Are you feeling it yet? That old familiar anxiety that creeps into your throat when you realize how much you still have to DO before the first kid walks through your classroom door the first day of school. Yep, you know what I mean. While I can’t help much with your classroom cleaning and organizing, these suggestions should help to alleviate some of that beginning of the year stress that we all know and despise.
It only took me one year of teaching to realize that starting the school year with a full day of reading my parent letter, going over the rules and procedures, and saving 5-10 minutes for questions and discussion at the end of class was NOT the best way to start the school year. By the end of the day, I was bored to tears and without a voice. And, my kids had no reason to want to walk back through my door for Day 2.
In that first year of teaching, I naively thought that putting all of my expectations and rules and procedures “out there” on the first student day would make everyone see how smoothly our year would run. Instead, what I really got were tuned-out kids; they thought I was the worst teacher they were going to have and that we weren’t going to have any fun or time to laugh.
The sad thing is, as my teaching career continued and the high-stakes testing and educational reform eras came rushing into my schools with a vengeance, more and more teachers turned to the doom-and-gloom first day instead of the “Hey! You’re going to love this class and here’s why!” first-day routine.
And, the iron fists did not end there. They started trying to control EVERY aspect of the classroom because they thought that a highly-managed classroom would result in better test scores. Is there some credence to that line of thinking? Well, actually… no. A well-managed classroom is the key to a better learning environment.
It really is okay to spend time creating that ideal learning environment in the first couple of weeks. Especially because that positive learning environment will greatly lessen the need for your rules and consequences. You need to start on the first day of school, so that the kids know that they will be expected to perform in a certain way in your room every day, including Day 1. After 11 years of trying to perfect my learning environment and refine my classroom management techniques, I found what worked for me. It didn’t work every day with every kid, but it worked well enough that I had very few discipline referrals, and my co-teachers thanked me for having an environment that they could work in with the kids. Some days it worked too well, because the one or two kids who didn’t follow suit bothered me immensely; I often found myself wondering what they thought made them exempt from the same rules and procedures everyone else followed. Anyway, some of my favorite notes from my 11 years came from substitute teachers who thanked me for having such clear routines and procedures because they were able to come in and work with my “well-behaved students.”
The secret is setting the learning-environment tone the first day of school. So, do yourself a favor and align your expectations and rules and procedures in your parent letter with your classroom environment starting on Day 1. You won’t have to take an entire class period to read and go over everything with students because you’ll be modeling it for them and having them put them into practice from the get-go. Remember, engaging students is one of the most effective teaching practices you can implement .
1. Pick your battles and include them in your parent letter
You decide which pet peeves you can handle, and which you can’t. My pet peeve was hats; kids will wear those hats all day, if someone will allow them to do so, and some people do. Then, the kids walk into my room and I tell them to take off their hat, and I hear the laundry list of teachers who didn’t have a problem with the hat. So why do I? Hats bother me. Kids can pull them down over their eyes, and it’s disrespectful to wear them inside buildings. Hats are not exactly conducive to a positive learning environment, either; so, I included hats in my parent letter. I spelled out my procedures: kids will remove their hats upon entering my classroom and not put them on for the duration of class. If a hat is problem, I will ask a kid to remove it and give him a warning. If the kid refuses, I will write it up as a detention for Failing to Follow Classroom Rules and call home. Easy, right? But, telling the kids that is one thing. I modeled the procedure with kids the first day to really send home the message.
And, it never failed: the first day of school, somebody walked into my room with a hat on. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want the very first thing that kid heard from me to be, “Take your hat off.” There is no faster way to ruin the positive learning environment you have tried so hard to create than putting a kid on the defensive within the first second of being in your classroom. Instead, I welcomed the kids and told them to that we would be going through a “real day” in English class, starting with the Bell Ringer and ending with the Ticket Out the Door, and lots of reading, writing, and talking in the middle. After the initial introductions and pleasantries, I lined the kids up in the hallway and had them enter my classroom for the second time: this was the modeling phase. We talked about how they should enter my room, get in their seats, look for the Bell Ringer task, and get to work. Then, we did it. And, the kid took off his hat before he stepped foot in my room.
Did he forget as the year progressed? Yes. But, instead of engaging in a war over a stinking hat, I made a gesture with my hand as though I were removing a hat, and he did it. By November, he would smile at me as he took it off; I didn’t even have to remind him.
2. Get accurate parent/guardian contact info. right off the bat
No matter how well you manage your classroom, there are bound to be incidents that require a call home to parents/guardians throughout the school year. It’s also a very good idea to have contact information so you can make positive contact with parents as well. Look for an upcoming blog post on this issue in the near future. I learned, also very early in my career, that getting parent/guardian contact information before the end of the first week of school made my life a whole lot easier later in the school year. Plus, the kids are more willing to bring their parent information to you before you have any discipline issues.
Getting parent contact, and letting the kids know that you are going to contact their parents at some point during the school year, helps to create a more positive learning environment. The kids know that you are going to share the good, the bad, and the ugly with parents, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get a kid who could be a behavior problem back on your side. And, the parents know that you are trying to build a support team for their student by contacting them.
The easiest way I found to acquire the information was to include a slip at the bottom of the parent letter for parents to fill out and return to school with their student. Think about the ways in which you want to contact parents. I don’t recommend that you do it through Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook, but I did find that getting email addresses resulted in more convenient and faster communications with parents. I often asked for the standard information: names, addresses, phone numbers, name of primary parent/guardian, whether I could call work numbers, etc. But, I added a spot for parent email and cell phone numbers because I knew that was how I would actually reach more parents.
I generally spent one night over Labor Day weekend (we start school in the next-to-last week of August around here) entering all of the contact information into an Excel spreadsheet. While it was tedious and time consuming, creating the Excel spreadsheets made accessing parent information a million times easier later in the school year when I had trouble just locating my classroom phone in the midst of meeting notes, data reports, and the usual desk-cluttering paraphernalia that comes with teaching in a high school.
Another tip: Keep in mind that parents are filling out stacks of papers and forms at the beginning of the school year and entrusting their children to return all of that paperwork. Put your name and room number somewhere on the return contact form so that you have a better chance of actually getting yours, and not some other teacher’s from the whole way across campus.
3. Do team building/group activities the first week of school
Get to know your kids, and let them get to know you, within the first two days of school through team building/group activities. I prided myself on knowing my 170+ students’ names by the end of the first week of school, and getting them involved in teams and groups where they had to introduce themselves and share some information about themselves helped me in that process immensely. Okay, you’re the kid with the pig farm. You’re the kid who has a different pair of shoes every day of the week. It’s hard to create a positive learning environment when you’re pointing at kids and saying, “You in the blue.”
Don’t go crazy trying to come up with some earth-shatteringly awesome activities, though. You’ll stress out even more than normal at the beginning of the year, and your kids will expect that same sort of dog-and-pony show on a daily basis. But, think about the things you had to do at freshmen orientation in college. Those icebreakers and “get-to-know-you” activities were cheesy, but I bet you remember them, plus at least one of the other awkward freshmen from your group. (We will be posting a list of tried-and-true beginning of the year team building/group activities soon, we promise!)
Another benefit of starting the year with team building/group activities is that kids learn the procedures for those tasks during the first week of school. Again, through modeling, you can show your kids exactly what to do and what NOT to do when working in groups and when moving around your classroom to participate in team-building activities. Be clear and consistent, and remember that these are supposed to be more laid-back times in your classroom; if you’re like me, you dread these days of less structure. But, the benefits of getting your kids to collaborate and compromise far outweigh your discomfort. And, if you implement the procedures for those team building/group activities from day one, you should not have to worry so much about chaos being imminent.
4. Get kids collaborating, creating, and presenting by the end of week
As a carry-over from #3, you need to make those team building/group activities serve a purpose and have some meaning if your students are going to buy into them. Plus, you need to show the kids that they will not be a roomful of social butterflies who fail to accomplish any “real” academic work this school year. This is the perfect time to assign a group project: you can get kids to pitch and debate one more rule to add to your classroom rules, you can get kids to present and debate one rule they’d like to see more flexibility with, etc. They will have to collaborate and compromise to come to a conclusion, and they will have to decide the best medium for creating and presenting their idea to the class.
This also is the time for you to introduce a rubric and scoring guide; informing students of your expectations and requirements is a sure-fire way to get more quality and timely work out of them. You may as well start this process with them now, so that by the time you really do grade their work, they are prepared. That positive learning environment becomes a whole lot more positive when kids (and parents) know what to expect.
5. Don’t do a seating chart until you know your kids
I know. Your mouth just dropped open and you’re ready to quit visiting this page. This, by far, was the biggest challenge for me. But, after years of staring at new class lists in August and not knowing the first thing about those kids, I gave up spending hours trying to make a seating chart based on names alone. Doesn’t that just seem crazy, anyway?
If you do the first four tips on this list within the first two weeks of school, you will know your students far better than you ever have in previous years. The kids naturally will sit where they are most comfortable and with their friends, which will help in your quest to create a positive learning environment for at least the first couple of days. That’s a very sneaky way of learning which kids to NEVER put together again, too. Plus, You will be able to put a face to a name. You will know which kids need to sit closer to the front or back of the room. You will know which kids are going to talk to their neighbor, regardless of which neighbor you put beside them. You will know which kids try to hide in the back of the room. So, save yourself the time and hassle and STRESS of trying to perfect a seating chart for the first couple of days of school, at least. This is formative assessment at its finest.
Do you have any other tips for relieving back to school stress? We’d love to hear about them! Just click “Leave a Reply” at the top or bottom of the post to get involved in the conversation.