As I think about the start of the school year tomorrow, I can’t help but reflect on my years in the classroom. I’ve taught almost every grade level from K-8 and enjoyed each and every grade level for a variety of reasons. Each grade taught me different things and as I think about my friends and colleagues heading back into the classroom tomorrow to welcome their new students, here are my top ten thoughts to get the school year off to a great start!
- Names: nothing is more important than learning to pronounce their names correctly. Take the time to ask them how their name is pronounced. I often had my students tell me “It’s okay” or “Don’t worry about it.” I never listened and asked them to tell me how their parent(s)/guardian(s) said their names. Due to my East Indian background, pronouncing most of my students’ names correctly wasn’t an issue but I know how challenging it can be to pronounce some of their names. Learning to pronounce their names properly goes a long way because it demonstrates to your students that you care. I know this might be difficult because of the different linguistic rules and norms of languages but as long as you put the effort into it, your students will appreciate those efforts.
- Daily Greeting: to get their day (and yours) off to a great start, be sure to greet them at the door; whether you have them line up at the door or come into the classroom as soon as they are ready, be sure to say “hello” and ask them how they are doing. Being in the hallway as they gather their materials for the day is a great opportunity to see how they are doing and asking them if they had a nice evening. Again, this shows them that you care about them as a person.
- Classroom: I know we spend lots of quality time setting up our classroom for our students so they feel welcome. This includes the physical arrangement of the classroom, bulletin boards, and materials/resources. I’ve learned over the years that less is more. Purchasing those colourful pre-packaged bulletin boards from the teacher’s store might make the classroom look pretty, but students will not refer to them because their is no ownership in those bulletin boards. They did not create them, hence there is no investment. I left my bulletin boards empty and had my students create them – they referred to them much more often! In addition to the bulletin boards, let them choose how they want their classroom setup. How do they believe the desks should be set up? Should there be different areas for different purposes? If so, how? Why? Where should resources and materials go? What about technology? Where should it be stored? How should it be used? It is their learning space and they should have a voice in how their space is setup to allow for maximum learning and engagement.
- Rules: The first day and week of school is also spent discussing and generating classroom rules and norms. Have students generate these norms with the consequences. Students need to realize that certain behaviours have consequences. You choose a behaviour; you choose the consequences. Hence, it is important for students to brainstorm consequences (within reason) along with the rules. Send home a copy to parents to sign and have students sign as well. This way, everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises.
- Expectations: This is an extension of classroom norms. To ensure a successful year, it is important to start off with expectations. What do I, as your teacher expect from you as a learner? (e.g., I will do my best., I will ask for help when needed., I will be a good peer to my fellow classmates, etc). What would be your top three? It needs to go the other way as well. What do I, as your student, expect from you as my teacher? (e.g., Believe that I can succeed., Show me you care., Show me that I can trust you.). What do you think your students would say? Why?
- Relationships: Nothing is more important than getting to know your students. You need to build relationships with your students so that they can trust you and come to you with their problems, whether personal or academic. This is becoming increasingly important as students struggle with wellness, mental health, and a jam-packed schedule. There are many ways you can get to know your students, such as: (a) Interest Inventories, (b) Parent Questionnaires, (c) Games, (d) Icebreakers, (e) Community Circles, and (f) Community building activities. Even though this is concentrated in the first month or so of the school year, these activities should be ongoing because it not only keeps it fun but it also allows you to continue building those relationships.
- Gift Bags: organizing and putting together small gift bags for your students for the first day of school can get them excited about their year of learning. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated nor does it have to take a long time. Simple items such as pencils, erasers, markers, a bouncy ball, and chocolates/candy can be included in these Welcome Back to School gift bags (e.g., Ready, Set, Go! Or It’s A Treat to Have You In My Class!).
- Student Records: Looking at each student’s file in the office is something that is on our ‘to do list’ during that first week or so of school so we can get some background information on our students. I found that looking at them too early can gave me some preconceived notions about the students in my classroom. Hence, I stopped looking at them until I had formed my own opinions about their abilities, strengths, needs, and interests. It was interesting that there were several occasions where I was surprised at what I read in their file after I had a chance to get to know them. Not looking at their files for at least a month was one of the best changes I made to my practice.
- Nurture Curiosity: I know we are bound by the curriculum but it is important to nurture their curiosity through the curriculum. This can be done through inquiry and open ended questions (some of my previous blog posts) but also by showing them the curriculum. The curriculum is not a secret; it’s readily available online. So, why not show them the curriculum for a variety of subject areas and ask them these three important questions: (a) How do you want to learn this?, (b) What questions do you have?”, and (c) Where do you see yourself represented in the curriculum?” Another way to look at your classroom/classes is to ask, “If my classroom/course was optional, would students sign up?” It is so important that we develop a passion for learning in our students and this can be done by giving them more choice and voice in what they learn, how they learn it, and how they share their learning with a wider global audience (more to come on this!).
- Support Staff: and last but not least, be sure to thank your support staff for working hard over the summer to make the school clean, safe, and welcoming. This includes custodial staff and the office staff who worked hard to ensure a smooth welcome and transition for staff and students for the new school year!
Wishing all of you a great first week back and an awesome 2017-2018 school year!