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Teaching Secrets: The First Days of School (Part 2)

By Jane Fung — August 07, 2008 4 min read

In the first installment of Milken Award-winning teacher Jane Fung’s advice for new educators, she offered start-up tips, ideas about classroom procedures, and notes on what to do when you get the keys to your first classroom. In this second installment, Jane shares more insights gathered from her own teaching practice and the experiences of her colleagues and former mentees.

I did my student teaching in kindergarten and just got a position teaching 3rd grade. What do I do now?

Begin by finding out what the 3rd grade curriculum or course of study is for your particular school. In many cases you can easily find grade-level state or district standards online. It would be helpful to review the expectations from the previous grade and the one following, just to give you a better understanding of how the skills and concepts develop over time.

If you have difficulty finding your curriculum online, the next thing to try is to contact the principal or school. Someone at the school site should have information on curriculum—if not the principal, there may be a coordinator or another teacher who could provide the information you need. Ask if you can borrow or look over the 3rd grade materials used at the school. If your district has summer school or year-round schools, go observe in a 3rd grade classroom. Observing a 3rd grade class will give you a general idea of what to expect in the fall. Once school is open, seek out other 3rd grade teachers and introduce yourself. See if you can arrange to observe a veteran teacher. Your grade-level team can be your greatest resource and support!

I want to establish strong communication with families this year. How do I begin?

You can start communication with parents before the first day of school. Teachers can call home to welcome students and talk to the parents before school starts. I like to send postcards to new students introducing myself. Other teachers hold special class events such as class picnics in the park or an ice cream social before the first day. An opening letter from you on the first day of school is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to the families you will work with. Along with the letter, I also send home a family survey. The data gathered provides insight and invaluable information about my students and families right from the start. Here are some things I include in my family survey:

• What languages are spoken at home?
• Is there someone to help your child with homework?
• Emergency phone numbers, emails, updated address
• Food allergies/Health issues/Diet
• Celebrations and Cultural Awareness
• Child’s Strengths
• Special Needs
• Interests and Talents (parents love this)
• Areas of Concerns, if any
• Expectations for the year
• Questions

Other ways to communicate with parents throughout the year include class newsletters (weekly, monthly, quarterly, or as needed), ongoing progress reports between reporting periods, class Web sites, and calls or notes home for positive recognition as well as sharing a concern. Set up a way for parents to communicate with you when needed. Provide them with a school email, school phone number, and a time when you are available to speak with them.
When communicating with parents, be open, honest, and professional. Know that you will not be able to please or satisfy everyone, but don’t take it personal. Their child is their main concern, while you speak for your entire class. If you should come across a situation or parental concern you are not sure how to handle, ask for help. Seek out advice from other teachers and/or your administrator. It’s OK not to know everything!

I have just begun my teaching career and I already feel overwhelmed. Is there anything I can do?

Your first year of teaching can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be extremely stressful and time consuming. First year teachers (and experienced teachers, too) seem to have the most trouble with time management. They often feel overwhelmed by paperwork and planning. So here’s the truth: There will always be something else you can do in your classroom or at home related to school. You don’t have to do it all, and you shouldn’t. Here are few words of wisdom from recent first-year teachers on how to handle the stress and lack of time in your first year of teaching:

• “Be patient with yourself.”
• “It is important to let it go when you leave school.”
• “Set deadlines for yourself. Don’t wait until the last minute for planning, filling out paperwork, grading, and doing report cards. Try to do a little bit as you go.”
• “Never take work home. It won’t get done!”
• “I was an excited first-year teacher filled with ideas of changing the world. I expected to leave work every day feeling like I was making a difference. I expected big dramatic changes and progress. I realize now that every day isn’t going to feel that way, and that you need to learn to appreciate the little changes and growth you see because it all adds up by the end of the year.”
• “Smile and laugh. When you are frustrated, remember why you chose education.”
• “Distance yourself from the negative people.”
• “Remember to take time for yourself. Do things you enjoy. Read for pleasure, run, start a scrapbook, play a sport, sing or play a musical instrument. You need the me time, so you don’t get burned out.”
• “Even if you cry every morning until October on the way to school, you will make it and learn to love it.”
• “I finally just had to realize everything wasn’t going to be done right, and nobody expected that of me. You don’t expect your students to read after one lesson; don’t expect to be a perfect teacher right off the bat. It’s a process and you will get there, just as your students will.”

So welcome, new educators, to the best job in the world. And don’t worry about those first day of school dreams. They’re perfectly normal. I still have them myself!

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