What to do on those first few days

As is common for this time of year, I’ve been working with groups of educators getting ready for the beginning of a new school year. As is also common, I found that in addition to the usual questions I get about authority relationships, challenging students, and creating a win-win climate in the classroom, there was also some slightly panicky chatter about how to apply the strategies I was sharing to getting off on the right foot during those first days.

Thinking back over successes I’ve seen (or had), I came up with a few ideas I thought I’d share here. Note: Since school seems to start earlier each year, I know that some of you are already back in your classroom with your kids, so even if you’ve already gotten through those first few days, know that these strategies can work to refine, reset, or redirect your approach, even late in the year.

Start with your intentions

Make some time to think about why you became a teacher and what you hope to accomplish when your kids come through the door. These intentions will inform the decisions you make and the behaviors you choose throughout the year.

For example, you will be under a tremendous amount of pressure to cover a lot of content, possibly more than your kids can handle and certainly some for which certain kids will lack prerequisite skills or readiness.

Weigh the importance of getting through the curriculum against the importance of your students actually learning something. Decide if you are willing to back up or slow down a bit, make changes in pacing and placement, and accommodate different modality strengths to allow for all students to be successful. Remember that kids who see achievement as a real possibility are less likely to be behavior problems than kids who figure they’re going to fail no matter what.

Consider how you plan to establish your authority. Does “controlling kids” feel more important than teaching kids to control themselves? (Yes, the latter takes longer, but there are loads of instructional and behavioral benefits to working with kids who are strong in self-management.) Are you willing to offer choices? Invite their input for certain tasks related to your objectives? Sometimes getting buy-in and engagement can be as simple as allowing students to decide which of two assignments to do first or where to do their work (as long as it doesn’t create problems for anyone else).

Get clear on your highest priorities because sometimes you have to choose. Perhaps you will want to filter your decisions through the following question: Which choice will do the least harm, create the smallest amount of stress, and allow for the highest degree of success? Consider potential constraints and demands against available allies and supports, and remember that good documentation and parental support can help you succeed, especially with more non-traditional decisions you may want to make.

Get to know your students

If you’ve been at your school for a while, you may already know a good bit about some of the individuals in your classes. Even so, and especially in cases where your familiarity with a particular child is based on rumor and reputation, remember that this is a fresh start for everyone. (This is possible even if you are making changes in the middle of the school year).

Focus some time on finding out who your students are, past successes they have enjoyed, and what they are truly passionate about. If your students are skilled enough to write an essay or answer questions on an interest inventory, start there. Interviews, games, and even casual discussions can reveal a great deal about the individuals with whom you will be spending a whole lot of time over the next several months.

Note comments about interests or topics for future reference, ideas, and preferences you might be able to accommodate throughout the year. Whether a book about sharks, some music to play in class, or an opportunity for a kid to make a video as an assignment option, personalizing choices about content and activities can help engage kids and make them feel “heard” and valued.

You’re probably going to want to jump right into the books and start plowing through all the content and standards. Even if your kids are ready, I’d still recommend starting slowly, taking time to build your relationships and climate. “Content can wait,” insists school superintendent Patricia Ciccone. “Without a positive classroom climate, it will wait, and it will wait forever.”

Get them busy

Being able to experience success is a big part of what contributes to a sense of safety and belonging in any learning environment. Your students will need to practice working (individually and in groups), following routines, solving problems, and moving around the classroom or interacting non-disruptively.

Plan activities—lots of activities—to keep them busy throughout the period or the day. (Assume that many of these first-day or first-week tasks will be fairly easy, designed to help you get to know your kids’ interests and skills.) Keep things interesting and FUN! Yes, “We’re here to work!” I can promise you’ll get far more work out of kids who are engaged and enjoying themselves than you will from kids who feel like your class offers little more than drudge work.

Get in the habit of having something for them to do, answer, or even think about by having a question, problem, puzzle, or quote on the board when they come in. Have materials available, even if your school expects them to be prepared. (Most will, though some—like most adults—will forget from time to time. Encourage sharing, returning borrowed items, and contributing resources, and spend your time in instructional pursuits rather than yelling or punishing. This is a very small hill to die on.)

I always used to tell my new teachers to plan two days’ worth of activities for the first day, and many were surprised to discover how much they’d gone through when the final bell rang. Until you get to know your kids’ work habits and abilities, having more stuff for them to do is better than not enough. (You can almost always use or modify the tasks you don’t get to, or save them for review, enrichment, or breaks down the road.)

Focus on tasks that can help them review and help you diagnose the skill levels with which you are working. Start where they can experience success and get into the curriculum when you all feel a bit more familiar with one another and with the rhythms of your on-task requirements. It’s better to start with “easy stuff” and continue to raise the bar as progress warrants.

Minimize attention to the rules

Just about every back-to-school book or article for teachers stresses the importance of going over the rules right off the bat. I never felt this activity actually inspired good behavior. Instead, it always gave me the sense that it emphasized my role as Enforcer instead of Teacher. (My luck wasn’t any better when it came to listing my numerous expectations, as I seemed to be the only one committed to them.)

I’d be willing to bet that every one of your kids already knows that teachers want them to come to class on time and prepared, to take turns to speak, and to treat others with respect. Really. They do.

So how about shifting your emphasis to connecting and keeping them busy, giving clear instructions and explanations for each activity or procedure? (Written instructions can also be helpful, including labels for where things are stored.) Specifically showing kids how to put the caps back on the markers so they don’t dry out is also less likely to provoke resistance or power struggles than a Rule about recapping writing instruments. (Note: I did this with kids through 8th grade.) 

Many districts require a list of rules to be posted in your classroom. Fine. Post them. This covers you and it covers them. Just don’t imagine that your kids are going to behave cooperatively because the rules are up there. Look instead for positive outcomes and privileges they can earn when you don’t have to spend a lot of time interrupting negative behavior. (Again, think about your intentions: Why are you there? How do you want to spend your time and energy?)

Break with tradition and create structure and boundaries within your classroom, asking for what you want and allowing kids to earn privileges (whether to accommodate learning styles or academic enrichment) with their cooperation and on-task behavior, rather than relying on threats and punishments to discourage misbehavior. It’s a small shift that can have a huge impact on the climate of the class and the outcomes of the requests you make.

So there you have it, and for my money, the words you want to keep in mind—not just this week but throughout the year—are intention, connection, engagement, success, and climate. With these as your guideposts, you are very likely to find that little things like curricular expectations and test scores will take care of themselves.

Have a fabulous year!

© 2014, Dr. Jane Bluestein

What’s worked for you? Share activities and ideas in the comments below.

Related resources

Book: The Beginning Teacher’s Survival Guide: Win-Win Strategies for Success
Book: Managing 21st Century Classrooms
Book: Classroom Management
Book: The Complete Book of Handouts
Book: Creating Emotionally Safe Schools
Book: Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor: Stories of Teachers Making a Difference
Book: The Win-Win Classroom
Book: The Win-Win Classroom Facilitator’s Guide

Audio: Practical Strategies for Working Successfully with Difficult Students

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2 thoughts on “Starting Off on a New School Year

  1. Know your students: A goal I have for every 12th grade student is to know the names of their parent(s), what their career path is (college area of study, military, work or raising a family), and one other “unique” fact about them…something that is a significant part of their lives. As a principal in a small school, I often know this well before they are seniors, but it is important to me that I understand enough about them to know what “makes them tick” in order to provide guidance and support for their next step in life.

    Rules: Over a five-year period, the rules at our school have changed very little. Each year, I synthesize them down to about 6 general ideas. Of course, there are many parts of our code of conduct, but tardies and absences; honesty; appearance (dress code); technology; and language are the broad areas almost everything falls under.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I’ve been in schools where the administration and staff really make an effort to connect with kids and know about what’s going on in their lives. The impact on the climate of the school and overall student behavior and commitment is powerful. Your school is fortunate to have you.

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