In these parts, the new school year is upon us. It is a time of excitement, anticipation, and above all, a time when setting the tone can make or break the next 10 months of your life. Starting the school year off “strong” takes a little more effort on the outset, but the benefits in doing so pay off in dividends throughout the school year. Here are my top 13 tips to start the year off strong – tips I’ve learned along the way from great administrators, educators and from my own experiences as a teacher and administrator:
- Create a variety of opportunities and engagements that will allow for your students to make meaningful connections with you and their classmates over the first days, and then continue this throughout the year. Send a communication (e-mail or letter) to students sharing some info. about yourself and things you did and learned over the summer. Share your hopes and goals for the school year and let them know you are both excited and nervous for the first day of school, too. Use the morning arrival time as “connection time”. (When I was in the classroom students had to give me a high five, a knuckles or a handshake before they could start the day.) Talk to your students about their lives outside of school. Connecting meaningfully with students builds trust!
- Schedule time to explicitly go over expectations, procedures and routines on the first day and over the first few weeks of school. Continue to practice and reinforce these on a regular basis until they are habit. (This may involve lots of “do-overs”.) Consistency with follow through is key to ensuring expectations and procedures are sustained throughout the year! If you are consistent, your students will respect you and strive to be consistent too! Essential agreements are also very effective for establishing classroom norms too (e.g. cooperation and what it looks, sounds, feels like; friendship, etc.).
- Give your students a voice by involving them in establishing essential agreements, procedures, routines and even some set up of the room. Ensure expectations and agreements are clear (e.g. We agree to respect each other. Respect looks like.. sounds like…feels like….). Prominently display them in age appropriate and student-driven ways to foster ownership. Plan to make time to review these many times over the year to ensure students understand and uphold them; refer to them regularly for redirection and praise students who diligently put the effort in to put them into action. Modify them as needed throughout the year to honour academic, social and emotional growth.
- Be the first to make first contact with parents; introduce yourself to parents before they introduce themselves to you. Send out a welcome e-mail (separate from any communication with students) and be the first to introduce yourself and shake their hand as they arrive with their child over the first days of school. If an issue arises during the school day, contact the parent before they pick their child up if possible so the parent is not blind-sided and can prepare to support their child. Make sure that you share positive news with parents too so that they know that hearing from the teacher isn’t just about the “bad and the ugly” but also about the “good”.
- Be responsive! Keep communication with parents, students and colleagues open and honest. Base your communication on what you know to be true and not on what you might assume (facts vs. inferences). Respond to parent contact or concerns in a timely manner, with the goal of response over reaction (do your detective work, or find out what you need to know before responding). If a parent seems frustrated or angry – do not use e-mail to communicate (even if they e-mailed first!). Take the extra bit of time to make human contact – it will help to alleviate the situation and most likely prevent it from escalating. The “human factor” trumps everything!
- Make the time for students to play games and have “silly” time in class. Observe how they interact, follow rules, share, take turns, laugh, etc.
- Build in time for mindfulness (e.g. deep breathing) or short physical breaks, especially where students are in the same space/with the same teacher for an extended period of time. Activity is not just for PE class! One of my favourites (and of my former students) was body wrestling. (Send me a message and I will describe!)
- Establish and commit to holding regular classroom meetings/communication circles. Not only is this a great time for group problem solving and bringing to light social issues or concerns, but also an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate each other.
- No matter what grade level, use picture books to support learning, stimulate discussion, enjoy some down time together, be inspired, imagine, wonder, and connect.
- Focus on effort, not achievement. Use clear criteria to set students up for success. Use the action cycle as a reflective framework for looking back, being “present” and planning forward.
- Be explicit; assume nothing!
- Being a teacher is 99% marketing! Sell your curriculum to your students everyday. If you are excited, they will be too! Brand your classroom to create a unique/distinct identify for your community of learners.
- Create a culture of inquiry in everything you do. Embrace opportunities to inquire alongside your students. For students to become effective inquirers, they need to see the adults in their world inquire and wonder, too!
What are your tips to start the year “strong?” Feel free to add to this list!