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Teachers: Four Ways to Start the New School Year Strong

By Brian Gatens August 6, 2015

Nothing beats a strong start to the school year. A solid opening filled with good information, positive parental contact and clear class expectations will put your class on a constructive path that will help during the doldrums of mid-year and the growing excitement of the school year nearing its end in June. Here are some tips and ideas to get off to that great start:

Create a one-sheet

As society keeps moving at a faster and faster pace, you have to give people just enough information — but not too much. Students and parents have a lot to juggle as school starts, and you can’t afford to let your class information get drowned out by everything else demanding their attention.

That’s why you need a “one-sheet” for your classroom — a single-page document that conveys the most essential information for your class. It should include:

  • Curriculum expectations
  • Due dates
  • Class procedures
  • Teacher communication expectations

Think of it as a quick and easy guide to your class that could be put on a refrigerator or kitchen bulletin board and referred to as necessary.

Get together with your grade-level colleagues to share the work required in creating it. That way, you present a united front in case anyone wants to compare your teaching styles and expectations.

Focus on why your class matters

In my teaching days, I always liked to begin the year making the case for my class to students and parents. I spent time on this at Back to School Night and in emails and hard copies sent home to parents.

“Selling” your class — and not accepting its value as a given — is key in helping bring reluctant learners onboard. Being deliberate about why your class matters in relation to the overall school experience will help motivate students and get parents aligned with your expectations.

If you can’t easily explain why your class is important to the academic (and overall) life of your students, you need to think long and hard about the class itself and what you need to adjust to make it important. Every moment a child spends in a demotivating class is one less moment they could be participating in a necessary and worthwhile class.

Emphasize the importance of assessments

Reliable and accurate assessments are essential for creating a record of a child’s progress and pointing to opportunities for growth. Begin your year with an assessment overview (tests, projects, group work, etc.) that demonstrates how they will provide feedback that helps students become better learners.

A good assessment does much more than determining students’ grades: It offers an opportunity for a child to show mastery of a topic and to identify what they need to work on as a learner. Emphasizing this early in the year, long before official grades are created, enables the student to understand why they are important.

Along these lines, send home a document to be signed by the parent and student having them acknowledge that they understand how grades will be generated. You need this on hand if your grading practices are contested during the year.

Have a strategy for extra-help sessions

Some students will need to attend scheduled extra-help sessions. It’s folly to think every child “gets it” in a group as large as the one in your classroom (and inside your class period).

Clearly communicate to your students and their families when you’re available for this assistance, and be as open as possible to adjusting those times as necessary. At one school, I offered extra help several mornings a week to students who had to leave immediately after school to work jobs to support their families.

An easy way to pick up some extra help time is to take your lunch in the classroom and invite students to come for help then. This helped me to avoid the sometimes toxic nature of the faculty room and added necessary time for my students to see me.

Also, if no one is coming to your extra-help sessions, your class is either too easy or your students have become disenfranchised. Be vocal in the importance of them seeing you when the need arises.

Up next: Using the past to help the future, finding opportunities for pre-work and getting early feedback.

Additional resources

Back-to-School Icebreakers for Every Grade

How Teachers Can Get the Most out of Back-to-School Night

Self-Care: Getting Mentally Prepared for a New School Year

Using SEL to Alleviate Back-to-School Anxiety

 

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