The First Days of School Make All the Difference

I have a former student who has become, much to my excitement, an eighth grade English teacher.  During a discussion with her, I have learned that although there are some very different expectations regarding the Common Core classroom, the basics of getting a classroom ready for the first week are essentially the same. I taught my share of middle and high school over the years, and I’ve found that teaching English has its own perks and downfalls. I offer some advice to first-time teachers that may help them negotiate the troubled waters of the first days of school.

Get your supplies in order. Keep a few sets of colored pencils, rulers, and other simple supplies in a cabinet that is accessible to students. Let them know that the supplies are available and that the students are responsible for treating the supplies with respect. If you plan to have students keep a journal, have plenty of extra notebooks and pens/pencils set aside for people who may not be able to afford them. Yes, we all know that you will spend your own money on these supplies, so get them at the dollar store.

Learn as much about the students in advance as you can. Most schools have e-files for every student, so do what you can to learn about any disabilities, circumstances, special needs, and even interests your students may have; this is handy information when creating a seating chart, believe me. You don’t want to seat the low-blood-sugar kid who needs snacks next to the kid with a nut allergy.

Get your students involved on the first day. Create at least one activity that gets them out of their seats and focused on one another. For instance, use something I like to call “tiny teach,” where students teach some small trick to another person; then the person teaches the class the new trick they learned. It’s a fun little icebreaker to help you and the students learn everyone’s name.

Be enthusiastic, even if the subject matter you’re teaching isn’t your favorite. You may be asked to teach an eight-week unit on Vietnam, using only a Vietnamese poetry book as the text, or  you may be asked to teach something you never learned in school or college. Even so, you must put forth an enthusiasm for and knowledge of the content. Without your enthusiasm, the students will never engage with the material, and they won’t learn. And students will know if you are ignorant on the topic at hand. They have radar for that. Study up before you make your lessons.

Stand at the door, and greet students with a smile. If you can, try to do this every day, even if it means getting to school early to prep for the day so you can buy yourself that last ten minutes of door time. Yours may be the first smile that child sees, so make it a genuine one, and greet each person by name as they enter. Building a rapport, especially with socially awkward kids or bullies, can help with classroom management.

Make good rules, and stick to them. Don’t threaten anything you can’t or aren’t willing to follow through on, because the first time you slack on the follow-through, kids will pounce on you like piranha, exploiting your better nature when you thought you were being nice. Though they say otherwise, kids don’t want the “cool” teacher. They want the consistent one. Kids crave boundaries, and they don’t break rules because they are bad people, they break them to test your limits. Set rules, be firm in them, and make them very public. Kids won’t mess with you if they know the same consequence will happen no matter who breaks the rule. It takes about two weeks for kids to adjust, so even if you’re well into the school year and things are in chaos, stick to your guns, because after that two-week conditioning period, kids will get used to how things run in your classroom. Keeping a tight ship early on means less work when it gets really crazy near vacation time.

Get to know the custodians. Everyone knows the administration is your academic support system, but the custodians know all the ins and outs of their school. They take pride in the building, and they appreciate it if you do, too. Stack your chairs at the end of the day, and have the kids pick up trash from the floor as they leave. (Make the kids each pick up three pieces of trash as the condition for exiting the room, for example.) Do this simple thing, and the next time something breaks, a kid throws up in your room, or you need something moved, the custodian will be much more willing to assist you.

Give the most disruptive kid a special responsibility. Gene Cosby, long-time Superintendent and reformer of Jefferson County Schools, said he was a thug as a kid, and a teacher turned him around from a life of crime and drugs just by asking him to carry a box to and from her car each day. My mom, a forty-year veteran teacher, always chose the disruptive kids to be her “secretary,” with their turn at a desk near hers where the student could staple papers, run errands, and feel a sense of responsibility and attention he/she may not be getting at home. For some kids, like Gene Cosby, this small intervention by one teacher who cares can make all the difference in their attitude toward learning and life. And watch how this kid’s protective nature kicks in if you ever need any help outside the classroom.

According to Harry Wong, the way students perceive a teacher is determined the minute students first walk through the door, so new teachers must have everything in its place. Making sure your classroom and mindset are ready for the first days of school is essential to getting the entire year started off right. If you create a space where kids feel like they belong, they will learn and grow willingly, and your classroom disruptions will minimize naturally, allowing you to relax and do what you have always dreamed about: to enjoy teaching.

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