How to Jumpstart Your School Year Differently

For many of you, the new school year will be starting soon.

For others who are on a different school calendar, consider re-reading this information the next time you have a fresh start with a new group of students.

There is A LOT to do to get ready for a new group of learners to walk through your classroom door.

Perhaps you are overwhelmed with how to spend your time at the beginning of the year and what to focus on.

So, what are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed from the beginning of a term or year?

Well, the answer depends on who you ask. If it was me, I would put everything you’ve been told on “pause” and FIRST get inside your students’ brains. How? Keep reading – your classroom prep may have to wait until you do this one thing…

The Research

For starters, let’s ask and answer the right questions about what it means to be “ready” for a new school year (or semester).

For many teachers, their questions have the word “I” in them, such as…
“How should I set up my classroom?” “What books, programs or activities will I use this year?” “What is the latest tech that I could use in my classroom?” (and so on…)

But, using the word “I” is not what really counts; it’s better when we listen to the questions that students are asking.

Your students ask far different questions than you as they begin a new school year. These questions, and the resulting answers you provide the students will make the difference between a ‘so-so’ class and a ‘great’ one.

Within the first 10 days (two weeks) of school, students are gathering the answers to the following critical questions:

1. Is my teacher an ally or an adversary? 
2. Will my competence grow with effort? 
3. Is it worth it to “bust my butt” in this class?
4. Will I be able to make friends and be liked?
5. Can I succeed (keep up & do well) at this subject / in this class? 
6. Does my teacher believe in me?
7. Do I belong in this challenging academic environment?
8. Is my class (and this school) a safe place? 
9. Does this work have real value for me?

Luckily, all these student questions fall nicely into three categories. All three are critical areas which the brain needs to have met in order to be ready to learn.

Ththree areas of readiness areCognitive, Emotional, Social

You may have a hundred to-dos swirling around your head in preparation for another school year. Trust me, shifting your attention from your to-do list to your students’ cognitive, emotional, and social needs is worth your time. Teachers who focus on these three areas of readiness are setting themselves up for a fabulous year.

The Research

1. Keep your BODY Healthy

In the first days of the new school year, focus on these three areas (cognitive, emotional and social readiness) a little bit each day and students will come back the next day hungry for more.

Here are some practical strategies to help you get started on the right foot.

2. Cognitive Readiness should address these student questions:
Can I succeed (keep up & do well) at this subject / in this class?
Does my teacher believe in me?
Will my competence grow with effort? 

Is it worth it to “bust my butt” in this class?
Does this work have real value for me?

Here’s how to answer these questions as the teacher…

  1. Quick successes: Design activities and assignments for the first few days of school that are a guaranteed success for ALL students. Depending on the grade and/or subject you teach, it could be an exercise in counting to 10 in Spanish, standing in a straight line, teaching word association tools, drawing the number 8, or … The purpose here is to build the mindset of “I know I will be successful in this class” within the first few days of school.
  2. Begin building one key skill: Invest time in the first few days of school to teach your students a learning skill that will be used in your class. Ideas include Mind Mapping (or visual note-taking tools). Teach students that they will recall information better and do better on assessments when pictures or other diagrams are incorporated in their learning (Bui & McDaniel, 2015). Another suggestion is to introduce a mnemonic strategy that teaches them a list of 10 peg words they can use to remember 10 key things from your class.
  3. High expectations: It has long been shown that teachers’ expectations of students impact their (the student’s) academic performance (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1969). How significant is this influence? Well, the effect size of “teacher estimates of achievement” is a HUGE 1.29 (Hattie, 2017). Having high expectations begins with the belief that ALL students can and WILL succeed. What does that look like in a classroom? For starters, it looks like eliminating any ability groupings. Ability group is detrimental to students’ belief in themselves and their achievement (Dumont, Protsch, Jansen, & Becker, 2017). It also includes setting challenging, mastery-focused goals for your class. For example, a second-grade teacher may say, “By the time you leave my class and move to 3rd grade, you will all be reading like a 4th grader! I will be here to support you and cheer you on every step of the way.”

3. Emotional Readiness should address these student questions:
Is my teacher an ally or an adversary?
Is my class (and this school) a safe place to be (free from bullying, etc.)?
Do I belong in this challenging academic environment?

Here’s how to answer these questions as the teacher…

  1. Welcoming culture: Students want to feel like they belong in their learning environment … so tell them! Say these words out loud and often to your students: “You belong here”; “This is where you belong”; “I am so glad you are in our class.” As you stand at the door to greet each student with a warm “Good morning!” add on whatever phrase you believe that student needs to hear.
  2. Teach social-emotional skills: Begin with the basics of respect and a no-tolerance policy around bullying. Think your students should be old enough to already know what respect looks and sounds like? You might be right; but, is it worth risking the emotional safety in your classroom if they haven’t learned it, yet? Explicitly define what respect means in YOUR classroom. Use roleplays, visual posters, and video clips to help students SEE what respect looks like. Consider creating a class-wide, non-verbal cue that can be used as a reminder of the expectations around respect, or to subtly acknowledge a student for showing respect.
  3. Role model how to self-regulate: Chances are you’ll meet new students who lack some level of self-regulation. Perhaps they have yet to learn how to manage frustrating feelings when they don’t do something right the first time, or how to manage social conflicts on the playground, or how to be grateful for the luxuries they are experiencing in life. You play a tremendous role in teaching these self-regulation skills to students. As you get started with a new group of students, focus on role modeling these skills for them – you’ll make time for direct instruction soon enough. For now, be proud of yourself for making out loud comments that verbalize these skills: “I am so glad I am healthy today.”, “I got really frustrated with the copy machine this morning and I needed to take some deep breaths before I did something I would regret.”

4. Social Readiness 
Will I be able to make friends and be liked?
Is my class (and this school) a safe place to be?

Here’s how to answer these questions as the teacher…

  1. Build relationships with students: Students who have a positive relationship with their teacher experience more enjoyment (and thus learning). Students who report negative teacher relationships experience anxiety (and thus little to no learning) (Ahmed, Minnaert, Werf, & Kuyper, 2008). It’s no wonder, then, that teacher-student relationships has an effect size of 0.74 (Hattie, 2017). That means your relationship with your students has the potential to improve their academic achievement by nearly 1.5 academic years! Make it a priority to learn your students’ names within the first week of school. Give assignments that allow you to learn more about their family, hobbies, dreams, and fears. Create time in your lesson plans that allow for you to be with students one-on-one during the first weeks of school. An individual interaction with their teacher will leave a student feeling seen, special, and a valued member of the learning community.
  2. Facilitate student-to-student relationships: In addition to you learning student names, set a goal for all students to learn the names of their classmates within the first couple weeks of school. Students who have good relationships with their classmates are more intrinsically motivated, have higher levels of cognitive attention (because they aren’t consumed with worry about whether their peers like them or will tease them), and ultimately demonstrate higher levels of achievement (Mikami et al., 2017).When a student is experiencing social connection, portions of their medial prefrontal cortex become activated and involved in the experience. This part of the brain is highly involved in learning/memory formation and retrieval (Euston, Gruber & McNaughton, 2012). In simple terms, students learn better when they are socially connected.
  3. Build relationships with staff and parents: Use these first few weeks to build a bridge from the classroom to home. Send a letter/email home introducing yourself and your excitement for teaching. Start making positive phone calls home right away to strengthen the relationship with parents. Begin a weekly email home that shares a few highlights from the week and a kind reminder of how they can best support their son or daughter. Connect with your colleagues next door and down the hall. Make it a point to drop by their room to offer a quick “good morning” before heading to your classroom. Create a new tradition for this year to eat together at least one day a week and share positive moments from your teaching and successful strategies worth borrowing.

With all the “shiny objects” vying for your attention this time of year, stay focused on what your STUDENTS need from you. Remember – they are the reason you do this meaningful work.