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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Five Tips to Help You Soar This September

Danielle Moss Lee

Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of the City of New York

Even though I haven't been a student or a classroom teacher in a long time, the beginning of a new school year still fills my stomach with butterflies. For me, September still signifies crisply ironed clothes, spotless new shoes, and clean loose-leaf paper in an as-yet-untarnished new binder. As a teacher, the summer vacation gave me the time I needed to recover from the insatiable demands that being alone in a room with 20 or so burgeoning adolescents inevitably placed on me. I spent the last weeks of summer dipping into my own pocket to make sure that my classroom was beautifully appointed with pictures, posters, and various sundry learning tools; and that my bulletin boards stood at the ready -- waiting to showcase the brilliance that was sure to emerge from my students in those early months of the school year.

Over the years, I picked up a few tricks that helped to lay a solid foundation for a successful school year. Here are few that worked well for me:

1) Introduce Yourself

My cousin, Ms. Woodberry, is an exemplary educator in Virginia Beach. One summer, I watched her painstakingly prepare postcards for each of her students, on which she introduced herself, shared a few facts about herself and expressed excitement at meeting her students. Just think of how a quick introduction could help to allay the anxiety students might be facing. If postcards aren't your thing, maybe send an email or invite parents to follow you on Twitter for classroom updates.

2) Don't Try to Wing It

I know that most teachers do a great job at planning their lessons. But even the best of us can get comfortable once we know the curriculum at our schools. Warning: don't ever go into a classroom full of kids without a plan . . . and a backup plan. If your students simply aren't in the mood for another discussion on Ancient Greece, have them write and perform a play that illustrates the time period being studied. Classroom Jeopardy was always a favorite in my class. There's nothing like splitting the class into two teams to get everyone competing and in the game. But most importantly, if there were things that didn't work last year, get feedback from colleagues, do your research and retool your approach. And keep those lesson plans current. A teacher without a clear plan is a sitting duck!

3) What Will They Learn?

When my daughter got to Mott Hall II Middle School in New York City, her teachers began the year with a curriculum meeting explaining what material would be covered, what books students would read and, most importantly, what they would learn and be able to do by the end of the school year. If the class was going to be project-based, we knew that. If the class was going to require lots of writing, parents knew that, too. An excellent way to partner with families than to let them know what to expect.

4) Guarantee Early Wins

There's no better motivator in the classroom than early success. On that first day of school, I was always sure to include some early assignments for which there were no wrong or right answers so that students could explore their own ideas and have a surefire way to earn a high grade early in the semester.

5) Avoid the Teachers' Lounge

Okay, I don't really mean you should avoid the teachers' lounge altogether, but please consider the following: As a student, I always saw the new school year as an opportunity for a fresh start. I was going to study more, listen more attentively and get better grades. What I didn't know was that deep in the recesses of the teachers' lounge, all of my past wrongs and mistakes were being gingerly passed from one teacher to the next. As a teacher, I discovered how these conversations never focused on Jack's learning style or Jill's favorite books. They were often a salacious retelling of personal details and behavioral issues that rarely helped to make me a better educator. So when you go into that teachers' lounge, go with the intention of engaging in meaningful pedagogical dialogue, eating your lunch, or reading a good book -- otherwise, I say skip it!

Finally, if you have some good strategies for getting off to a great school year and keeping the momentum going, make sure you share them with your colleagues. Teachers are under enormous pressure these days. Planning, collaboration and community building with families and colleagues can help to lighten the load.

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