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.

The 1 Decision That Transformed My Family

A few years ago, I remember typing up lesson plans for the first week of school as the summer was coming to an end.

My family was spending our last summer day at play while I was trying to get ahead for work.

My planning spot was on the dock of a lake. My wife was sunning herself beside me. My four-year-old son, Cole, was jumping around on a giant water tube, tied to the dock.

To him, it wasn’t a water tube. It was his pirate ship. He waved his sword around as he protected his treasure from an imaginary Captain Hook in the water.

Then he stopped abruptly. “Daddy,” he begged, “can you stop working and play pirate ship with me?”

He wanted me to join his crew.

“Not right now, maybe later.” I insisted.

He frowned for a second and started playing again without me. I knew he meant well, but he was a distraction. I had too much prep work for school.

After an hour or so, I decided to take a break. I plugged my headphones into my phone and hit the play button on Laura Vanderkam’s audiobook about what the most successful people do on the weekends. How fitting, or so I thought.

Her first point hit me hard: We’re not really living in the weekend when we spend it prepping for the workweek. The most successful people don’t put off enjoying the weekend until they are less busy. They do it now.

I flashed back to what I had said to my son when he wanted to play, Maybe later.

11357121_10101957322701777_3722685524054468080_oThen I thought, Maybe not later, maybe now.

I turned my phone off and closed my laptop.

I yelled out to my son as I ran toward him, “Captain Cole, look out for the cannonball!” His eyes were as wide as an owl’s when I jumped off the dock and crashed into the water just beside him.

When I came up with water spewing, he was laughing uncontrollably. We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling around, fighting Captain Hook and searching for gold doubloons.

Later that night, I finished listening to the audiobook. It offered another tip for getting the most out of weekends:

Plan fun events that get you out of the house and keep you busy. I’ve come to refer to them as Family Field Trips.

On the way home the next day, my wife and I wrote down a list of 50 places we could travel as a family within a 2 hour radius of our home. We started taking our Family Field Trips the next weekend and we’ve been hitting the road pretty regularly ever since.

11010295_10101809732413897_5908070111211836526_nWe’ve chilled with Hugo at the Charlotte Hornets game.

10592686_10101530915734757_5918156526517522382_nWe’ve hit up the mountains in Asheville.

11038652_10101864816719507_7466305263163151959_oWe’ve stood under the same waterfalls where Katniss and Peeta hid in The Hunger Games.

10612631_10101561252694247_279980953322052667_nAnd we’ve shoveled out handfuls of food to giddy llamas at the zoo.

TBH, these trips have been a game-changer for my family.

There’s a deep connection that wasn’t there before-the stories, the memories, the shared experiences. And it all began with a decision to close my laptop and do a canon ball beside my son.

The teacher struggle is real. If you’re spending large chunks of weekend time on schoolwork, or you’re feeling burnt out through the workweeks, think about how Family Field Trips can help:

  • you are forced to have fun because you can’t take the schoolwork with you
  • you will feel more recharged and be more efficient for the workweek that follows
  • you will create a stronger bond with your family

Here’s how you can get started:

  1. the-family-field-trip-planMake a Family Field Trip Plan

By yourself or with your family, create a list of places you want to travel.

Try to come up with at least fifty places,
each within a 2 hour radius of your home. Setting a limit on the travel time saves you the added expense of an overnight hotel stay.  Use the  
Family Field Trip Plan Mini-Poster on my website under the Free Stuff tab at

  1. Keep the Plan in a Highly Visible Location.

Place your plan on the fridge or in the corner of your bathroom mirror. Put it anywhere in the house that works for you, so long as you’ll see it often.

Our list stays in our kitchen, just above our key box. Every time I drop my car keys off or pick them up from Monday to Friday, I get excited about the family vacation that awaits.

  1. Take at least 1 Trip Each Month.

Commit to an excursion on the regular, whether it’s once a weekend or every month.

The goal is not to take all 50 field trips in a year; it’s to build a habit of spending time with your family.

Still to this day, my son will sometimes stop and remind me about our pirate excursion on the lake. He refers to it as “The Best Day Ever.” It was as awesome for me as it was for him. And to think, it almost didn’t happen because I wanted to get ahead on a few lesson plans for the upcoming school week. What moments are you missing out on to get ahead?

Your weekend belongs to you-not your principal, your district, your students, or their parents-so own it.  

Escape. Get out of your house or apartment. You’ll discover a special part of yourself where your schoolwork can’t follow.


***The Balanced Teacher Path is available for pre-order now! Support me by ordering it from the publisher, Free Spirit. Also available at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Target.

Excerpted from The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy by Justin Ashley, copyright © 2017. Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.