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Teaching Secrets: The First Days of School (Part 1)

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You’ve earned your first teaching job. Congratulations! Now what do you do? As I anticipate my 22nd opening day of school in California, I think back to my first years of teaching and all those things I wish I had known then that I know now. To help make your life as a new teacher a little easier these first few months of school, I’ve interviewed some of my friends (colleagues, mentees, and former student teachers) and collected a few helpful hints. As you read through them, please feel free to contribute your own ideas in the Comments section.

I will begin my first teaching assignment very soon. Any quick pointers?

No matter where or what you teach, there are some common things you can do to make your first weeks and months in the classroom a little easier. Here are just a few of them:

Find a Friend – Don’t work alone in your classroom. Go out and meet other teachers and staff. They are your best resource for getting to know your school. Find a mentor! There will always be teachers who are willing to open up their classrooms, time, and expertise to help. Be open to working within and outside of your grade-level. Collaborating with others will not only help you develop as an educator, but your students will benefit from the experience as well.

Take a Tour – Get to know your school’s physical layout. Walk around with a colleague or explore on your own. Find the bathrooms (adults and students) and how to access them. Will you need a key? Where are the nurse, resource teacher, office manager, cafeteria, and plant manager located? Where are the different grade-levels located? Where do students play during recess? (I hope you have recess.)

Planning & Schedules – Ask other teachers at your grade-level what they usually do for the first week. Plan time and activities during the first days for students to get to know each other and you. Overplan! It is much easier to have more planned and not get to everything than not to have enough. Create a general schedule for the first days of school. You can always adjust times accordingly when needed later on.

Procedures – Have a plan for classroom procedures. Will students sharpen pencils as needed? When can they use the bathroom? Are cell phones allowed? Where are materials kept? (More tips below.)

Classroom Management & Expectations – Know your discipline/classroom management strategies. Take time to think about what is and is not acceptable in your classroom. What kinds of things are NOT okay? How are you going to handle them? Think about what kind of learning environment you would like to create for and with students. Work as a class to set expectations for behavior and work habits. Chart, model, practice, and reinforce behavior expectations. Keep it simple—having a long list of rules may be difficult to monitor and enforce. Some of my primary school favorites are: Be Nice, Be Responsible, and Be Safe.

Take Notes – Have a place where you can jot down observations quickly throughout the day. Informal observations early in the year can be helpful further down the road if you have a student who may have a special need or is displaying behavior that continues to disrupt the class. Date each observation.

Know Your Students – Before school starts, find out who your students are. Do any of them have special needs and/or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that you should be aware of? What level of English development are the English Learners in the class? Do you have students that are identified as gifted and talented? Having more information about your students will help you better plan for their needs.

Take Time to Celebrate – Teaching is not easy, but it can be extremely rewarding. Sometimes we forget to celebrate the small accomplishments that take place everyday in our class. Take time each day to recognize something positive. Share it with a friend, loved one or colleague.

What school procedures should I know before the start of the school year?

Here are some basic things to know before students arrive (or as shortly thereafter as possible!):

• How to take attendance and (if it’s not all computerized) where to send attendance cards.
• Where to sign in and out each day.
• Official reporting hours.
• How to arrange for a sub when ill.
• What is the general bell schedule for recess, lunch, and dismissal?
• How do students purchase a lunch and where do they eat?
• What if a student becomes ill or gets hurt in class?
• Where do students play at recess/lunch?
• Where (depending on grade level) do I pick up my students?
• Where do I dismiss students at the end of the day?
• In case of an emergency (or fire drill), what do I do?
• How do I contact the office if there is an emergency?
• How often will my class be cleaned?
• Procedures for ordering class materials and what is available.
• Where do I check out playground and/or PE equipment?
• Will I have a mentor?

I just got the keys to my classroom. Now what?

Getting your first set of keys to the classroom is like getting keys to your first car or home. You are filled with excitement, but a little nervous at the same time. First step, find your classroom! Once you figure out how to unlock the door, step inside and just sit down. Words of caution, all classrooms are not the same. I have walked into a brand new, clean, empty classroom waiting to be moved into; and also dirty classrooms filled with unwanted materials left by the previous occupant. Whatever the condition, this is your classroom now. With luck, it will be home for at least the next school year, so make it yours.

It’s a good idea to survey the furniture and equipment in the room. Do you have enough chairs and tables/desks for students? Is there a place to store your materials? Are the computers working? Where is the projector, CD player, and screen? Start a list of things that are missing or needed. You may not get that kidney-shaped table or extra teacher chair, but it can’t hurt to ask.

Now comes the fun part, arranging the tables and chairs. Sometimes you have a picture in your mind of how you want the desks arranged — and other times you may not know where to begin. If you need ideas, take a peek inside other teachers’ classrooms. Talk to them about why the room is arranged that way and think about your own ideas for the classroom. Visualize where you may be teaching in the room and make sure all students will be able to see. Think about traffic flow; will there be enough room for students to move within the classroom without bumping into each other?

Some teachers can set up a room and leave it the entire year, but I am not one of them. If the class set-up does not work for students once they get there, I change it until it does. It’s your room; play with it until it works for you and your students.

One final tip for now: I’d be surprised to learn that there is a new teacher in America who hasn’t come across Harry and Rosemary Wong’s invaluable book, The First Days of School. But you may be less familiar with their eight-year series of advice columns, many of which are also aimed at the needs of novice teachers. Check them out!

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