Back to School: Strategies For Starting the Year Off Right

 

First day jitters, the anticipation of new class schedules, getting back into the swing of things.  We know that the beginning of a new school year is exciting, but it can also bring about a lot of stress.  It is the most opportune time to set up routines and procedures with your students, and just the idea of missing this chance or not making the most of it can cause stress in itself.  Relax. We’re here to talk you through it.

 

Having routines and procedures in place sets the tone of the class.  It lets students know that when they enter your door, it is time for business.  We of course mean this in a light-hearted and supportive sense, but they still know that it is time to switch into the mode that you expect of them in your classroom.  This may sound strict, but it will make the best use of your time with the students, provide a safe work environment that everyone can function successfully in, and help you and your students in the long run.

 

Music

Depending on the age and personality type, the first day of school can be incredibly nerve racking for many students (and teachers alike!)  We like to start the year off making our students feel as welcome and comfortable as possible. This is totally based on your style, but we personally like some light background music.  It helps set a comfortable mood, especially when relationships between the teacher and students, as well as student to student, haven’t been built yet. We recommend having music playing low as the students enter, during certain group or individual activities, and at transition times.  

 

Assigned Seats

Seating arrangements can be another source of stress for students.  Depending on your first activity on day one, it may be best to assign seats.  You will most likely not know most of your students yet, so you can assign them as you see fit, but keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be long term.  It is simply to set up an immediate routine on day one. The students automatically have a task as they enter, and they see right away that it isn’t a free for all setting where they can sit and chat with their friends.  We love that our students are friends and want them to interact, but allowing this from day one can backfire. Also, there will inevitably be students that do not have any friends in the class, and will be struggling to find a place to sit amongst groups of students that are already friends.  Assigned seating cuts out the possibility of that immediately. This also will give you a good idea of who works well together and who doesn’t, so that you can plan your longer term seating assignments accordingly.

 

Another thing to keep in mind with seating is configurations.  We personally do not prefer the old lecture style seating of neat rows facing forward.  It doesn’t lend itself to collaborative discussions, and quite frankly- it’s boring! We find it best to use tables in our classrooms, even in middle school grades and up, where students can work in groups and face each other in order to collaborate.  This of course requires space, and the right student groupings for it to work well- but it is worth it.

 

Classroom Atmosphere

We know this is another huge source of stress for teachers at the start of the school year.  On top of lesson planning and everything else that a new school year entails, having your room ready is another enormous task.  It is common for teachers to move classrooms, or move to a new school entirely. Don’t worry- scrambling to have your classroom look absolutely perfect on day one isn’t necessary!  Should it be neat, clean and organized? Absolutely. Should every wall and shelf be filled and decorated down to the last labeled scissor box? Not at all. A clean classroom that is organized and devoid of boxes, stacks of paper and clutter is crucial.  Students will be more likely to respect the classroom and the work environment, and feel valued entering a space that is tidy. But the entire decor and vibe of the room can come with time, and help from your students.

 

Student Contribution to the Decor/Easy First Day Activities

Student contribution to the classroom decor is key- it lets them know that you value their opinions, and leads to better student buy-in of what you are trying to teach in the classroom.  They begin to take ownership and pride in the space. That’s why we like to do some projects on the first few days that not only ease the students into the year with something fun, but also give them the chance to show their personal interests and styles.  We have our students create their own name tags for their desks, make All About Me Collages (see image below), and set the norms for the class (posted where all can see).  We will get into the norms in more detail, but the point is that the students have a few projects that require no prior knowledge other than their own personalities, and their work is immediately displayed and helps create a classroom vibe and culture that is their own- and not just a teacher’s pinterest inspired wonderland.  😉

        

Getting to Know You Activities

Not only is it valuable for the students to know each other, but it is highly beneficial for you to get to know your students on a more personal level as well.  As a teacher, you truly need to know what your students family life is like, their outside interests and hobbies, their cultures, home languages, etc. Each students MUST be more than a filled seat in your room.  Truly knowing your students fosters better relationships- ones where students are more likely to respect and listen to what you have to say when you go your of your way to do the same for them. With this information, you can also be sure to create lessons and use examples that draw from your students backgrounds and interests.

 

Some activities we like to use are filling out a simple “about me” questionnaire for your own records, but also more game-like items where they are up and moving around, required to speak to different partners, etc.  Team building activities are also a great way to start the year. There are links below to a few ideas and examples with directions.

 

Getting to Know You: 4 Corners Card

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1oBnoxkFcqD1CHBABRJS6Oya_LwNMShC089OZjPV1Fk8/edit

 

Team Building: Engineering Card Towers

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1k1DPwMuXsI-WElTz8UcNeB7m9xsfIG4INm84ZG1xt9w/edit

 

Norms

Another item we like to address during week 1 are class norms.  You will likely cover more in depth classroom rules and expectations in your syllabus (that you also go over in detail with the students), but norms are something that the students help create, so they are authentic.  Norms also tend to avoid using the word “no,” whereas many rules begin with just that. Norms should also encompass many smaller ideas or rules that can fall under a larger norm.

 

We like to keep it simple, and limited to just three main norms.  First, students brainstorm ideas of what makes for a great classroom environment (what makes them feel safe, what makes them enjoy a classroom, what helps them work best, etc.)  Next, we create a chart with the student ideas (on a whiteboard, overhead, large poster paper, anywhere that everyone can see). Then, we group similar items to help narrow down our norms.  By the end of the process, we identify three main norms. In the past, they have been ideas such as the following. You are not limited to these at all, these are simply ideas that have come from our conversations with students in the past.

 

  •  Respecting Ourselves and Others

This can cover SO many other “rules.”  A student is talking out of turn? Refer them to this norm.  “Are you respecting others when you prevent them from being able to listen and learn?”  Or maybe a student is drawing on a desk. “Are you respecting yourself and others by damaging the space that everyone works in?”  You get the idea. Norms cover a broad range of issues without the negative connotation of NO.

  •  Only Our Best Work

Students have developed this norm in the past from other ideas such as “always try your best,”  “don’t be lazy,” etc. This norm is also all-encompassing, as it can address an array of student issues, work ethic and quality, staying on task, etc.

  •  Always Ask Questions

This was one of our favorite norms in the past, as it let students know that it was okay if they didn’t have the answer or if they made mistakes, and that they should always be curious and wanting to know more.  It encourages inquiry, and lowers students affective filters. It is also important to remember that this includes YOU, the teacher. Let them see that you are always learning, making mistakes and asking questions too.

 

The main focuses of norms are that they are student generated and authentic, they are all-encompassing so that they cover a broad range of classroom issues, they are simple and concise so that they are easy to remember, and they are positive as opposed to using the word “no” in the style of many classroom rules.

 

Routines and Roles

Another key piece to setting up procedures immediately is letting the students know what they are supposed to do as they enter the classroom each day, and assign them roles to hold them accountable for keeping the classroom running smoothly.  Procedures can include such tasks as lining up quietly outside, removing a pencil from their backpack and placing it on a hook or space in the back of the room (we prefer to keep backpacks away from student seats to prevent distractions), getting their journals, folders and whatever text they might need for the day from a shelf, and going directly to their assigned seat.  A journal prompt or “do now” is also always on the board as they enter, so that there is an immediate task to start no matter whether the bell has rung or not.

 

Classroom roles can also be assigned, and should be rotated fairly often.  Classroom roles will not only create student responsibility and leadership in the classroom, but it will take a few items off your plate as well.  Roles can include such “jobs” as supply manager (making sure that pencils are sharpened and supplies are stocked), library attendant (keeping books organized and in their correct place), materials collector (taking out and returning materials for their table, turning in assignments for the group, etc,), etc.  Whatever small tasks you need to fill in the classroom that are appropriate for a student to handle can make good classroom jobs or roles. As we mentioned, remember to rotate them often.

 

Starting a new school year can be overwhelming, but using these strategies can make a world of difference in staying organized and starting your students out on the right track.  Best of luck and enjoy your first days back in the classroom!