Principal Strategies: Academic Focus Between the Holidays

The academic focus is often lost between Thanksgiving and the Winter Break as this stretch is one of the toughest for students, teachers, and school leaders. Everyone in education knows it because there is a collective anticipation about those two weeks away at the end of December. This forward-focus on a break diminishes an academic focus on the present and lost instructional time can never be brought back. Principals, face a daunting challenge of maintaining a sharp academic focus without losing some of the fun and celebrations between these school calendar breaks. However, with the right strategies in place, students can remain engaged and focused on their studies; so, here are five ideas to implement during this upcoming stretch.

Before we turn to these strategies, principals will need to think about their own student and teacher groups to adjust these for your local context. It also requires prior planning and meetings during this stretch to reinforce these ideas. Constant communication to all school stakeholders keeps them focused, and that focus starts with you as a leader!

  1. Set Clear Academic Goals: Establish specific academic goals aligned with the curriculum for the period leading up to the holidays. Clearly communicate these goals to both teachers and students, emphasizing their importance in maximizing learning opportunities before the break. By setting clear objectives, everyone in the school community remains aware of the academic priorities. The critical consideration here is to set specific targets for these three weeks AND show how they fit into the overall academic goals for the year. Yes, the students may be ending the calendar year but they are still only halfway through the academic year.
    • Elementary – knowing that reading is fundamental, set a school goal (of both students and teachers) that they will read “x” number of books during this time. Have prizes for the class with the most books read and most avid readers (both teachers and students).
    • Middle – set up grade level or content or whole-school goals on quizzes or tests (without extra credit). You could leverage nationally-normed assessments; however, that includes teaching/learning prior to this timeframe. You need to think of a way to focus just on these 3 weeks.
    • High – this time period is when many students “disappear” from school and never return. Potentially, focus on attendance and reduction of tardiness to school/classes. Have daily/weekly updates shared across the school with the message that EVERYONE matters in this goal.
  2. Structured Review and Assessment: Implement a structured review process that includes formative assessments to evaluate student progress. Utilize this information to provide targeted support to students who need it most. Regular assessments and reviews not only track progress but also provide opportunities for reinforcement of key concepts. If you are a high school and the 1st semester ends before the break, provide students a simple calendar that maps to those final exams and/or state assessments – call it “Focus for the Finals”. Show them how the active learning in groups gets them ready for those exams. Have students share their best testing and preparation tips in the school newsletter, on the school’s social media sites, or on the internal tv channel. Regular tips from students, teachers, and leaders makes a huge difference.
  3. Engage in Meaningful Learning Activities: Create engaging and purposeful learning experiences that leverage the holiday season. Encourage teachers to design activities that integrate academic content with festive themes. Stay away from the worksheet approach as students will lose interest and not understand how this matches learning objectives. One thing to consider is bringing high school students to the elementary schools to read books to the entire classes. Elementary students LOVE read aloud times. You could even have selected students go to the middle schools to teach math/science – particularly if their grades are high enough that they do not need to take final exams.
  4. Encourage Collaboration and Peer Support: Foster a collaborative learning environment where students can work together to reinforce their understanding of concepts. Peer-to-peer learning and group activities not only enhance academic understanding but also promote teamwork and communication skills. If teachers have not yet taught students how to work cooperatively in groups, then this type of instruction must occur before these weeks begin. Not providing specific expectations for group work (and showing what is NOT acceptable) sets them up for failure and increases the likelihood of everyone to focus on the break instead of the academic tasks at hand. If you need a few ideas, we have a course in our Project Based Learning series that can help – PBL 2: Collaboration.
  5. Provide Supportive Resources: Ensure that teachers have access to appropriate resources and support materials to aid in delivering effective lessons. Additionally, offer supplemental resources for students, such as study guides or online tools, to facilitate independent learning and revision.
    • NOTE: for resources, make sure you consider social and emotional support. While the holidays are typically viewed as celebratory, you need to consider all of your students as some of them will be struggling during this time. They may have recently lost a loved one, meaning that the holidays are extra hard. Other students may be homeless and have difficulty hearing of family gatherings and gift-giving. You just need to look for these students and roll support to them as well.

By implementing these strategies, principals can create an environment that prioritizes academic achievement while acknowledging the festive season. It’s important to strike a balance between academic rigor and holiday cheer. Remember, maintaining academic focus does not mean ignoring the holidays, but it is about the integration of both into the learning environment. There is a way to to inspire and challenge students to invest the time before break that sets the stage for continued academic success in the 2nd semester.

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