Five Secret Strategies for Back to School Success

No matter whether you’re a brand-new teacher or 30-year veteran, every teacher hopes to begin the school year on track to have success. In teacher education programs and schools around the country, there is no shortage of advice for back to school because having a positive start sets the tone for a favorable school year.

However, advice varies and can be confusing. Some educators recommend that teachers refrain from smiling for months while others suggest letting your students sit wherever they want on the first day. In fact, it’s taken me 20 years of teaching to feel confident about my return to school, and I’ve acquired a few strategies to share with you. 

1. Empower yourself by learning student names.

Being called by one’s name immediately develops a positive rapport; students feel recognized and respected as individuals. It’s also an excellent management tool because when students realize you know their names, they’re often less likely to misbehave. If you know a student’s name, it’s easier for you to call his or her parent or identify the student for an administrator.

When learning names, ask the students if they use nicknames and how to pronounce their names correctly. And to make remembering their names easier, make a commitment to learning the students’ names within 2- 3 days. Greet them at the door by their names. Repeat their names throughout class and admit when you make a mistake. Teachers are only human, after all! It may also help to use this free icebreaker or these team builders to learn student names.

2. Minimize chaos by making a seating chart.

Earlier in my teaching career, I took another teacher’s advice and let my students choose their own seats for the first week of school. The philosophy behind this was sound. I’d see who gravitated to whom and know who to separate or allow to be seated together.

However, I found that it didn’t work for me because students immediately sat with their friends and formed cliques. I didn’t want this for my classroom atmosphere. Rather, I try to develop a strong community of learners who can all work together. In addition to the formation of cliques, I also imagine that it was intimidating for any students new to the school or who didn’t have friends in the class.

Furthermore, it let the kids who wanted to pay less attention sit in the back of the classroom when they really should have been up front. Now I organize my seating chart in alphabetical order for the first week of school. This helps me learn their names quickly (see #1) and makes it clear that I’m the class authority. After about a week, I have a better sense of the students’ personalities, group dynamics, and learning needs so that I can rearrange my seating chart in order for students to have academic success.

3. Don’t do all of the talking.

Remember the economics teacher played by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? In one classic scene, he calls out “Anyone? Anyone?” as he drones on to comatose students. Besides boring your students, it will exhaust you, and likely lead you to getting laryngitis.

It may seem hard not to talk at your students during the first days of school (there are so many things to explain, right?) but save everyone’s sanity by encouraging your students to do the talking. In fact, I do an activity called “chunking”  where students explain the syllabus to me!

If you’re still not sure about who should do the talking, think about a recent professional development meeting when the presenter talked for hours on end (maybe with a Power Point) and reflect on how unengaged you and your colleagues felt. Do you want to be that person?

4. Create a calm and peaceful classroom with routines.

Imagine all of the questions your students will have on the first days of school:
  • Will there be homework? 
  • Where will they turn in their papers? 
  • What should they do if they have to go to the bathroom or nurse? 
  • What should they do if they’re absent? 
Some mystery in life may be exciting but not when it comes to attentive students who achieve good grades. Many students are nervous (especially freshman in high school) and they need you to give them tools to accomplish the learning goals. If you don’t already have some of these procedures mapped out, take time before school starts to plan your responses to the innumerable questions your students will have. Once you know the answers, you may want to implement activities that will help them understand your expectations and procedures.

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It's also important to revisit your rules, procedures, and expectations after the first week of school.  Like anything else you teach, true mastery of learning takes review.  That's why I like to use my Back to School Trashketball Game after a couple of weeks have passed.  I usually prefer a fun activity for class on Fridays and this game is helpful when everyone is tired from returning to the hectic school routine.  It brings energy to the room and builds community.

5. Use a flexible teaching approach.

Of course, prepared teachers have plans for their lessons, units, and on-going curriculum, but effective teachers also know that it’s imperative to be able to change and adapt quickly. Life (and people) are unpredictable, and we can’t always foresee the events and discussions that may occur on any given day. For instance, I’ve often found that impromptu class meetings, assemblies, and fire drills will interrupt the sequencing of my lessons, and I’ve learned to not only accept these interruptions, but even relish them at times. (Who doesn’t enjoy a fire drill on a beautifully sunny day?)

I even keep this philosophy in mind throughout my daily teaching. Now that I have many years of teaching experience, I’m likely to change my lessons as the school day proceeds. If something doesn’t work in an earlier class, I may tweak it to work better for the following class. I also consider the different needs and dynamics of each class as I teach throughout the day.

Of course, I still get butterflies in my stomach the night before the school year begins, but they’re not nearly as bad as they were in the past. Implementing these strategies makes the transition from summer to school year go smoother. What helps you at the beginning of the year? I’m always interested in getting new ideas and insights. Add yours in the comments below.


Back to School Stress? 5 Ways to Take Care of Yourself!

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It’s that time of year again.

After enjoying a relaxing summer, stress levels skyrocket with the return to a busy school schedule. If you’re like me, you may have enjoyed waking up without an alarm clock, drinking your morning coffee or tea at a leisurely pace, and spending quality time with family and friends. But now that you’re back to work, time is limited for those activities.

It can be difficult to transition to the hectic pace of the school year, so it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself as you return to school. Of course, that’s easier said than done. So, here are a few suggestions for self-care that are reminders as you try to shift back to your school routine.

Stay Active

1. I don’t know about you but because my summer schedule is calmer, I am much better at getting exercise and going to the gym than during the school year. I’ve been taking spin and yoga classes throughout the summer, but once the school year starts and I can’t exercise in the morning, it’s much harder for me to get to the gym. (I’m not a person who can wake up and go to the gym before school.) Although I may miss my workouts at the gym when September returns, I can still get outdoors after school and take long walks. Though they’re not as demanding as my spin classes, these walks refresh me and still burn calories.

If I have a little more time, I may kayak or ride my bike. These activities help improve my energy and provide the added benefit of boosting my vitamin D from the sunshine. Hopefully, you can also find time to stay active. Like me, it can be as simple as an afternoon walk. Consider what activities you can do to stay active that aren’t time-consuming.

Say No

2. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in
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over 20+ years of teaching. “No” is such a little word, but sometimes it’s tough to say. Administrators, students, parents, and other teachers always make innumerable requests during the school year. Whether it’s attending a school talent show, chaperoning a dance, or teaching an after-school program, people always ask me to do more! No doubt, I enjoy attending some of these events, but I have to limit extra activities to one or two a week. If I don’t say “no,” I won’t have any time left over to take care of myself.

New teachers should especially heed this advice. If you’re a new teacher, you already have too much to handle, and you need to protect your time so you can effectively manage lesson planning, grading, communicating with parents, etc. (The list never ends). You may be inundated with requests for help because the demand for club advisors, coaches, and committee participants is always high. Please set boundaries and empower yourself! Really, it’s only two letters…N-O

Get Sleep

3. When switching from my summer schedule back to a school routine, it’s important to make sure I get enough sleep. In the summer when the days are longer, I go to bed later at night. In fact, I do everything later, including waking up, socializing, and eating dinner. But with the early mornings of the school year, I have to make sure I go to bed earlier, so I start winding down right after dinner. This means that I need to turn off my cell phone and walk away from the television. Without those distractions, I can often get to sleep by ten on a school night and get my full eight hours of sleep.

You should try to do the same. Don’t grade papers in bed and don’t bring your laptop into the bedroom. Find relaxing

activities that will help you quiet your brain. Include time before you go to bed to listen to soothing music, take a bath, enjoy a glass of wine, or read a pleasurable book. If those strategies don’t work, and you find yourself struggling to sleep, try deep breathing or meditation. I’ve found an app called Calm that helps me on those nights when I have insomnia.

Continue Summer Hobbies

4. In the summer, I cultivate and tend a small garden of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. I make sure to water and prune the plants, and I enjoy the reward of fresh vegetables. I also spend more time with my dog, taking him for drives to the beach or park. Unfortunately, with my busy school schedule, I frequently forget to care for the garden, or I neglect my pup. Ultimately, work’s interference with these activities makes me resentful.

To keep from getting irritable and to improve my mood, I consciously devote time to continuing summer activities. Furthermore, maintaining my garden reminds me to cook and eat healthy. And when it’s too cold or dark to keep up with these hobbies, I add new ones that fit the season. (My husband and I compete in Fantasy Football league with friends.) If you have summer hobbies, schedule time to enjoy them even when summer break ends.

Pamper Yourself

5. When I meet my new students and start teaching after summer vacation, it’s easy for me to get consumed with work. I have long work days followed by evening activities such as back-to-school night during the first months back. Work and home responsibilities feel overwhelming. In the past, I’ve neglected to honor my self-worth. A few small indulgences like getting a manicure or massage make me feel better and cheer me up when I’m sad that summer is over. Don’t feel guilty and make sure you pamper yourself, too! In fact, research shows that taking care of your emotional well-being improves your ability to be there for others.

Occasionally, during extra busy weeks, I struggle to practice self-care more than usual weeks. Sometimes, I’m in a bind to find an engaging lesson for a new concept I’m teaching, or I need a good substitute lesson plan for when I don’t feel well.

At these times, I search for teaching resources that I can download for a few dollars. I know that teacher authors have worked hours to make excellent teaching materials so I can take care of myself. It’s not selfish to prioritize our health over work responsibilities.

The truth is that teachers are so generous with their time that they may be inattentive to their own physical and mental health. Overtired and burnt-out teachers are short-tempered, lethargic, and frequently ill. But by sacrificing their health, they end up being able to give less of themselves. If you’re one of those teachers, remember that by helping yourself, you’re also helping your students, colleagues, and others in your community!

I’ve shared ways that I purposefully care for myself. What do you do for yourself? I’m always looking for new ways to live a more balanced life, so please share in the comments below.

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