The Third Quarter Blues

As we enter the third quarter, I remember one of my favorite mentors and how he would compare a school year to a footrace.  He would get in front of the classroom and draw an oval running track on the whiteboard. After discussing the different elements of a footrace, he’d encourage students to finish their school year strong, just as runners attempt to finish their race strong.  The more that I’ve reflected on this simple analogy and the longer that I’ve taught, the more I have witnessed how well this analogy works.

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But before we get to the school year, let’s review the aspects of a footrace:  At the beginning of a race, everyone is standing still. They’re in a holding pattern, waiting with both excitement and nervousness the race before them.  How will the race go? Will they enjoy it? What will be their position in the end? As the race begins, there is a jolting start – an exhilarating yet difficult transition as there is a lot of hard work to be done, and a track and fellow runners to become familiar with…

…but then the runners get into a groove.  They get used to how the track feels against their feet.  They relate to those around them, and figure out how their abilities compare to others.  They determine how hard they will need to work to do well. And they have built up momentum, feeding on the adrenaline that still remains inside them from the first moment they stepped onto the track…

…yet they still have a large part of the race to run.  The finish line is still not in sight. The excitement and energy begins to wear off, and the race is far from over.  The racers start losing focus on the race, and begin to turn their attention to their fatigue; to their pain. The hard work that was once understood as being necessary to do well, is now interpreted as an obstacle to doing well.  The finish line seems further away than it did at the beginning of the race, and morale begins to wane…

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…until the finish line comes into view!  The crowd begins to cheer with encouragement as the runners hit the homestretch.  It is a straight shot to accomplishing what was started long ago. There are no more turns, and no more uncertainties as to whether or not the runners will make it.  The goal is almost completed, and then the goal is achieved. And just like that, the race is over. The runners are now more experienced and more prepared for their next challenge…

What an accurate illustration of how the school year often goes!  But unlike my mentor, I am bringing up this analogy at the beginning of the third quarter and not the fourth, as I have a different purpose than encouraging my students to finish strong.  The purpose of this writing is to help my students get through the most difficult part of their school year, and to get help from others in my attempt.  

What is so tough about the third quarter?  Well, even though we have finished half the school year, there is still another half yet to complete.  This can be a very daunting thought to a student, particularly to one who is struggling. The excitement of the new school year has long since worn off, and the end of the school year can seem so far away.  

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The efforts that were made to do well, although tough, often felt worth it.  But now the efforts can seem heavier, more challenging, especially since the academic rigor and expectations tend to increase.  And all the effort to abide by class and school rules, especially if they don’t exactly correlate with the expectations of home, now seem even harder to follow.  The adults and peers around can begin to irritate, when they once stimulated interest in education and friendships.  

All of these factors (and more, like the northeast’s winter), can contribute to the third quarter being the toughest of them all.  So why is this the case every single year I’ve taught?  

  • Well for one thing – and this is hard to admit – I have not adjusted my methods of instruction and relating to my students well in order to fit their third quarter needs.
  • And similar to Benjamin Franklin’s quote of “guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,” I believe that, “classmates and teachers can irritate after two quarters.”  We can wear on each other’s nerves, which is understandable as we have spent so much time together.  
  • And lastly, that finish line – that end of the school year – seems so far away.  Students have been trying hard for half a year to do well, but they can easily see another half of a school year as a daunting amount of time.  

How can we remedy these “third quarter blues?”  

  • Adjust our methods of instruction by mixing things up.  It is difficult to change our schedules, but it is not difficult for us to come up with alternative ways to instruct our students to add some flavor to their educational experiences.
  • Also, we need to put either more effort or different efforts into building relationships with our students.  Sit with them during snack if we don’t already. Have class meetings to discuss topics of interest in our students that have not yet been explored.  Work even harder to relate well.  
  • It is tough to put a stop to getting on each other’s nerves, but we can switch things up in the classroom in terms of our students relating to one another.  Change our classroom layout. Adjust our reading groups. Mix up our math partners. Or if we don’t have a designated day for students to work in pairs, create a partner day.  Make efforts to give our students a new view of their peers.
  • I was listening to a radio show recently that covered research on habits.  Good habits are hard to develop if there are no short term rewards. The long term reward for students to finish the school year is a long way off, so we as teachers need to provide them with short term incentives to keep them moving forward.  And no, I’m not talking about extrinsic motivators. We need to be cheering students on more than ever in the third quarter – teachers, families, and peers alike. We need to help students feel good about their accomplishments so they do not feel as though they are pointless.  We need to help them envision the finish line, even though they can’t see it yet.

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The third quarter is a tough quarter just like the third leg of a race is tough.  But instead of viewing the school year as a pattern that can’t be broken, I am going to make many efforts this year to break the annual third quarter blues.  I encourage my students, my students’ families, and my colleagues to do the same. Things are not as tough as they appear, and the finish line is closer than it appears. Let’s continue to work well and work hard, so we can continue to look forward to finishing strong.

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