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Start the Year Off Right: Ideas for Creating a Happy Classroom

My two favorite times of the academic year are the beginning and the ending, and one of the best things about working in education is that we get all summer to recharge. As I gear up to start a new school year, I've been thinking quite a bit about beginnings.

Dennis Potthoff, a colleague of mine, created the following list for teachers to refer to when beginning the new school year:

  • Before the year starts, get ideas for your curriculum by reviewing lessons from past terms.
  • Establish classroom norms, expectations, and procedures.
  • When the year starts, just jump right into the curriculum.
  • Motivate and excite students -- "sell" the class, the curriculum, and the teacher.
  • Work on relationship building (student-to-teacher and/or student-to-student).
  • Preassess your students to gauge their current knowledge, skills, or dispositions.

In the past, I've followed the second, third, and fourth ideas by discussing with the class my goals for the year, sharing my enthusiasm with the students to pique their interest, and jumping into the lessons and activities for the term.

As I share Potthoff's list with you now, I wonder how these ideas sound from the students' viewpoint. For example, would students prefer to work more on relationship building and the reviewing of previous class material? Would additional preassessments help me understand more about where my students stand in the learning process?

What do you think of these ideas? Which ideas would you use, and why? Do you have other ideas to add to this list? I'd like to hear from you!

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Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach second grade as well in a low socio-economic school and I use student of a week, but I really like telling the students they are super stars and making that a theme. Thanks for this positive idea!

Jen W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that being able to jump into the curriculum would depend on the grade level of your students. I have taught 2nd grade and now 4th grade. In the primary grade, I needed to spend much more time on setting up rules and routines. Now in 4th grade I spend the first day only, then I get right into the "normal" routine. Personally, I prefer being able to begin my regular lessons right away. The day feels more organized for me and flows better. It helps me to get through those first few days.
This is not to say that those "getting to know you" activities are not important. It is so important to spend a little time building relationships with your students!

Jillian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely love this list! I agree that each of these things needs to be done in order to get the school year off on the right foot. You pose some good questions by asking to view this list from the students' perspectives.

In my experience, I would say the majority of the students in my classes would love to work on the relationship building. They are once again getting a new teacher and want to know everything they can in order to make some sort of connection. They are so interested in all aspects of my life, especially my personal life outside of school. I love to let them in on the biggest secret out there: I do all of the normal things that they do outside of school.

Selling the curriculum is a wonderful idea to continue throughout the entire school year. The kids get so excited about the things that I can "sell" as being awesome. This helps tremendously also when I am introducing a new concept that has in the past been difficult for the students. If I am positive and let them know that this is an easy concept to understand, they usually understand it right away. Amazing!

As far as jumping into the curriculum goes, it is best for everyone when you do this. I have taken it slow in the past, and realized that it set a slow pace for the rest of the school year. It was awful. Jumping in gives the students a better understanding of what to expect in the schedule, the pace of the lessons and homework, and the teacher's expectations.

Wonderful list to look back on and reflect upon at the beginning of the school year. Thanks for posting it!

KY teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a beginning teacher,
I am reading all these great ideas and I agree with the relationship building, and organization, etc. But I wonder, from a veteran teachers view do all these things the beginning teachers question become easier over time and less stressful?
I am in a position where I work with all grade levels in one classroom. I find it hard to stay organized sometimes, and when the students come and go constantly, I feel its hard to create quality time for the learning to be truly effective.

Has anyone else worked with all grade levels before and felt accomplished?

Michele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that building a relationship with each student is a necessity. The children with the behavior problems are the hardest ones to bond with, but they're the ones that need it the most. I've been teaching for ten years, and I've found that showing your students that you care about them as an individual makes a huge difference.

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that is a great list of things to do at the start of the year. I really think that building relationships is the most important part of the start of the school year. From a student point of view, they probably would agree with that. At the same time, I think it's also important to jump right into the curriculum. Ideally, it's great to do these things together. At the high school level, I find that I have a lot of material that I need to cover and I can't spend excess time just doing activities where everyone gets to know each other. If only there were no time crunch...

Samuel Meador's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I follow a couple of Potthoff's suggestions.
I try to set high expectation for my students. I also like to preassess my students for each subject. It is sometimes hard to go right into the curriculum in the elementary school. It seems like the first week we spend a lot of time going over procedures of the daily routinue. We spend some time on building relationships but I am not sure if I give enough empasis on building relationships. I think that is one area that I need to work on.

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Organization is one of the most difficult processes that I go through each day. This is my fifth year of teaching. A few tricks that I have learned is to have a designated place for everything. My dibels testing books for benchmark and progress monitoring each have a designated basket. My papers that I do not know what to do with have a folder. I know to look in that folder if I cannot find a sheet of paper. (This folder works well for all the papers recevied at the beginning of the year.) I also have a corner of my chalkboard that I post all important information. I use labeled baskets for my students work so all I have to do is clip them together so they can be graded. I also have a bag that is sitting by my desk. Through the day as I come across paperwork that needs to go home, I put it in the bag, so at the end of the day I can leave in a hurry if I have too. I am not totally organized yet, but I am learning new tricks each year that make my life easier. Keep working at it, it will get easier.

Kim Bishop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading the list and the comments made. I have a book that I use each year to "refresh" my brain on what worked for me. I wish I had this book when I first started teaching. 8 years and 2 books later, I highly recommend The First Days of School by Harry Wong. It is a great tool. I invite you to check it out.

Kim Schicker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year as Special education teacher in a self-contained class. I have eight very needy students who all need one to one instruction, but I have them kind of leveled off into three groups. I have a Aide in the morning and we always struggle with three groups with two instuctors, but in the afternoon I have three groups all together with just me. I rotate groups and try centers, because I have K - 3 (Very low kids). I always feel like I am missing a perfect idea of how I can be with all of them all the time and be an effective teacher. They can not handle independent work. Any suggestions out there - I really need some new ideas ???????

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