An ELA teacher’s survival kit

by Gary J. Whitehead 

In “Ooh La La,” the title track to the 1973 album by the British rock band Faces, Ronnie Wood sings, “I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger.”  

That chorus has been much on my mind as I’ve delved deeply into the topic of recruiting and retaining high quality educators in my work as a fellow with JerseyCAN, a nonprofit education and policy organization. As a veteran high school English teacher, I’ve naturally zoomed in on the particular challenges faced by language arts teachers, those dedicated individuals who face the Sisyphean task of assessing and providing feedback to prodigious amounts of student writing each year.  

English language arts (ELA) teachers routinely struggle to strike a balance between available time and time required to provide meaningful feedback. There were times when I had so many essays to read that I didn’t have the time I needed to plan the dynamic lessons I knew could create. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever brought work to a faculty meeting, dividing my attention between my papers and the meeting.  

Many of us have given up evenings and weekends—time that should be spent recharging, exercising and socializing—marking papers. Resenting these impingements, some of us may assign less writing, provide less meaningful feedback and derive less satisfaction from teaching. And, let’s face it, they quit. Or, if they’re eligible, they retire. 

Teacher recruitment and retention are at an all-time low. The Task Force on Public School Staff Shortages in New Jersey reported last year that national enrollment in educator preparation programs declined by more than a third from 2008 to 2019. Just as alarming, an October 2022 NJEA survey found that only 21% of our members would encourage a friend or family member to become an educator, and 59% would “tell them that they should do something else.” The statistics for teacher retention are just as bleak. The task force found that almost half of new teachers don’t last two years.  

The decline in teacher recruitment and retention in New Jersey—and the rest of America—can be attributed to many factors: low pay, poor mentorship, lack of work/life balance, heavy workloads, the time it takes to earn tenure and the arduousness of certification. But poor mental health and wellness are significant factors, too.  

Over the years, I’ve seen young teachers succumb to the stress. One new teacher at my school seemed, in her first few months, to be a natural. She never complained. She worked quietly. She had remarkable classroom management for a first-year teacher. But when winter break came, she left and never came back. Other colleagues, master teachers, even when they could retire, stuck it out for years.  

So, how do some English teachers last so long while others don’t? We rely on survival tactics.  

In an effort to improve both English teacher recruitment and retention, I offer the following 10-item ELA Survival Kit. New teachers, I hope it helps you to hang on. Experienced teachers, I hope it reinforces practices that will ease your heavy load. 

Give focused feedback 

As well-trained proofreaders, many ELA teachers feel the need to correct every error in an essay and give actionable feedback. Scoring a class set of essays this way can take hours. And the many marks and comments can be overwhelming to students, especially those who dislike writing. Choose one or two skills to focus on and overlook the rest. Target other skills on the next writing. 

Assign a part rather than a whole 

Especially at the high school level, there’s a perception that every summative assessment needs to be a multipage essay. What’s wrong with having students write just a few paragraphs? Or a letter? 

The same skills can be targeted. Start with shorter writings and assign full essays at the ends of units, quarters or semesters. One of my favorite assignments in AP English is a single-sentence writing for which students study a 139-word sentence by Hawthorne and then write their own grammatically correct sentence of the same length. Students routinely tell me that that tiny writing teaches them so much about sentence-building. 

Strive for quality, not quantity 

Unless your curriculum requires it, teach fewer books but go into more depth with them. ELA classes shouldn’t be a speed-reading competition or a contest to see who can teach the most books. Rather than a long novel, choose a novella, short stories or poems. Reluctant readers will enjoy the shorter texts. For ambitious readers, give optional independent reading. 

Allow for in-class reading 

There’s a perception that in-class reading is a poor use of class time. That’s nonsense. Allowing students to read quietly on their own or reading a text together as a whole class fosters a love of reading and teaches reading strategies.  

Make it purposeful by focusing on skills such as developing inferences, identifying rhetorical strategies, and noting important details. Tie the in-class reading to the larger unit.  

Flip your classroom 

Reverse the typical cycle. Instead of lecturing or covering material in class, prepare short, prerecorded lessons you can assign for homework. Then spend class time on interactive and collaborative activities. There are Google extensions such as Screencastify or smartphone apps to record videos. Reuse these videos from year to year. 

Conduct Socratic seminars 

When feeling burned out from assessing student writing, switch to discussion. Make it student-centered. After students have read texts for a unit, assign seminar questions. Set the desks in a circle. If it’s a large class, use a double-horseshoe and have the students on the inside discuss while the students on the outside listen. Switch midway through the period. Use a rubric to score. Ask students to assess one another’s contributions, pairing inner and outer students. 

Use online resources when appropriate 

There’s no shame in using a large language model AI interface to create plot summaries, chapter questions or objective tests. Perplexity or ChatGPT can create in 10 seconds what might take you 45 minutes. Just proof for accuracy and tailor to your needs. 

Incorporate peer editing and self-assessment 

Not every writing should require only teacher feedback. Peer editing is a valid pedagogical tool, building student relationships and fostering mentoring in which more skilled writers guide less skilled writers toward success. 

 Encourage self-assessment. Require students to refer to skills sheets and search for their own lapses in writing. 

Use formative assessments 

Short and designed to scaffold skills, these can include quick-writes, exit tickets, pair-and-shares, ‘one-pagers’ and short oral presentations. 

Don’t reinvent the wheel 

While there’s always room to refresh your plans and materials, it’s fine to repeat what works: 

  • Borrow from experienced colleagues who are willing to share. Those borrowed lessons will shave hours off your planning time. 
  • Reuse your own lessons. If you use a learning management system such as Google Classroom, Moodle or Blackboard, you’ll have a treasure trove of lessons after a year or two. “Reuse post” is my go-to click when planning lessons, though I often tweak the assignment. 
  • Organize your Google Drive or desktop folders by course, unit or author to make materials easy to find. Keep binders with assessments. 

I hope these strategies alleviate the burden of our ELA teacher members and keep them in the classroom. Until school boards and other policymakers recognize the additional assessment and planning time burdens faced by ELA teachers and reduce ELA class sizes and course loads, we are in survival mode as we strive to provide students with the meaningful and actionable feedback they deserve.

Gary J. Whitehead, a 27-year English teacher at Tenafly High School, is the 2024 Bergen County Teacher of the Year. He can be reached at