From August through about April, I love teaching high school seniors. Seniors know what’s up. They know how to behave and what they need to do, and they do it (for the most part!). And then, something changes. Suddenly it’s like teaching kindergarten. No one’s in their seat. Half of them are absent. No one’s prepared. And they’re whining! About everything! Do we HAVE to do work today? And why is there a petting zoo in the staff parking lot?!? It’s enough to make even the most seasoned educator want to scream. With that in mind, here are five things you can do to survive teaching high school seniors at the end of the school year.
Step 1: Prepare for the inevitable.
Senioritis is real. In fact, most of my seniors would tell me it starts around May of junior year. But it definitely gets worse the closer we get to graduation. We know it. So prepare for it. Save your most lightweight and fun units for the end. Make sure it includes lots of small, easily achievable assignments that can give a bit of a boost if a student’s grade needs some help but won’t crush someone if they miss a few here and there. Make sure most of the work is done in class instead of assigning it as homework.
Also, consider assignments that let them share their knowledge and experience with the younger grades as a way to celebrate how far they’ve come. Here are a few of our favorite ideas:
- Projects that allow them to address what they would change at their school and how it would improve learning or school culture for future students.
- A bulletin board or letter where seniors write their best tips or advice for next year’s seniors.
- Presentations that require them to reflect on how they’ve changed throughout their four years in high school and what they’ve learned from those changes.
- Reaching out to former teachers, coaches, and mentors via letter or email to thank them for the impact they had on their lives.
- Self-selected lessons where students can choose some “real-world” task they’re worried about, learn how to do it, and teach it to the rest of the class. Imagine a day where your seniors learn about where you can go to get help paying your taxes, how to check the air pressure in your tires, and why some clothes need to be dry-cleaned!
Step 2: Keep your expectations (reasonably) high.
I know I just said to plan lighter, more entertaining activities as the school year draws to a close, and you should! But you definitely don’t want to stop requiring your seniors to do any work at all. Learning how to finish strong is one of the most important lessons we can teach our 12th graders before sending them out into the world. It can be tempting to stop assigning work to spare yourself the aggravation of hunting down seniors who haven’t turned it in, but don’t do it. You’ll just end up with a class full of grumpy 17- and 18-year-olds asking you why they even have to be there if they don’t have anything they need to turn in.
Step 3: Treat them like the young adults they are.
You can do steps one and two perfectly and still find yourself ready to throw things at the wall by April. Some seniors will still complain about having to work, even when the lesson is simple and they’re given time in class to complete it. So sometimes it’s a good idea to give them a taste of that grown-up responsibility they claim they’re so ready for. It’s OK to tell a student, “I get that you don’t like this, but you’re going to have to do things for your real job that you don’t like either. This is great practice. Right now, I’m your boss. I’ve given you a task you have to do, even though you don’t like it. You need to do it without showing me a bunch of disrespect, because you’re an adult and that’s life.”
Step 4: Remember that they’re still kids too.
Yep, I know. I just finished telling you to treat them like young adults. That’s the thing with teaching seniors. They’re both! They may feel ready for what’s next, but they may also be scared of the unknown. Some might be excited about college but sad to leave their friends and family. Others might be entering the military and be anxious about what that might mean. They might have no plans at all and feel completely alone as they watch their peers plan for their big, exciting futures.
With this in mind, don’t be afraid to let them cut loose and be silly once in awhile. Here are some of our favorite end-of-the-year activities that work for seniors:
- If your students know each other well, have each student write an anonymous kind note to each of their classmates. Gather all the notes and then, after checking them, pass each of your seniors a stack of nice messages from their peers to help them remember their time in your class.
- Hold a “Freshman to Senior” picture contest. Have students share their school pictures from freshman year to senior year and vote on who changed the most during high school.
- Surprise your seniors with a “throwback day” where you play Silent Ball or Heads-Up, 7-Up.
- Take a silly class photo with your seniors. Make sure you display it next year for your incoming seniors to see. Students love knowing that their teachers remember them when they leave, and it lets your incoming students know that you genuinely like and care about your students.
- Celebrate all that they’ve achieved with some inspirational graduation quotes or a small gift that will help them remember all the teachers that helped them get to graduation day.
Step 5: Pick your battles so you can enjoy teaching seniors before they go.
I’ll admit, this one can be tough. When a student has done next to nothing all semester (or year!) long and suddenly you’re being asked what you can do to “help them” graduate, it stinks. When students act out in your class because they’re “so ready to be done” and then wonder why you’re not in a good mood around them, it’s frustrating. During the last few months of the school year, remember to take some deep breaths. Things are going to get frustrating and annoying. They always do. You’ll be asked to bend over backward, make exceptions, and ignore behaviors that you normally never would. It can help to let go of all the battles that don’t truly matter so you have the energy for the ones that really do.
And soon, you’ll be watching them walk across that stage, get their diploma, and (hopefully!) stop by for a quick hug before they head out into the rest of their lives.