Just received this as an email from the Upper School Division Head and thought it was worth sharing…
Three Keys for the First Four Weeks of School by Willy Wood
Well, it’s that time again, folks–the opening of a new school year. Rooms are being readied. Teachers are attending pre-school workshops and staff meetings. Kids are hitting the local back-to-school sales. Are you ready?
Well, just to make sure that your first few weeks of school go as well as they possibly can, let me just offer some hopefully-sage advice concerning what I believe are the three most important things every teacher needs to do in the first four weeks of the school year. Now, I know that some of you veteran teachers already know these things, but it never hurts to be reminded of the fundamentals of teaching (we all forget such things from time to time). And for you newer teachers who haven’t figured everything out quite yet, hopefully something in this short article will be helpful in getting your year off to the best start ever.
So, with no further ado, here they are–the three most important things a teacher must do to start the school year right: (1) build community, (2) establish (and use) expectations, and (3) frame relevance and have your students set goals for the year. Let’s take these one at a time. There’s not room in this space to go into great step-by-step detail, but I’ll give you some of the bigger pieces.
First, building community. It’s not hard to argue that this is the most important of the three. If you’ve ever had to teach a class with a “broken” sense of community, you know how frustrating, stressful, and draining it can be–for you and the students, as well. So, get ahead of the curve. Make sure that you take a little time every day (and in every class, if you are a secondary teacher) to work on community-building. This means that you need to find out about your students as people. What do they like to do outside of school? What are their histories as learners? What areas of expertise do they bring to the table?
Even more important, your students need to learn about the other students in class. Now, if you teach in a small, stable community where most of your students have known each other for a long time, this may not be as much of an issue. On the other hand, such a situation can sometimes even be worse than a group of students meeting for the first time in your class on the first day of school. In fact, the most challenging class I ever had to teach was one in which all of the students (high school kids, almost all boys, almost all with either learning or behavior problems) had known each other for years, and as a result, they knew exactly what “buttons” to push to set one of their classmates off. In that kind of situation, familiarity is not a good thing! Anyway, the key is that you need to work as hard as necessary to build bonds of, if not love, at least trust between your students.
Why is this so important? Why can’t a teacher just get right down to the process of teaching that he or she was hired to do? Well, you can try that if you want, but my experience, and the experience of many experienced educators, is that whatever time it takes to get a good, safe, comfortable community established is more than worth taking that time away from instruction early in the school year. If you don’t establish a community where students feel safe to talk and to take risks, I guarantee that academics will suffer all year long as a result. So, take a little time every day up front to build trust and (hopefully) liking between your students. Do get-to-know-you activities, do team building exercises, establish reading and study partners, cooperative teams, and other support structures that say loudly, “We are all in this together, and we’ll succeed together!” The pay-off for doing so is huge!
The second step is to establish expectations for behavior in your classroom. Most teachers take the first couple of school days to build these expectations. I’m not going to go into great detail here, as some of you have read a couple of full-length articles I’ve written about how to go about this, and I won’t bore you by repeating all of that. I will just point out a few key guidelines. First, make sure that the expectations are developed byyour students with your guidance–not imposed from the “top down” by you. Why is that so important? Because students need to “buy in” to the expectations, and many of them (especially the ones you really need to buy in) will not do so unless they feel that they have a say in what the expectations are.
One especially important caveat here: if your school has school-wide expectations that are the same for everyone, please ignore those for the time being and still take the time to establish your own expectations for behavior in your own room. I’ve seen many schools try to impose one set of expectations for everyone, and this almost never works. This is because these expectations are written by a committee off in a room by themselves or bought as part of an off-the-shelf management program. You can’t just stick a pre-made poster up on the wall. There’s no student input, and thus no student buy-in. Plus, kids are all different. The particular mix of kids in your classes may be very different than in another room down the hall. Expectations, as a result, will need to be different as well. I’m not saying that students should not be held accountable for the school-wide expectations, as well, but you need your own set for your classroom that the students feel are “theirs.”
A combination of a feel-good community and high standards for conduct is the perfect mix for a productive classroom environment. But you must make sure that youfollow through and truly expect students to live up to the classroom expectations. If someone violates an expectation, the discussion you have with that student needs to be framed in reference to the expectations–always! You need to talk about what expectation was violated and share with the student how their behavior needs to be different in order to get back in line with “the way we do things in here.” Kids lacking in some of the necessary social and behavioral habits are not going to learn new habits immediately, just because the class came up with an expectation. They are going to fall short from time to time, and every time they do, you have an opportunity to teach them how to behave in order to li ve up to the expectation. With patience and continued reference to the class expectations, new habits of (self) control are developed, and classroom management gets easier and easier as the school year progresses. And, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that teaching is a lot easier when the management is easy.
Finally, early in the school year it is very important that you build a sense of purpose for the time students spend in your room during the school year. This starts with discussions about your subject matter and how it is important and/or useful for your students to learn. Showing students the relevance of your subject matter to their lives is crucial for building intrinsic motivation to put in the necessary work to learn. Ask students what they want to learn during the year in your subject. Have them make lists and keep these lists, and show them how to turn these lists into short- and long-term goals for the year. T here’s nothing as motivational for a student than having him or her create their own goals to work toward. Suddenly it’s not just “school work” where students feel they are jumping through someone else’s hoops, but rather they are working toward their own relevant goals for learning.
So there you go, three of the most important things you can do with your time in the first month of school: build community, establish expectations, and set goals for learning. These three activities together add up to establishing a common purpose and way of working for the class. Whatever time it takes to get these three things established is more than worth the instructional time you have to give up to get them done. If you don’t do a good job in these three areas, the instruction is going to be just that much harder all year long, anyway, so you might as well work hard at these areas early.
Now, if you just had fewer meetings and more time to get your room ready, you’d be all set to go!