In this episode of The Preschool Podcast we chat with Aja McNair, Education Consultant and Founder of Everything Aja. Aja provides our listeners how they can master teaching strategies without feeling overwhelmed.
In today’s classroom, educators are feeling more and more overwhelmed everyday with the amount of cleaning, documenting, communicating and teaching that is expected of them. Aja explains how you can break down what is required of you as an educator in order to simplify your daily tasks and requirements without compromising the quality of care you provide for children.
The best tip that I can share with you is to find parts of your day that you can really hone in on and run on autopilot. These tasks require little to no preparation to prevent that overwhelmed feeling.Aja McNair, The Preschool Podcast.
Check out Aja’s YouTube channel for more tips to overcome overwhelm in your classroom.
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Then what we’ll see is, overall, when you look at the big picture, they won’t have so many holes and gaps. And they’ll truly, actually learn what it is that we want them to learn because we’re kind of working smarter, not harder.
Aja, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hello hello, thanks for having me!
It’s our pleasure, Aja. We’re so excited to have on the show with us today Aja McNair. She’s an educational consultant and helps parents and teachers make teaching a fun and engaging, which we know is super important, especially for our youngest children. How can we learn without it being a fun and engaging? Very difficult. Welcome to the show, Aja. As we do, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and what made you start your own brand and company, Everything Aja.
Well, I’ve actually always enjoyed teaching, even as a little girl. Like, all I used to want to play was school. And I never really played house a lot, I would always play school. And of course, I was always the teacher every time. And even when I got the middle school, I was still playing school. Like, I would have almost loved animals aligned. They would switch classes. It was crazy. So, it was kind of like a no-brainer that I would want to go into education. Everybody that knew me, knew that’s always what my heart desired.
I’ve taught pre-K [kindergarten]; the majority of my beginning career was always in pre-K. And believe it or not, my second or third year teaching pre-K, I got a part-time job teaching eighth grade simultaneously. And so I would go literally from pre-K all day long, full time lead teacher, and then teach three blocks of eighth grade EIP [early intervention program] math.
So, it was very challenging but I literally went from singing, “Too de ta, too de ta, too de ta,” to doing algebraic expressions. But having that experience on my resumé ended up leading me to quote-unquote, I guess you could say, my “dream job”, which was just working in the public school systems. There’s one specific school system that I really, really wanted to do in my area to get in because it was kind of hard to get in. But they liked that experience that I was teaching pre-K and eighth grade simultaneously. And so then I actually jumped to fifth grade teaching.
And then I’ve been a technology teacher; I’ve been a reading coach. And for the last five years I’ve actually been a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade curriculum specialist. And what that pretty much is, is I’m overall teaching and learning for all kids, all grade levels to help teachers really master teaching strategies for kids of all ages, with all different subjects.
So, my strength, as you might have seen in my YouTube, is reading because that was always my weakness as a student. When I was a child, reading was my weakness. So, that kind of became my strength as I continue to help teachers actually teach children. And so then part of being a curriculum specialist, being over kind of everything, was being a part of an administration.
And being an administrator, I got to work with a lot of parents. And as a teacher, I found myself a lot of times getting frustrated that parents wouldn’t do “their part”, quote-unquote. I used to find a lot of those teachers always kind of blaming the parents. And then when I became administrator and I started talking to parents, I started hearing from the other point of view, for parents saying, “I want to help. I just don’t know how.”
So, I found myself giving a lot of parents just simple steps, like, “Oh, well, you could do this if you implemented this for ten minutes a day at home. That can help your child tremendously.” And I started to see there was a huge gap just between parents and teachers. And then when I became a mom, that kind of changed everything. And I kind of wanted my child not to have the same problems that I did. Like I stated, I kind of struggle with reading. So, I made sure she had every resource that I’ve ever used with children so that she didn’t have the same gaps that I had growing up.
So when she turned two [years old] a few years ago, she spoke so well. A lot of people would just stop me in grocery stores everywhere, and they were like, “How did you get your child at [age] two?” Because most kids are saying a few words. And my daughter was saying full-blown sentences.
So, that kind of led me to starting my first YouTube video, which was, “How To Get Your Child To Talk”. And that was kind of the catalyst of my whole entire brand and company. And because my mission really is, I kind of close the gap in education between parents and teachers by just making teaching simple.
I feel like there’s so much that we kind of throw in there and there’s all these ins and outs. But at the end of the day, I want to help close that gap by just simplifying and teaching both in the classroom and at home, to just make teaching very simple, very systematic and, most importantly, very fun and engaging so that kids enjoy learning and so that parents and teachers aren’t burnt out teaching.
Yeah, and that’s actually a good segue way because a lot of folks in our community, which we’re hearing, are overwhelmed with everything that’s required for them to teach in a school year. How can educators simplify that process and ensure they’re meeting their requirements that are set upon them as well, at the same time?
Yes, I can totally relate to being overwhelmed. I’ve been an overwhelmed teacher, I’ve been an overwhelmed parent and an overwhelmed administrator. So, I’ve kind of been in all aspects of the pot. And the best tip I can share are find parts of your daily routine that you can really hone in and make run on autopilot.
So, when I say autopilot, I mean they kind of like run themselves that require little-to-no preparation because that really would help the overwhelmed feeling. Because a lot of us feel like there’s all these things that we’re required to do, like you stated. There’s all these initiatives coming down, you have to do the lessons. And it’s just a lot. So, I get that, it’s a lot.
So, one thing I always teach my clients is to take a best practice like reading and then make your reading routine and kind of break it down into like autopiloted lessons that you’re not having to change all the time but are still engaging. And what you’ll find is when you do this, they’ll start to kind of run themselves.
And I learned this firsthand in the classroom. I didn’t even realize I created this type of environment until one day I had a migraine. And I just kind of had to go to the reading center of my room. And I just told my kids, they knew what to do because we did the same thing every day in a very systematic fashion. And the great part is, when you do this, kids know what to expect. So, you find that classroom management decreases. But the kids also will reach your expectations and they’ll really rise to what you want them to do.
But yeah, I had a migraine and I just laid down and closed my eyes. And every single child did their normal routine without me. And that was, like, the game-changing moment And I was like, “This is how, this is the key to really having, like, that systematic kind of autopiloted system set up.”
Yeah, that’s interesting. And certainly, we’ve heard time and again on the Preschool Podcast that the routines and having that system is very important, both for the children and, to your point, for the teachers and educators as, well.
How about on the other side, in terms of some of the struggle areas, especially in terms of lacking resources or support? I know you mentioned lesson planning. And we hear that a lot, as well, just in terms of, when do you find the time to do your lesson planning? Usually it ends up being evenings or weekends.
You also mentioned earlier about parents saying, “I want to help. I just don’t know how.” And I think that’s very insightful. So, is communication and having time to chat and build relationships with families, is that an area where we can provide more resources or support? Any thoughts there?
Yeah. So, I have two answers to that. And I’ve seen it firsthand. And honestly, it really is like a domino effect, right? It kind of comes from the top. And when you think about, like we were just talking about lesson plans, there’s so much when it comes to lesson plans. Like, there’s 12 key parts. You have to identify the learning goal, the targeted lesson, essential questions, vocabulary assessment materials. There’s a lot of parts that come in it.
And what ends up happening, like you stated, is either teachers are spending their entire weekends or nights on creating lesson plans, or the other option is they end up cutting corners. They’ll start repeating lessons, buying lessons from teachers, putting in on a movie. And the unfortunate part about that is you’re either getting burnt out – in which the kids lose, the kids getting the short end of the stick – or you’re cutting corners and the kids are getting the short end of the stick.
But the truth of the matter is, what I’ve found from a lot of my audience is that there isn’t a lot of support when it comes to kind of lessening this overwhelming feeling. So, I know that’s one of the reasons I wanted to create my program, Teaching By Design, was just to help teachers eliminate that sense of overwhelm because there’s really not a lot out there when it comes to kind of just simplifying the lesson planning process of it. So, that is my mission, right there.
And when it comes to the parent communication, get parents involved. So, there’s lots of different things, like we were just talking about, with overwhelm, all these things that are kind of on your plate. And I encourage everybody to just kind of take a moment to think about what you can take off your plate that a parent can handle.
So, if you know that Christmas is coming up, you know that there’s, like, 24 Christmas trees you want to cut out for an activity, ask a parent to do that. They can easily do that. Kind of delegate some of the tedious tasks. Think about, “What can a parent help me with?” And then kind of have parent communication run on autopilot. Parents are really just like kids: they want to help; they want to be involved at the end of the day. And a lot of times we think they don’t because they don’t know a lot of… from what I’ve seen, there’s like a lack of communication because people don’t know what to even do to help.
But I definitely encourage everybody to just kind of take a moment and think about what you can kind of relieve off your plate. And kind of ask a parent to help. There’s a lot of parents that do want to help. And you kind of know those same parents that are always kind of reaching out. Or even just send a normal, general blanket message to all your parents. And you’ll be surprised what parents say, “Oh, I will gladly cut out 24 Christmas trees.” I just threw that in for an example.
But the parents really would want to help. And that will kind of overwhelm a little bit of the stress. But definitely think about ways to have, like I said, the autopiloted system that can help with even lesson planning. So, I know that that’s literally what I help teachers and parents with, is eliminating that overwhelm by doing exactly what I’m telling y’all today, is by creating that autopiloted, systematic system that’s still fun for kids but that will also help eliminate some of the overwhelm feeling that everybody tends to feel when it comes to teaching.
Yeah, and you mentioned there’s multiple steps to lesson planning. And sometimes folks might end up cutting corners when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Do you feel like there’s a particular element that’s being missed, in particular when it comes to lesson planning?
Ooh yes, yes, yes, absolutely. And I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of lesson plans. And because, even as an administrator, I’ve had to literally give feedback, there are two things I’ve always found out. Either teachers put too little or too much in the lesson plan. Either it’s not enough information – and when that happens, you kind of don’t have a guide because you’re missing those key components of a lesson. And then kids end up having gaps in learning because everything wasn’t planned out.
Or you had too much and you can’t really use it as a guide because you can’t stop in the middle of teaching and read this whole entire paper on what you’re supposed to do in 15 minutes. But so I really have, after analyzing some early lesson plans, I have really realized that I think that teachers are missing the big picture of the learning target. I think we get caught up with the overall learning goal. Like, what is the overall learning outcome of this entire standard?
But when you think about a learning target, that is something that they can realistically master within one lesson that gears towards the actual learning goal. So, there are multiple learning targets on the path to mastering the learning goal, for example. So, even when it comes to sounds and letter recognition, there is a lot of different things that are kind of along that path or along the path before a job can even blend sounds.
So, I feel like a lot of us, when it comes to lesson planning, we try to put so many things into a lesson plan. Now we’re missing just figuring out the learning target. Like, “What piece of the pie can I teach during this 20 or 30 minutes? And then how can I really get kids to master it?” Like when you really kind of zone in on a learning target, you’re actually more focused on mastery. And kids won’t have such big of a gap.
But what I’ve seen is when we kind of don’t do that, there’s kind of no direction in the lesson because we’re expecting the kids to learn too much in a 20-30 minute time span. Or you’re kind of just checking off the box because you have to teach the scope and sequence. So, you do have to teach things in a systematic way and within a certain time frame. But what ends up happening, if kids don’t grasp the concept, you’re going to spend more time re-teaching than actually teaching in the first place.
So, I feel like if we can just really kind of hone in on what is the learning target of this particular lesson and making sure all kids master that learning target, then what we’ll see is overall, when you look at the big picture, they won’t have so many holes and gaps. And they’ll truly actually learn what it is that we want them to learn because we’re kind of working smarter, not harder, if that makes sense.
That makes a lot of sense. And as part of that, you’ve talked a lot about systems, which I think is probably part of working smarter. What about engagement? So, something that you do quite a bit in your work is focusing on how can we engage children and whether that’s in the classroom, at home, in-person, virtual. Any tips for our listeners there on how they can increase engagement with children?
Yes, my secret sauce: games. That is literally my secret sauce when it comes to engagement. Games and just being excited, just the energy. Energy is contagious. And incorporating learning games has, I mean, transformed so many classrooms in so many environments that I even have my fingers in. Because learning games really increase engagement, even in the classroom.
I have a learning game pretty much every day, every single day. Whether it be in a small group or a whole group, my kids have the opportunity to play a game because with games, kids are actually… it’s not as high-stake. And naturally, human beings, we have a competitive nature about ourselves.
So, what I’ve seen, kids thrive when it comes to learning games. And not only is incorporating learning games in a normal routine, whether you have fun Friday, whether you have games in your center, however it is that you want to incorporate learning games, what you’ll notice is, not only does it increase engagement with kids, but it also transforms your whole entire learning environment.
And it really builds that classroom community and builds solid relationships. It teaches kids teamwork. They’ll want to learn; they’ll start to encourage one another. The accountability is there. And they’re learning their goals and objectives at the same time. So, that is definitely my secret sauce to really increase in engagement when it comes to children.
That makes a ton of sense. I’ve certainly had that experience at home with my four-year-old. He’s very competitive, I will tell you. Okay, so you’ve talked a lot about learning with children. What about yourself? Can you share with our audience on the Preschool Podcast a resource that you’ve been learning from that they might be able to check out as well for their own professional development?
Yes. Well, a big one for me is definitely Orton-Gillingham. So, I have been in Orton-Gillingham training for quite a quite a while, but I continue to do the refresher course. And especially now – like you say, you have a four year old – my daughter is actually three. She’s about to be four. But I already have her blending words. And that’s because I am literally applying or Orton-Gillingham with her at home.
And that’s really like a hands-on based kinesthetic way of teaching reading. It is related to the science of reading. But I am huge on Orton-Gillingham. I have seen it work both in the classroom and at home now as a mom. And that is definitely my go-to.
I’ve also been learning a lot about Lucy Calkins for the last three years. I’ve been really studying Units of Study, which is all about getting kids to fall in love with reading. And you do that through a lot of reading strategies. So, there’s a lot of explicit teaching. Like, “Today I’m going to teach you how to use the pictures to identify words.”
And what I really like about Lucy Calkins is the way she teaches learning strategies, especially with primary children, because I just the basic strategies, like she teaches like how to just cover words up in a book and read the story again. But you don’t say the word that’s covered and get the kids to figure it out based on the first letter with the initial sound with what they’re seeing in the page. So, she kind of puts it all together. So, I really like the reading strategies I’ve learned from Lucy Calkins, mixed with the phonics that I’ve learned from Orton-Gillingham. And that’s really… I mean, I am a proud believer of both. I have seen them both work wonders.
Awesome. Yeah, and those are good, good examples, again, sort of what you’re saying before where the parents want to help but they just need a bit more direction as to how. And it sounds like those are some good resources for parents to check out, as well. Before we wrap up, Aja, what about if our listeners want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work? Where can they go to get more information?
Absolutely. So, you can go to my website, which is www.EverythingAja.com. You can also look me up on Instagram at @Everything_Aja. And actually today, Ron, I actually have a free workshop I’m doing, all about how to simplify teaching. And in that workshop, I’m actually breaking down the whole autopiloted system that we’ve talked about today. But I reveal my framework of how to actually create that autopiloted system to get rid of the overwhelm, to get rid of the hours that come with lesson planning. And it’s all geared just towards simplifying teaching and getting rid of the overwhelm and the hours of lesson planning. So, teachers can really have that work-life balance, save time and give back to kids. I also have a thriving YouTube channel, as well. You guys can find me on there at, once again, Everything Aja.
Awesome. Well, that sounds like a no-brainer. So, go check it out, www.EverythingAja.com. And there’s a free resource for you. And we really appreciate, Aja, you sharing your energy, your tips, all super practical for our audience to check out and to implement, whether that’s at home or in the classroom. Thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much for having me!