Starting the school year right Part 1: Setting the Pace

Stuck in downtown Camilla rush minute traffic yesterday, I pondered the beginning of the school year.

The one frustrating thing about teaching is that sometimes you feel like you're putting your hand in a bucket of water... when you take your hand out, you don't see the mark. It is a very "what have you done for me lately" profession and each year we start over.

But we cannot be discouraged! Nature gives us insight into our profession.

If you look at my beautiful hydrangeas, last year's bloom is still is a reminder of beauty. Although it is brown and faded, it is still lovely in its own regard and a reminder of how well I watered and fertilized the plant last year. It is like the last school year. I have reminders of how great things went in the past.

But also like my hydrangea, the most beautiful creation is this year's new growth. Teaching is very much a present profession. The greatest gifts of teaching are accomplishments in the present moment. The breakthrough, the unreachable kid who was reached, the life that was changed. Those are the presents that last in our minds and hearts.

Good teachers in some ways are like adrenaline junkies, always longing for the high that comes from reaching just one more kid and having just one more breakthrough.

As I ponder the beginning of this year, I think of the advice that my mother, a 20 year business education teacher, and my sister, a 15 year middle school gifted certified teacher, gave me when I began teaching four years a go. My practices hinge on their advice to: set the pace, establish the flow, and establish the plan. I will post a four part series on this.

As you begin the year, consider these thoughts:

1) Set the pace

My Mom always says, "You can never be tougher than you are on the first day, first week, and first month."

Although students may have had you as a teacher previously, each year is different.

Here is what I typically do on the first day:

  • I'm ready - I am waiting for them at the door.
  • This is my turf - I give each of them a card with their assigned computer number and their textbook. Giving an assigned seat sets the tone and splits up problems before they happen!
  • I care - I greet them by name and make eye contact.
  • Information card - I have them fill out their information on the card including birthday, parent names, e-mail addresses, etc.
  • Textbook features - At the door, I immediately hand them an activity to do to familiarize them with the features of their textbook. I do not want them to start off by talking but immediately with working. They also need to know how their textbook is structured and how we will work with it. (I remember not knowing about an appendix or tool in the back of a book until the middle of a school year. There is no excuse for a teacher not covering this on day 1.)
  • Paperwork - I cover the discipline and acceptable use policies and send them home to be signed. This is their first grade and if it is not turned in the next day, I call or e-mail their parents.
  • How is the class structured? I talk about the work flow for that class, handout team lists, grading scale, major projects, my expectations and point out my homework board that is on a white board at the side wall.
  • Why should they care? We talk about why the subject is important. As with most things, I do this by asking questions. Examples: "Who knows what accounting is? Why is it important?" If it is an elective, "Why are you taking this class?"
  • Weed out the slackers - If the class is an elective, I always give homework on the first night. That helps weed out those that think it is going to be an easy class. It gives them a quick overview of the subject and lets them decide while there's still time to switch to another class if their work ethic or subject matter doesn't match their expectations. (Over time you will get a reputation if you are a good teacher, but initially this is important!)
  • Something cool - I always show or mention something cool that I know they don' t know about and leave them hanging. This is important, because I want them to go home and share something cool with their parents on the first day. If you can get kids excited early and positive "buzz" going on with the parents early, it will serve you well.
  • Don't be a used car salesman. I NEVER say: "this is going to be easy", "this isn't hard," "you'll like this class" or "we're going to have fun." They can decide for themselves. These phrases come back to haunt you when you're in the throes of that tough project. As much as I believe in harnessing fun as a tool in the classroom, let them decide what's fun. There's nothing worse than being sold a bad bill of goods on the first day.
  • Discipline - If I have a discipline issue, I deal with it firmly, immediately, and appropriately. I follow the discipline ladder. Usually, I only have one or two discipline referrals the first week and one or two the remainder of the year. If you "let it go" the first day or week or month, kids will expect you to let it go the rest of the year!
  • Tardies - On day two, I close the door when the tardy bell rings. Students are not allowed entry until they bring their tardy pass from the front office. I start teaching at the moment the bell rings. They have to learn early that they need to be in their seat, ready to go.
  • Bell Work - I am a huge believer in bell work. If they get in socialization mode, it is so hard to get out. I hand them something at the door, or have something on the board that is to be done as soon as they get in their seat.
  • Reward good behavior
    I have bonus tickets for +5 on the lesson of their choice (keyboarding and fundamentals). These go daily to the first one or two people in the room who have started their work. I do this daily for four days and then intermittently throughout the remainder of the year. Partial reinforcement is a powerful motivator! Don't just discipline the wrong, incentivize the right!

    On tests, every discussion question is a potential bonus question. If I ask for 5 items but there were 9 they could have learned, I want students who learned all 9 to benefit. This creates incredible mastery and increases the level of excellence in the classroom. It also helps those who may have studied the "wrong thing" to show their expertise.
Tomorrow we'll talk about establishing the flow: people, paper, and information. I hope some of you will also share your thoughts here.

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