How You Start Your Year Matters

Sonya Barnes                      July 25, 2019

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that is especially true for teachers and how they run their first day, or first week, in their classrooms.  We have a ton of curriculum to do and, if we have been teaching for more than a few years, we have covered the expectations every year, so it can seem quite tempting to rush through it and get down to business.  But I don’t believe you should do that.  It may impact your entire year, at least, that has been my experience when I gave in and rushed through.  Yes, I know that many districts, schools and administrators push to start getting into the curriculum ASAP, and I don’t disagree that you should, but that doesn’t mean it should be the focus.  Shift the amount or type you do each day.  The first day is, as a former supervisor taught me, is all about “getting them in, getting them fed, and getting them out”.  That’s all you are going to accomplish while they learn the new routine and work out any logistical issues, no matter what grade level.

I suggest to have something quick, fun and related to your subject area to do that first day, and, if it’s a get to know you activity, make sure it’s not something that another teacher they will have them do that day—they can only do so many line up by birthday or two truths and a lie activities in a day. I teach multiple subjects, so I see some of the same kids twice. If you also have multiple preps, that is something else to keep in mind when planning.  I like to do a few different things that allow me to get to know them, see how they work with others and what their foundation and interest in the subject area is, and their learning/working styles without them even realizing I’m assessing them. 

For example, in my Intensive Reading classes, I will ask them to write down a book that something about it stuck with them, changed their life, etc. and why as I circulate and interact with them, then they share that with their table and, if they want to, with the class.  Then I share that my book was Harold and the Purple Crayon because it showed me that I don’t have to try and fit into the world but that I can help make the world fit for me since I think and learn differently.  We then spend time making a poster as though we are Harold and draw a world that we would fit into that aligns with our goals and write a quick blurb about it and we hang these up as a reminder. This takes us several days. In my ELA classes, I have them write a postcard they will get on the last day of school, they draw a picture of what they did over the summer on one side and write a note about their goals on the other, then I hold these for them until the last day.  On another day, I will have several quotes cut out on the table and have them choose the one that best fits them (they can share one) and share why with their tables and with the class, if they want.  The rest of the week I will have them do a round robin writing activity on various genres and topics (a humorous bad day of school, a scary holiday experience) and each writes one section (beginning middle end, or use the plot elements) but they must add onto what another group started.  In both subject areas this is worked around teaching and practicing school and classroom procedures, setting up computer programs or access that we use, and creating and organizing their portfolios. The end of the week I have a “quiz” on it and do something like go on a scavenger hunt to find the question and their answer leads to the next one and if they aren’t in order when we review, we reteach.  I also make a classroom tour video of all these things and post it to my Google Classroom so that they, or their parents, can see where everything is (this is also helpful if a new student comes in and needs a crash course). I give out tons of sincere praise and compliments, bragging about what their former teachers said, positive observations I’ve made, and entertain them with my terrible memory of names.

There are so many ways to start your year off right so that you can teach your students about rules, expectations, procedures, rewards and consequences.  And it will take excessive repetition since some will not have had positive classroom experiences previously so won’t pick it up as quickly.  There are many games and activities that have been handed to me over the years that I have an entire file folder and computer file filled.  I have so many that most I never even use, like get to know you ice breakers—I teach at a K-8 school so they know each other so well that they are counting down their last year to get away from each other and meet new people instead of the same 90 kids they’ve grown up with.

If you teach with a team, look at ways that you can make life easier and parallel what you do to make it easier for your kids.  I remember one year we were expecting a group of kids that we were warned would be a behavior challenge.  Our team sat down and looked at our classroom management processes to see if we were confusing them and creating challenges.  We compromised and aligned what we did as much as we could so that we all had as many things the same as we could.  We then made a PowerPoint Slideshow for our team and we all used it to guide our procedure instruction for the week.  We were able to nip a lot of issues in the bud from the start just by simplifying their lives and giving them less to remember because that repetition reinforced the learning.  It was personally rewarding to find that I worked with a team of professionals as dedicated as I was to student success and willing to find compromise from practices we’d all held for years to help them succeed. 

I encourage you to truly reflect on your teaching and leadership style to see if there are things that you could modify or adapt to activities, and plan for, then it is easier to work in those activities.  For example, do you give a quiz on terms, places or dates for your subject area regularly throughout the year? Instead of a paper-based assessment, turn it into an activity with dry erase boards, relay runs to the board, or telephone game to the teacher.  Talk to other teachers at your school, in your social circles or in an online community (may I suggest the Facebook group Addicted to Teaching? 😉 ) and brainstorm ideas.  Go to teacher sale sites and find things you can print and use again for several years or rotate through.  Take those worn out icebreaker worksheets you’ve used for years and turn them into an activity to get them up and moving and allow you to see them in action—that visual data can tell you so many things about your learners in just a few minutes.  Whatever you choose to do the first week, let me stress this part—make sure it aligns with things you will do in your class all year.  Nothing is harder on a group of kids than having a teacher do “fun” team-based things the first week, then nothing but independent book work for the rest of the year (this is a bit of hyperbole to make my point, or so I hope).  It can really jeopardize the rapport you build with the kids that first week and those relationships you have with your kids are key to having a successful or stressful year.  A good rapport can decrease behavior issues and increase support from them when you have evaluations or those not feeling so hot days that we all have.  Keep in mind the idea that if it isn’t fun or interesting to plan, teach or grade, it probably isn’t a fun or interesting way to learn.  As kids change, we may have to compromise things we have always done for the sake of a stronger classroom environment that supports a new generation of learners.  In education we are blessed with a fresh start each year, so make the most of it and you will benefit from it all year long.

2 thoughts on “How You Start Your Year Matters

  1. I really enjoyed your first week of school activities. I think they could be easily adapted to the elementary classroom.

    Like

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