For 12 years, on the day before school started I would stand in front of 77 teachers and support staff and go through the drudgery of the start-of-school-year information. As principal, I had to make sure everyone knew about policy changes, lunch prices, schedules, supplies, student counts for the first ten days of school, bookkeeping updates, teacher expectations, confidentiality, and on and on. The list was exhausting—for me and for them. And though it was essential information, it wasn’t the message I wanted to share with teachers as they started a new year of shaping young minds.
What I really want teachers to hear as they start the new school year is that you don’t have to do everything all at once. Too often, teachers spend only the first day or week establishing classroom routines and expectations, and become frustrated when students still don’t seem to get it a month later. However, if you take the first four weeks to implement these three simple tips, you’ll ensure success for both yourself and your students for the rest of the year.
Simplify Your Expectations
Well-meaning teachers often make an exhaustive list of rules and expectations for students to follow. After all, they want to make sure students know what’s expected of them to alleviate the need for guesswork. In addition, many teachers involve students with developing this list, therefore giving the students ownership of their classroom environment.
Although the intent is good, I’ve found that these lists have too many rules to remember and reinforce. As a result, the lists go unnoticed after the first few days of school. Instead, I recommend the same advice a wise teacher told me more than 30 years ago when I first started teaching. Ms. Henry told me a classroom needs only two rules: Be responsible and be kind.
“Be responsible” covers everything. Think about it: Raising your hand means you are being responsible by not disrupting classroom order. Completing your work is being responsible. Taking turns, putting supplies away, listening to directions, being prepared for class—all of these are ways students can demonstrate responsibility.
Starting on day one, talk explicitly about being responsible and model what responsibility looks and sounds like. Every time you see a student doing something responsible, compliment the student and label what you saw him or her do. For example, “Thank you, Mason, for finishing your work and placing it in the basket on my desk. I appreciate you being responsible.” By naming the action, you are communicating to the rest of the class what responsibility is.
During the first four weeks of school, try to do this as frequently as possible, with a hyper focus on the behaviors you want to see for the entire school year. With every expectation you give, tie it to being responsible. The more you recognize it, name it, and reinforce it, the more students will practice being responsible until it becomes a habit.
Bring Kindness to Your Classroom
Being kind is the second rule Ms. Henry taught me. We need to be extra vigilant in teaching students what being kind actually means. Even with the youngest students, you can discuss what being kind looks like, such as how to include everyone in the room, how to resolve a conflict with a peer, how to be helpful to one another, and what being a good friend means.
Every student who steps into your room wants to belong, even if his or her behavior may indicate otherwise. That’s why it’s so important to teach and model kindness. Make sure to teach students how to include and accept students who may look or act differently. Compassion, understanding, and tolerance are some of the most valuable skills we can impart to our students.
If you spend the first few weeks of school insisting on kindness and continually teaching it through examples, you will set the right tone for the rest of the year. In addition, demonstrating kindness yourself will help build trust and lay the foundation for strong relationships with your students. And with trust, students will know that you care about them and will work harder to please you. In turn, they will be more likely to replicate that kindness to peers.
Space Out New Routines
Don’t just take a couple of days to instill routines; take a full month. So many teachers introduce all their routines on the first day or two of school, and then become frustrated when they have to repeat themselves constantly the rest of the year. You’ll find greater success in students learning and demonstrating routines if you introduce only a couple each day. And then practice, practice, practice!
On the first day of school, you might focus on what students need to do when they first walk into the classroom (e.g., how to take their seats and be prepared to listen for directions). Elementary students enter the classroom multiple times during the day (at arrival and after lunch, recess, special areas, etc.), so you’ll have several opportunities to practice. For middle and high school, you might take a few moments every day for the first few weeks to remind students how to enter the room, where to put backpacks, and what the expectations are for mobile devices.
Introducing one or two routines a day allows students to internalize and practice each routine to proficiency. Then, as you add more routines, students will continually practice what they already know as they integrate new information. Make sure to observe students as they go about routines so you can reteach, immediately, when they do not meet expectations.
Be consistent and unrelenting in reiterating what the routines are. If students practice enough, they will internalize the expectations and follow routines regularly—without you having to repeat yourself until next summer!
I know you’ll be anxious to start teaching content at the start of school—after all, that is your job! But I promise, if you take your time establishing expectations, nurturing kindness, and practicing routines in the first four weeks, you’ll be able to devote the rest of your year to the knowledge and skills you want to pass on to your students, not on behaviors that interfere with learning.