The Right Foot: How to Create a Solid Foundation at the Beginning of the Year

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

In my twelve years of teaching, I have come to realize that how the end of the year goes has everything to do with how I start the year with my students. I have lived it, and I have seen it: a strong start to the year makes everything else easier, but a weak start to the year is, well, nearly impossible to amend. 

With this in mind, there are some foundational approaches that have served me–and my students–well. 

Let’s start with those pesky first impressions. Lots of research indicates that people need just seconds to form ideas about someone they are just meeting. How can we as teachers maximize those first seconds? First, presence

As much as I am annoyed at the weight of Haim Ginott’s comments that the teacher is “the deciding element” of the climate in the classroom, I have witnessed its veracity over and over. Here are some suggestions to be meaningfully present the first day of school: Welcome students at the door with a warm greeting. Make it clear where they need to sit. Dress professionally. Be intentional with your body placement and posture, eye movements as well as vocal approach, because at every moment students are reading you, consciously and unconsciously responding to (what I’ve always called) your vibe (but psychologists call “emotional contagion”). 

Next, space and place

Though teachers don’t need to be experts in Marie Kondo or feng shui, I have found it helpful to be mindful of the physical space my students are entering on the first day as it is ultimately an extension of how I feel about them. This includes having a tidy and aromatic room prepared with resources (tissues go a long way), a thoughtful desk arrangement with smart traffic flow, objectives/agendas posted in spaces clearly marked for specific classes, personal touches that reveal I am also a human while also generating conversation, background music, and a balance of posted content and free wall space for future student contributions. In addition to the space, a good way to make a positive first impression is making sure everything has a place. Disheveled paperwork, inaccessible resources or haphazard chaos not only communicate to students a lack of organization, it also comes back to haunt me (and them) later in the year.

Though presence, space and place are important, in some ways they are also just the window dressing. The real work of the start of the school year is about intention. As a teacher, what is true north that will guide everything you do all year long? For me, this is two-fold: relationships and clarity. 

Everything that happens during the first week or two of school is designed to build relationships. This starts with a proper introduction. One of my first day activities is always a get-to-know-you survey. Some of the best questions are: Who is a teacher who had a positive impact on you and what did they do specifically? What are your pet peeves as a learner? Are there any conflicts (with people or arrangement) in this room I need to be aware of?

While students are completing this survey, I make a point to walk around the room, introduce myself with a firm handshake and eye contact, request the names they want to be called and then make sure I can correctly pronounce it. 

Next comes those activities everyone loves to hate: icebreakers. 

As a language arts teacher who values storytelling and relationships, I tend toward writing and sharing activities as ice breakers. Here are some ideas:

  • Find and share about a _____(children’s book, quote, song, poem, cartoon, found object) that tells us something important about who you are.
  • Students imitate a mentor text and share theirs. Some good ideas are “I Am From” by George Ella Lyon and “My Name” and “Those Who Don’t” from The House on Mango Street. 
  • Write and share a piece like “If You Really Knew Me” (from Challenge Day) or “This I Believe” from NPR. 
  • Write and share a 6 word memoir

One caveat here: it is important for the teacher to engage in this process just as the students do.

In addition to a storytelling icebreaker of some sort, I also start the year with circles. This is a great way to share the work students have written, build connections, establish norms, as well as identify and address individual or community needs. 

Another important element of relationship building is modeling for students authentic reflection. I do this in a couple of ways. One, I read the surveys they completed and compile lists of their needs/pet peeves. Then I publicly share a bit about how I will leverage my strengths and improve my weaknesses to honor student preferences. I also share survey data from last year’s students to let them know what I do well and what I’ll be working on this year. 

Of course, all of this relationship building takes vulnerability, which leads to my second priority: clarity. 

Before any student ever shares, establish non-negotiable actionables that elicit respectful attention. And then constantly revisit them. This is pivotal not only for a strong community, but also for the risk that rigorous learning will later require. 

I establish other norms through student collaboration as well. A great prompt thread that I often use in circles is: What is your goal for this class this year? In order to reach that goal, what do you need from yourself? From me? From your peers? Without them even knowing it, they are generating classroom dos and don’ts that I can then post to reinforce. 

Day two or three of the first week, I will share the syllabus. Sharing the syllabus after we’ve built some connections demonstrates two important principles: that relationships are most important and second, that clarity matters in this class. Through previewing the syllabus, they are exposed to the regulations required by school, the class’s content and objectives, and an overview of what they can expect from my discipline and pedagogical style.

It may seem odd that there is no direct content instruction the first few days. But ultimately, the more solid of a foundation I can build at the beginning of the year, the more deeper learning with fewer management issues can thrive throughout the year. And that is a trade I am willing to make.

welcome home to b261

The first day is everything.

My students spent their summer inundated with news reports about senseless, merciless and unjust killings of people who look just like them. They are afraid.

My students spent their summer working multiple jobs just to keep food on their families’ tables. They are hungry and tired.

My students spent their summer wondering which of their teachers from May would still be there in August. They are insecure.

My students spent their summer listening to a white man’s rhetoric about how they don’t belong in this country, how they’ll be shipped back to a place that is no longer home to them, only to have their vision of this country’s promise cut off by a wall. They are worried.

My students spent their summer surrounded by terror attacks of extremists who (reportedly) worship the same god they do. They are disheartened.

So, yes, the first day is everything.

When they walk into my classroom–into our classroom–they don’t just need a safe place. They don’t just need a restorative place. They don’t just need a grounded place. They don’t just need a comfortable place. They don’t just need a welcoming place.

They need a home where they belong.

  • Home is where the door is open and inviting. It is important that the minute students see our classroom, they know it is for them. I do this with welcoming signs and clear communication.img_8376
  • Home is a place that is tidy and organized. I bought a carpet to ensure the auditory and aesthetic quality of my room was on point. I have bins for students to store their stuff. All of the previous day’s handouts have a place to be with clear labeling. I have minimal decorations as this will arise collaboratively with students’ contributions and academic anchor charts throughout the year.
  • Home is a place where resources abound. My first year student teaching, my mentor had the students bring community supplies for extra credit. I have copied this every year since. We have bad days or forgetful days; when that happens, my students always have what they need in the classroom to be successful–partly because they provide those resources for each other. IMG_8421
  • Home is a place where students are known. I do not want students’ first day to be going over a syllabus.

    Rather, I give a survey the first day so that I can gather important information about who my kiddos are…in school and as a human. While they are taking the survey, I walk around and introduce myself to each of them individually with a handshake. Such a first day procedure ensures that the priceless first impression that our time together will not be about rules, but about them.

  • Home is a place where I as the teacher am known. This was my first year at my current school, so the reputation that in the past had always done so much prework for me was void. So, I brought my reputation to them…alongside my heart. Students walked into the classroom to find this letter.
  • Home is a place where students see themselves. Our first activity as a class was to watch and discuss this video about “what’s your WHY?” I shared with students that there will be times this year where it will be hard and discouraging, and that’s exactly why they need to know why they’re showing up and persevering. Some of their whys (more still to come from students throughout the year) now are on display at the front of the room as a visual reminder to them that this is not about a grade, but about a heart matter.
  • Home is a place where students honor connection. The day after I introduced the why concept, we had circle. In this time, with the passing of a talking piece, students shared who or what their why is and told a story about their why. It was tender and special and bonding. It was a beautiful way to establish the kind of feel we will have in our classroom.img_8387

Just as the circle, I end where I started. The first day is everything. For I know that for there to be great learning in my class, there must be great risk.

And everyone feels more comfortable risking when they feel at home.


For more of my thoughts on how to establish a sense of home where students belong in the classroom, check out:

 

 

 

 

 

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