buying stuff doesn’t make a lasting difference on our mood, with one exception-buying stuff for other people. This makes us happier than buying stuff for ourselves. Tis’ better to give than to receive.

3. Tell your class a funny story.

Your kids don’t want to just hear about the curriculum. They want to learn about you! Think of a story from your past that’s gotten laughs before. Tell them a silly story about yourself to get them giggling and lighten the mood in the room.

engagementMy middle schoolers like hearing about the day I proposed to my wife. We both threw a penny in a fountain and made a wish. My wish-her hand in marriage. Her wish-A raise at work.

When I taught elementary school, my kids loved to hear about my 1st visit to the zoo as a 5 year old boy, where I got too close to a fence and was attacked by a monkey, after I smiled at him. Never smile at monkeys. Never.

  1. Start your lesson off with an inspirational video.

Find a Youtube video that’s motivating. Something that lights your fire and gives you chill bumps. Here’s one of my favorites…

  1. Leave your phone in your purse or workbag.

It’s no secret that compulsive phone checking is damaging. It moves you away from your present environment and even further from each present moment. Check your phone between blocks, on breaks, or at lunch.

  1. Meditate with Headspace.

headspaceBefore the morning bell rings or during your planning, set aside a few minutes to get your mind right and meditate.

Don’t know where or how to start?

Try downloading this free app, Headspace. This chill dude with a British accent will walk you through it. All you have to do is put your headphones in, turn off the lights, and find a chair. It’s that easy.

  1. Make a list of 10 things you’re grateful for.

Write them down and read them aloud. Here’s 3 of mine:

  • I’m grateful to have a job that’s also a calling, where I get paid to do something I enjoy doing.
  • I’m grateful to live in a democratic country, where I have guaranteed rights listed in my country’s constitution.
  • I’m grateful to pay my taxes, because this money makes better roads, better emergency services, better schools, and a better community. (*This last one’s a stretch. I know.)
  1. Try a simple breathing technique periodically throughout the day.

A recent study showed that war veterans who suffer from PTSD could significantly reduce their cortisol levels (stress hormones) simply by using deep, slow breathing techniques. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is the easiest, most effective one I’ve found:

  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale for 8 seconds

Try this a few times when you feel stressed and see if it helps.

  1. Put motivational quotes cards on your desk.FullSizeRender

Use some index cards and google inspirational quotes or order some off Amazon and put them on your desk. Verses of scripture could also work. Read a few at a time for encouragement.

thank you card10. Write thank you cards to students or compliment them with a sticky note.
Pick out a kid or two in class, students who are working really hard, and write them a little note of recognition. We have a tendency to instinctively spot the negative, but make it a point to point out the positives, too.

11. Smile when you greet and talk with students.

Smiles are infectious (mirror neurons), so smile when you they come into your room. Positive classroom culture starts and ends with you.

  1. Set a fun short-term goal.

Come up with a small goal. Not a SMART goal or some big resolution, just something simple, but exciting. It should take 13 weeks or less, so you can finish it by the end of the school year. After tomorrow, continue doing one thing each day to reach it. That’s what I did with my kids to make  STRAIGHT INTTA OREGON, a music video about Westward Expansion that went viral. Check it out!

  1. Thank your principal.

Drop in their office or stop them in the hallway and tell them thank you for something they did recently. Maybe they helped you out with a resource, or stuck up for you when a parent complained. You might be a little down that Spring Break is over, but they were probably working during most of it. Thank them for what they do behind the scenes on the daily.

  1. Exercise with kids at recess.

Join in on in the fun outside. You deserve a break, too. Walk the track with your students. Kick or throw a ball with them. Jump rope with them. Research shows that 30 minutes of exercise improves your mood for up to 4 hours after.

15. Do some spring cleaning.

Purge some of your school files. Get rid of old resources. Set up a new filing system. Minimalism is a really neat documentary on Netflix that shows how liberating it can be to simplify your environment.

  1. Dress super nice.

Professional attire means more respect. Kids notice that you take the job seriously. It also feels good to get hat-tips from teachers and administrators. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

***Bottom Line-There are small things we can do to live healthier, happier lives today and tomorrow. Some are about the external (changing our actions and environment), others internal (changing our thought patterns).

We don’t have to wait until the summertime to be happy. We don’t have to count down the school days to each Friday. We can be happier, tomorrow and today.


Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Suceess and Performance at Work. New York: Virgin, 2011. Print.

Seppala, Emma. “The Happiness Track – Emma Seppala – Hardcover.” HarperCollins US. Imprint: HarperOne, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.