Once More Into the Breach: 5 Tips for Success in the New School Year

By Monica Fuglei

As summer comes to an end, preparing for the school year and welcoming classrooms full of fresh faces is a great time to add a few tools to the teaching toolbox. Establishing new practices at the beginning of the year seems daunting, but it can help set up long-term success in building and maintaining positive classroom dynamics.

Here are five great ways to start the year off on the right foot and build toward a well-balanced classroom.

Establish good relationships with parents

Starting the year by developing healthy relationships and clear communication with parents can be an integral part of supporting students through the rest of the year. If a struggling student needs an intervention, it’s far easier to reach out to a parent with whom you’ve consistently been in contact with vs. one you’ve spoken to once.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) suggests that reaching out to parents with a welcome letter before the school year even starts is a good way to begin this relationship. Most schools host a “Meet the Teacher” or “Curriculum Night” event but remember that even caring parents can run into work conflicts that prevent attendance. As such, find a way to reach out via phone calls, e-mail or a classroom newsletter so that they feel included. AFT advises that establishing such relationships and soliciting parental involvement can not only increase student engagement but also provide essential insight into student culture and environment, thus giving teachers a deeper understanding of their students.

Further, never underestimate the power of a well-placed positive phone call. Families, particularly those whose other commitments interfere with volunteering in the classroom, need to hear about their kids’ best behavior, too. When a student has a great day, consider reaching out in some way to share that with their family.

Learn more than their names

Teachers have learned a variety of games and tricks for learning names, but a culturally responsive pedagogy requires a deeper understanding. Starting early in your time together, have students share their passions, experiences, and backgrounds. Being a culturally responsive teacher doesn’t mean sharing the class’s love of “Pokemon Go,” for example, but it does mean understanding what is important to your students and how that can be integrated into their learning experiences.

Learning that embraces students’ individual experiences and passions can boost involvement and help you develop classmates who take responsibility for their learning because they feel included and invested. While it can be exhausting to meet and memorize new students and their families, it can go a long way to support student success.

Establish rules of conduct

Every classroom has rules and behavior expectations that students must understand. Including these in a parent letter is a good start that can get parents involved, but going over the expectations in class and maintaining them consistently can be an early investment that pays off in the long run. As students learn teacher expectations, their behavior will conform to the culture of the classroom.

Essential to classroom rules is a quiet signal or a starter moment that tells students they are in the right place and ready to learn. In his post 30 Techniques to Quiet a Noisy Class, Todd Finley suggests many great ways to manage a noisy classroom, including “quiet spray” for younger children or music cues for older students. Whatever way you choose to teach them, having a signal for silencing the classroom is essential for overall management and transitions. Taking the time to teach one in the first few weeks will help all year long.

Don’t just assess: Apply

Assessment has become negatively associated with overtesting and student stress. Yet if it’s done right, formative assessment can help teachers streamline and adjust their classes to the needs of their student body. Regular use of formative assessments makes clear when students understand key concepts or may have areas where they struggle, but be certain that the assessments connect to goals, curriculum design, and an overall understanding of student behavior.

Without reflection on both individual and classroom performance and adaptation in future lessons, those assessments do little to aid in student learning, but they can become overly stressful and disruptive to the classroom. In addition to graded assessments, consider adding exit tickets, stoplight check-ins, and other immediate feedback to check student learning and help them articulate misunderstandings or barriers to learning.

Redesign a unit

The previous four suggestions are an investment in your current classroom, but redesigning a unit may be an investment in this or next year’s students. Schools spend a great deal of time breaking down grade-level silos and engaging in horizontal and vertical alignment, but it is also important to work with and tweak specific lesson plans and assignments to keep things fresh, adjust to your classroom personalities, and ensure learning is on track.

Two things help a great deal with redesign:

  • Take consistent notes on student questions, best assignments, and even flops. This can help in understanding which assignments or assessments could be redesigned.
  • Consider using Understanding by Design or some other form of backward design to ensure that the goals or standards you identify for any unit are being met by a unit’s structure.

Changing traditionally constructed lesson plans into those guided by essential questions can help ensure deeper learning and long-term transfer, helping students to hang on to everything they learn.

The beginning of the school year is a lot of work, but starting with these five strategies and using them throughout the year can and will help with classroom management and your students’ educational achievement. These first few weeks set the tone for the whole year, so commit to these five changes in working toward a more engaging classroom — and reap the rewards in the months to come.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a  faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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