Setting the Stage

It’s nearing day one of the next upcoming school year and you have several ideas roaming around in your head about classroom routines. What do you do to prepare for those first, critical, 8 days with students? I have been a middle school math educator for 15 years and have recently transitioned into an instructional coaching role. While as an educator, I knew the first two weeks were important, but I never realized how deep this importance spread across the entire year! It has been amazing to watch ‘new to the profession’ teachers do their best to fill the first eight days of school with welcoming activities, doing their best to get to know their students and build a safe environment. Many are so excited to get their practice up and running and cannot wait to begin. For some, the realization of working with middle school students becomes very real, very quick, and they begin to find out where expectations and reality differ greatly. 

In my experience and as many veteran teachers can probably attest to, the stage you set in the first eight days of school will determine what your entire year will entail. This can be very challenging for ‘new to profession’ teachers who learn this the hard way and have a very difficult time trying to reset the stage later on. Nearly ten years ago, I read the book, Lessons from the Classroom, 20 Things Good Teachers Do by Hal Urban. I had since forgotten about this book, but grabbed it off the shelf in an effort to help support some of my coaching clients whom were struggling to reset the stage. As I re-read the book, I was quickly reminded of all the routines I had put into place the first eight days of school that attributed to my success for classroom management, building community, and creating a safe place where students feel comfortable taking risks. As I continue my instructional coaching role, I will now share these following routines to help support ‘new to profession’ teachers within the first eight days of school.

  1. Greet students at the door. This routine has served many purposes throughout the years. For one, this routine can help teachers and students build relationships by allowing teachers time to ask students questions about their personal lives when often there seems to not be enough time once class begins. This also allows teachers time to teach students how to appropriately greet someone by making eye contact, verbally responding, and providing a firm handshake. This simple task is often not taught at home and helps the teacher establish expectations for how to have an appropriate interaction. I have also found this routine helpful when students have bad days and sometimes make inappropriate choices. Each day is a new day and greeting each individual at the door before they walk in allows teachers to establish this relationship with individual students.
  2. Talk about good manners. It is important for teachers to talk about what they will expect for how students treat others as well as how students treat teachers. Hal Urban says, “What you permit, you promote.”  Whether you create this ahead of time and discuss your expectations with the class or have the class build these expectations with you, it is important to address what you will allow in the classroom and what you will not allow. Even more importantly, teachers need to discuss with the class what will happen if one of the expectations is not followed and hold students accountable to these consequences.
  3. Who Are You? Getting to know your students is vital to student achievement. Research suggests that students will not learn from you unless they know you care for them. Establish activities that allow you, as the teacher, to better understand your students as individuals, how they learn best, and their interests. Perhaps this can be done through interest or learner characteristic inventories. However you decide to address this, be sure to spend some time within the first eight days to gather this important information.
  4. Toxic-vs-Nourishing. To continue to establish the type of classroom culture you wish to create, spend some time talking about toxic-vs-nourishing. Personally, I really struggled with students who exhibited negative attitudes. So, I added a lesson about this to perform in one of the first eight days of school. I wanted to set the stage immediately, that only positive attitudes were allowed within my four walls. I would not allow negative comments about certain activities I had planned or to each other. Discuss with students what types of comments would classify as toxic that you will not allow and then follow up with nourishing comments students could use instead. Again, hold the students accountable if you hear any toxic activity. Once this expectation is established, you will be amazed at how often students will hold each other accountable and call out others if they hear any of your toxic comments being shared. 
  5. Reward positive behavior. It is amazing how students feed off of what the teacher values in his/her classroom. Many districts are using PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports) to address rewarding positive behaviors. If you want students to act in a specific way, then praise any student who does exhibit this behavior. Carnival tickets are an easy way to tackle this. When you see students exhibiting behaviors that you expect or even behaviors that go above and beyond, be sure to honor and praise this behavior! You will be amazed at how many other students will follow suit. There are many ways students can use these tickets. I found that allowing them to ‘cash-in’ on engaging tasks (ie. sitting in the teachers chair for a lesson, purchasing a pencil/eraser, purchasing a healthy snack such as pretzels, facilitating the lesson launch, etc.) was motivating.

As a teacher, if you find yourself frustrated about specific behaviors or complaining about how students are behaving, ask yourself how you addressed this in the first weeks of school. If you did not address it, then students are not aware of your expectations around this behavior and your reactive responses will fuel student behaviors. Proactively addressing expectations using some or all of these strategies with students will save lots of headaches and frustrations throughout the year. 

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