I was teaching 5th grade, my first year teaching full time. I had a wonderful group of students who were generally fun and easy-going. The school was a small private school that met in a church building. My classroom served as a Sunday School room for 3-year-old’s on Sunday mornings, so every Friday we had to prepare the room: the contents of the students’ desks were packed away in a closet, bookcases were covered, my desk had to be cleared off, chairs stacked and student desks were taken out of the room by the custodian. Then, every Monday morning, I’d set everything back up again.
There wasn’t a lunchroom, so the kids all brought lunch from home and ate in the classroom. I had two microwaves on the back counter which were convenient but did result in an interesting lingering of smells in the room for the rest of the day.
Mid-morning, after lunch and again mid-afternoon, the kids would head outside to recess. On rainy and cold days, recess was held in the church “multi-purpose room,” which was a basically a gym with a stage where they held the church services on the weekends.
On Fridays, the custodians filled that room with rows of chairs, and it became off-limits to us.
And on this particular Friday, it was raining. And raining. And raining.
All day long.
We started the day with instruction in our classroom as we normally would, we had morning recess in our classroom, more instruction in our classroom, which we were going through faster than I anticipated since we weren’t spending time transitioning to and from recess.
By lunch we had already completed the art project I had planned to do that afternoon.
The windowless room was starting to feel stuffy.
Because of the weather, most of the class had brought lunch that needed to be warmed up. The heat and smells from the microwaves added to the increasingly pungent smell of 5th graders as they spent their recess time running around the room because there was nowhere else to go.
After lunch, desperate for air, I took the class for a walk up and down the hallway, then back into the hot, claustrophobic classroom.
I had them pack up their stuff like they usually did on Friday afternoons, and once that was done, everything was put away, and we were ready to go home.
Except there were still two hours left before the end of the school day.
And I had nothing for them to do. Nothing.
In all my years of teaching, I was always impressed that there was never a complete mutiny. I regularly asked kids to do things they didn’t want to do, and they complied. And somewhere, deep down inside, I was always grateful, because what would I do if they all just said no?
On that rainy Friday, I think those normally sweet, friendly kids could sense my panic. They knew that their 22-year-old teacher didn’t have a clue what to do with them. So they pretty much did whatever they wanted. Not a full-on mutiny, but as close as I’d ever want to experience.
I wracked my brain for ideas of games to play, of anything to do, really. I took the kids on another walk in the hallway. Then another.
Mostly, I sat at my desk feeling helpless, praying the afternoon would end as quickly as possible, that somehow parents would miraculously show up to pick up their kids early. They did not.
A fight broke out between a few of the boys. Another student disappeared completely, only to be found later hiding in a bathroom on the other side of the building. Most of my memory of the rest of that afternoon is a blur, likely my brain’s attempt to protect my remaining sanity.
Many years in education later, whenever I meet someone who is just starting their teaching career, I offer the same, singular piece of advice: Have a backup plan!
Soon after that day I started putting together a notebook of ideas, jotting down directions for games, collecting problem solving puzzles and other random activities that I could call on whenever I needed them.
Many of those ideas ended up in my 5-Minute Activity posters:
For better or worse, we only get a limited amount of time with our students, and there is so much for them to learn. We should use the time well.