Creating a “just right” classroom environment where all students feel they belong is key to a successful school year. The first five days can set you and your students up for a joyful and successful year or semester. As with all new learning, you’ll need to review and reteach after the first couple of weekends, after a longer weekend, and always after a holiday break.
Prior to the first day of school, have your classroom prepared with nothing left to chance. You make hundreds of decisions every single day, so let’s simplify the questions that might come up.
First, put yourself in the shoes of your students and picture yourself walking through the classroom door. “Where do I put my items?” “Where is my desk?” “I forgot to bring something to write with—what do I do?” “I’ve been out sick—how do I know what I missed or what we are currently doing in class?” Run through every scenario you can think of and then prepare for it.
Nothing is more important than building a strong relationship with your students. John C. Maxwell, who, according to Inc. magazine, is “widely considered to be one of the world’s top leadership thinkers,” said, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Creating a safe, free-from-failing classroom environment sets all your students up for a risk-taking mindset. To reach a student’s mind, you need to first touch their heart and let them know you’re there for them, you care about them as a human being, and you believe in them. You should also make sure you can pronounce their names correctly from the start; take notes on pronunciations as needed.
About you: Students, like adults, make split-second judgments, so how you begin those first couple of minutes of the first class period will tell your students more than you can imagine. Leave going over the class syllabus to day two or three; today, let’s get to know one another. Do something upbeat, light, and fun to help you get to know your students. Here are some suggestions. Let students see that you’re a genuine person. Share a little about yourself: hobbies, struggles you had in school, favorite lessons to teach, why you got into teaching, pets, etc.
About your students: Pair up students with one another, and have them create a four-slide PowerPoint presentation about each other. Have the students give their presentations to the class or in small groups. Here are some ideas for slides:
- Slide one: What name do you like to be called (pronunciation and/or nickname)?
- Slide two: What’s something interesting about you—a hobby, you’re double-jointed, you moved here from Portugal?
- Slide three: What’s your favorite place to be and why?
- Slide four: What’s one thing you’d like to learn more about?
Give a student survey. This can be in digital form or with paper and pencil, or in smaller classrooms, you can verbally ask your students to tell you more about themselves. For example:
- What name do you like to be called?
- How do you learn best—hands-on, reading, listening, independent, small group?
- What are your interests?
- How do you like to be recognized for accomplishments and hard work?
- Is there anything else I should know that will impact your learning—a job, sports, a caregiver, challenges?
A group activity to assess leadership styles and work ethic: Have students, in groups of three, create the tallest tower in 10 minutes. Students can use toothpicks and marshmallows, dried spaghetti and marshmallows, Popsicle sticks and clay, or anything that’s easily accessible. Listen to their conversations and take notes:
- Who took charge?
- Who is sitting back and observing?
- Who is the problem solver?
Students, like adults, want to know, “What’s the plan?” “Are there procedures or processes to follow in the classroom, leaving the classroom, in the hallway, and cafeteria?” “Will this be a ‘positive intent’ type of classroom or a ‘gotcha doing wrong’ type of classroom?” “How will I know if I am doing and learning what I’m supposed to?” “What if I don’t follow the expectations?”
Create classroom norms together. Go over and demonstrate the procedures and processes of everything that will or might take place in your classroom. For example:
- Restroom procedures
- Homework policy
- Where to find classroom supplies and what the policy is for using them
Using affirming statements when you see students following the procedures and processes is a simple way to reinforce their new learning. Talk to your students about positive affirmations:
- Explain what they are.
- Ask students how they like to receive positive affirmations (whole class or individual recognition).
- Clarify whether you set classroom or team goals.
As we continue to work on processes and procedures, it’s imperative that all students understand the reason why academic talk will be a part of every lesson, every day, and the expectations. Explain to your students why discussing what they’re learning is one of the most valuable steps in the learning process. To illustrate this, show a video of students using a talking structure—Numbered Heads Together, think-pair-share, etc.
It’s also important to explicitly clarify everyone’s role in the discussion process, whether it’s in groups of two or five. Use the “fishbowl” approach and have students model the process.
Teach collaboration and communication skills by grouping students into pairs, triads, quads, or quintets, and practice. Pose engaging topics. For example: Should there be recess or no recess? What are the traits of a good teacher? What makes lessons engaging? Discuss a hot topic that’s currently in the news, but as always be selective to avoid something too controversial or divisive. Finally, practice, practice, practice.
Now students are ready to learn, so it’s time to go back to the students’ perceptions. It’s important to be explicitly clear about the learning and why the students need to learn the content. What’s the relevance to the students? When will they apply the new knowledge and how? This is all part of creating smooth processes and procedures, leaving nothing to chance. For instance, with bell work, students’ questions likely will include the following:
- “What is it; why are we doing it?”
- “What do I do when I’m finished with it?”
- “What if I just got here and haven’t even started the bell work and the teacher is collecting it?”
- “Does it count for or against my grade?”
It’s time to engage the learners and dive into the very first lesson of the school year. You’ve prepared meticulously and everything is ready to go. You’ve asked and answered the questions:
- What am I going to do to engage students in the content to help them see the relevance of learning this concept?
- What connections do they already have to the content?
- Will I start with a story? Video? Article? What materials will I need?
- What structures are in place for them to discuss and process their new learning?
- How will I know that everyone understands the concepts or processes throughout the lesson?
- How will they practice their new learning in some form of application?
- How should I wrap up the lesson and begin building the bridge to tomorrow’s, so that they are eager to return and learn more.
Go Slow to Go Fast
The adage “go slow to go fast” was written for teachers beginning a new school year. If you take your time to intentionally teach every procedure and process that might come up during a regular school day, with nothing left to chance, you’re simply adding days of instruction back into your semester or school year, because everything has been spelled out, practiced, and reviewed, so that you won’t need to use instructional time to explain simple structures.
Every school’s expectations for the first few days are a little different. Some schools have preassessments that teachers must conduct, some have benchmarking assessments, and others have specific academic expectations.
Regardless of what those required expectations are for your school, you want to explicitly teach, review, practice, and enjoy your new learning community. Being prepared before the first day can help ensure that you can meet these goals and have a productive and rewarding school year.