Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways To Start Off The New Year On A Positive Note - Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 08, 2013 8 min read
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(This is the first of a two-part series. It builds upon a series on the same topic that was posted last year)

I’m not yet done posting my thematic “Q & A Collections” that bring together posts from the past two years, but I know that many of us will be starting the new school year soon.

So, I wanted to take a one-week break from posting those compilations and, instead, consider this question again:

“What’s your best advice on getting the new school year off to a good start?”

I’ve previously posted a three-part series on that same topic, but we teachers can never get enough good advice on how to best approach this important time of the year.

Please share your thoughts in the comments or, if you prefer, feel free to email them to me. I’ll post responses next week in Part Two of this series, which will also include several guest responses.

Today, I’m lucky enough to have a special guest response from author and educator Julia Thompson.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson, a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide, which had its third edition published just last month. Julie maintains a website for educators, a blog, and offers advice on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

The start of a new school year is a bittersweet experience for most teachers. On one hand, we miss having time to make phone calls during normal business hours, sitting down to lunch with other adults instead of thirty children, and knowing that we can dress like every day is casual Friday if we want to. On the other hand, the start of a new school year is also filled with exciting possibilities--new students, new lesson plans, new colleagues, and new opportunities to make a difference in the lives of our students.

No matter how long you teach, the opening days of a new term are likely to be your busiest and most exhausting time of year. It is no wonder that so many of us sleep poorly at the end of summer vacation, plagued by those teacher nightmares where we stand helplessly in front of our class while rioting students ignore our attempts to call them to order. We toss and turn, worrying about everything related to our profession and doubting that we will ever be ready for school to begin.

As stressful as this time of year can be, however, there are plenty of things that you can do to get the school year off to a great start. Think about this in three parts. The first part involves what you can do before school starts, the second involves the first day of class, and the third and most important is to pay attention to the most overlooked resource--you.

Part One: Be proactive about practical matters before school begins.

Before you attend that first welcome-back-faculty meeting, try to accomplish as many items on these brief lists as possible. Even though each item is something that you will have to do eventually, getting things done before school opens will make it easier for you and your students to get off to a great start. There’s lots more that needs to be done, of course, but if you have these items under control, you will give yourself breathing room.

Start Planning Instruction

• Familiarize yourself with the curriculum mandated by your district
• Create a course overview for the year
• Create unit plans
• Decide on the resources you will need for each unit of study
• Start a file of alternative and differentiated lesson plan activities

Create an Inviting Physical Space

• Make sure that the equipment in your room is in working order
• Organize your classroom
• Decorate bulletin boards
• Set up your personal desk and files
• Create a preliminary seating chart

Create a Positive Classroom Environment

• Brainstorm a list of classroom management strategies
• Create your class rules, routines, and procedures
• Study your class rosters to learn your students’ names
• Decide on teambuilding activities that will foster collaboration and a sense of belonging

Part Two: No pressure, but the first day is really, really important.

First of all, get a grip on your own anxiety. Not only will you meet your students for the first time on the first day of school, but it is probably the busiest and most stressful day of the entire year. Not only do we have to get everyone settled and engaged in meaningful learning activities, but we have to do so while dealing with critical first-day paperwork. To calm yourself, try some of the techniques from this list:

• Ride to work with a colleague. Carpooling on the first day will give you a chance to share your fears and provide mutual support.
• Pack your book bag the night before and leave it by the door so you can just grab it as you leave.
• Plan more work than you believe your students can possibly accomplish, then plan some more. It is truly terrifying to run out of work for your students on the first day of school.
• Arrive early. You do not have to be so early that you help the custodians unlock the building, but you should be early enough that you do not feel rushed in finishing any last-minute chores.
• Keep in mind that the most stressful part of your day will probably be over in the first few minutes, when you realize that your nervous students are depending on you.

Next, convince your students that you are the best teacher they will ever have. This will be pretty easy for you if you focus your energy on the following important first-day priorities:

Priority One: Take Charge of Your Class

• Act confident and self-assured. Sometimes, by pretending to be confident, you can convince yourself that you are. After all, someone has to be in charge and that someone should be you.
• Have a seating chart ready so that you can show students to their respective seats and get them started on their opening exercise.

Priority Two: Calm Your Students’ Fears

• Appear happy to see every student. Greet each one pleasantly, using his or her name if you can. Smile often. Keep any reprimands very low key. Stick to gentle reminders instead. There is no need to intimidate anyone on the first day.
• If students lack supplies, lend them what they need for class and gently remind them that they will need to have paper and a pencil in the future.
• Even on the first day of class, your students will view themselves as members of a group. Take time for at least one icebreaker so that students can get to know their classmates.

Priority Three: Engage Your Students’ Minds

• Teach your first lesson as if it is the most important one you will teach all year. In many ways, it is. Your students should feel they will continue to learn something in your class every day.
• Consider a lesson that will allow you to assess your students’ readiness levels as well as give them an overview of the skills or material they will learn during the term. Include a brief homework assignment to reinforce the day’s work and to get students into the habit of doing homework for your class.
• Begin to teach the routines and procedures of your class. Teaching acceptable school behavior is a vital part of what successful teachers do.

Finally, on the first day, your students should leave your class knowing that you think highly of them and are looking seeing them again. Make a conscious effort to praise and reinforce your class’s positive attributes. Even difficult classes can have positive attributes. If a group is very talkative, for example, you can put a positive twist on it and praise the students for their sociability. Think of a positive label or two for each class and use these labels frequently. Here are a few positive labels you could use on the first day of class:

• Caring
• Motivated
• Intelligent
• Successful
• Friendly
• Polite
• Adaptable
• Energetic
• Cooperative
• Helpful

Part Three: Take care of yourself! You are the key to everyone’s success!

If you were to search every book and Internet article ever written about education, only a tiny percentage would offer suggestions about how teachers should manage stress. Small wonder so many of us flirt with burnout throughout our careers.

Because there is an overwhelming amount of work to do, it is very easy for teachers to ignore their own well-being at the start of school. Unfortunately, this not only results in unhappy teachers, but unhappy students, too. One of the most important gifts that you can give your students, your colleagues, and yourself is to take care of yourself at the start of the school year. Here are a few suggestions geared to help you manage your stress at the start of the year:

• Pace yourself. It is impossible to get everything done right away. Start with small strategic steps that you can accomplish with relative ease.
• It seems simplistic, but use to-do lists and check off your tasks as you accomplish them. Be purposeful about how you prioritize what needs to be done so that you move forward in a logical fashion.
• Keep your school life simple. Be prepared to refuse if you can when you’re asked to take on an onerous activity.
• Can your students put up bulletin boards? Can your students organize bookshelves and supplies? Ask for help and delegate chores.
• Remember to take at least a few minutes to exercise every day. A ten minute walk will often clear your mind.
• Focus on the positives in your life. Build in time for fun and take time to enjoy your school days. You and your students will benefit from this attitude.
• Breathe deeply from time to time. This will help you stay calm and focused so that you and your students can enjoy your time together.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this interview and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose a free book from a variety of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Two of this series on Monday!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.