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!

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.

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 ides and insights. Add yours in the comments below.



1 comment

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