As the new school year approaches, I recall similar days twenty-odd years ago when I began preparing my third grade classroom for the coming term. My two sons would often accompany me, and we’d pack a lunch in preparation of a full day’s work. I taught in a large, old urban building with long halls that echoed with my boys’ delight as they ran and slid towards my classroom door. They loved drawing on the chalkboard, but they also enjoyed helping me distribute student materials in preparation for the first day.
When I reflect on the amount of time and work that it took to prepare for the first weeks of school, it still amazes me. Without that effort at the end of the summer, the first weeks of school would have been extremely difficult. In fact, without those days and weeks of preparation, the entire year would have been a disaster, especially if there were behavior problems in my class (and there usually were).
There were some personal guidelines that I followed when planning for the beginning of the year. I’m sure yours are similar. They sort of evolved over the years, but I would follow them today if I were in an elementary school. Compare them with yours, and I’m sure you could add to mine.
- Plan more than you need. It’s always better to have too many activities rather than not enough to engage the students.
- Plan large group activities during the beginning of the year rather than small group activities. Without really knowing your students, it’s really easy to lose control during small group work.
- The first day is also a good time to plan fun activities for the children to get to know each other. It may be perhaps the only time for such activities if your school follows a strict standards calendar. Fun activities “hook” the students into your class.
- Along with planning for the first weeks, I also eventually found that if I told the children to sit wherever they wished on the first day, I would soon find which children needed to be separated within a few days. After about three days of sitting next to their friends, I would announce at the end of the day that they should look to their left and right because they would not be next to that person on the following day! I also felt that it was actually better to begin the year in rows. (I can hear the gasps now!) This helped until the class adjusted to my class behavior plan. I then gradually changed the seating to pairs, and after the new year, I began utilizing groups in the classroom. However, working in groups involves a massive amount of preparation and planning – that’s for another post!
2. Class Behavior Plan
- Develop a set of rules with your class on the first day. I always found it helpful to keep it to five rules and state them positively. I had an idea of what the rules would be, but the class discussion could be directed in such a way that the children would offer them to me. I could then restate the rule to sound more like mine. Many times, we would actually MODEL the rules in order that everyone understood what it did and did NOT look like in the classroom.
- It is VITAL to have a system of pre-established punishments and rewards that you discuss with your class and STICK TO THEM!
- The first days of school are also the time to go over routines and procedures in your classroom. Before the year began I would list all of the procedures that I needed to explain to my class. Here is a sampling: Getting in line, going to lunch, fire drills, getting a tissue, sharpening pencils, going to the bathroom, returning classwork/homework, working independently, things to do when finished working, beginning the day, hanging up coats/backpacks, forgotten work in backpacks. These are just a few. I know I could think of more. However, the more time that a teacher spends on going over, and in some cases modeling, procedures, the more it impacts on how smoothly the classroom will run. Considerable thought should be put into deciding how these things will be handled. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES did I ever allow a student to talk while I was talking, to get up to get a tissue, sharpen a pencil, go to the bathroom, or throw away trash while I was teaching. It sends the message that what I had to say was not important.
3. Materials Ready in Advance
- Always, always, always have materials ready before the day begins. The copier is the busiest place in the morning, and it often doesn’t work in a large school. Everything should be ready and waiting when you walk in the door. The time before school is a good time to be an observer and a listener of your students. You can learn a lot during this time.
- Make sure you keep to your schedule/routine – begin and end your lessons on time. It is important to keep students engaged so that they have little down time. There are fewer behavior problems this way.
4. Communicate with Parents Before the First Day
- I found that it helped with parent/school communication if I sent a letter before the term introducing me and explaining my expectations. I always kept it positive. It is good to follow your school policy in regards to giving your school email. It is pretty standard procedure today. Just make sure that whatever is sent to parents is proofread by a colleague. It is not a very good impression when a teacher misspells or has grammatical errors in communications.
5. Communicate with School Counselor(s) and Special Education Teacher(s)
- Often the school counselor communicates before the year about potential concerns with children. It’s important to know about severe concerns, but if you have your own behavior plan set up in your class with a set of rules, rewards, and punishments, some of the behavior problems do not occur. Make sure to touch base with the counselor again after two or three weeks when you know the children better.
- Special education teachers may also contact you about children in your class receiving support. Make sure you ask to see the IEP to find out if you are responsible for any specialized instruction. You will need to work closely with this teacher throughout the year.
Hopefully, I have added to your knowledge of things to remember for the beginning of the year. I’m sure you are all anxiously preparing for the year and looking forward to meeting the students in your class. Best of luck to all of you for a great year!