4 Must-Dos for the First Week of School

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A regular reader of mine who is about to start her first teaching job emailed me to ask what she needs to do to be ready. It would take a book to answer that question (and someday I might write it), but I told her there are four things she absolutely must do during the first week of school.

ONE: Make Students Want to Come Back

If your students don’t like you and enjoy being in your class, you’ll make the job twice as hard on yourself. As Rita Pierson says in this video, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Additionally, if your classroom management plan involves the use of a time-out or removal from your class, you better make damn sure students see that as undesirable. I’ve known of students who intentionally get kicked out of class because they’d rather be in the office or with the counselor than in the classroom.

There are lots of ways to sell yourself and your class to your students. Use humor, have students work together to build something, perform an engaging science demonstration, play music (real music, the kind kids actually like), give breaks, tell a couple entertaining stories. You want to make the first week fun. People like fun. But fun isn’t your only option.

One of my favorite strategies is simply to listen. I am not a terrific listener (just ask my wife), but during that first week, my students have my full attention, no matter how long and banal their stories may be. So many students aren’t listened to that you can immediately endear yourself to them if, when you call on them and they start talking, you stop what you’re doing, look at them as if you are the only two people in the room, smile and nod along as they talk, and ask a follow-up question when they finish.

Now, making your classroom fun is not a license to be permissive, nor is it necessary to encourage silly behavior. You have to be careful. Everything you say and do sends a message that first week, and you don’t want your message to be that your classroom is an amusement park. At minimum, just be yourself, don’t be afraid to laugh with your students, and be vulnerable.

TWO: Teach the Living Hell Out of Your Routines

If it’s your first teaching job, you probably aren’t sure which routines to even have (I still add some and I’ve been doing this 18 years). First step: go online and print out the biggest list of procedures you can find. My advice is to overdo it. Anything you can think of that you will regularly ask students to do in your room, from leaving their seat, to going to the bathroom, to sharpening pencils, you should have an explicit routine for. You should teach the hell out of it, by which I mean teach it like you actually care that’s it’s followed to the letter.

The best advice I’ve ever seen about teaching routines is that you should be extraordinarily specific about the very first one you teach. Then you should have students perform that routine over and over until it’s exactly how you envision it. You don’t have to do this with every routine (although you should teach, model, and have students practice them all), but attending to the smallest details with the first one sends the message that there is a way to do everything in your classroom and that that way is your way.

Most classroom management problems happen because teachers assume kids know how they want things done, but they don’t take enough time to thoroughly teach routines and have students practice them. You can nip a lot of problems in the bud by teaching, reteaching, modeling, asking students to visualize, and then having them practice each of your routines until they’re executed to perfection. I’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

THREE: Introduce Your Classroom Management Plan

Students deserve to know what’s expected and what will happen should they fail to live up to your expectations.Some teachers put off introducing the rules on day one because it’s kind of a downer. They want to make their room an inviting place, and taking 30 minutes to explain to students what they can’t do and what punitive measures you’ll take if they choose to do those things feels negative.

That’s the wrong way to look at rules. Rules allow for fun. Imagine a basketball game where no one dribbles and you can’t get a shot up without being tackled. It would suck for everyone. Most students want and appreciate boundaries because they know they’ll benefit in the long run. Again, be crystal clear and role-play as many different scenarios as you can think of that will likely happen this year. Role-playing gives you the opportunity to teach, but it can also provide entertainment value if you’re not a huge grump when acting out situations. Of course, once introduced, it’s imperative that you follow your plan to the letter. Break your own rules, and students won’t trust you. They’ll question your will to crack down on every consequence you threaten the rest of the year. You lose your authority, and no matter what your style, authority is something you have to be willing to do everything to protect.

FOUR: Call Your Shot

The last idea I stole from motivational speaker Josh Shipp. It’s a good way to build trust with students right out of the gate. Chances are high that you have a handful of students in your room who have been let down, sometimes frequently, by the adults in their lives. Many of them have a default setting of distrust. You won’t be able to reach them until you chip away this barrier.

Shipp recommends, “calling your shot.” Like Babe Ruth hitting a home run after pointing his bat toward the outfield seats, calling your shot means you promise something and then do it. This year, I had a student who refused to sit in his chair. He was leaned over his desk and in continual motion. While our counselor introduced herself to the class, I went and sat by him and asked if the chair was uncomfortable. He told me that it was and that he didn’t like sitting in it. This was a good opportunity to practice Shipp’s advice.

“If I brought you a cushion, would you use it?” I asked him. He assured me that he would. So after school, I found a five dollar cushion at Wal-mart. He sat on it the rest of the week. But more importantly, I showed him that I’m a man of my word. My work is far from over with this student, but five dollars is a good investment if it means he starts to trust me.

You don’t have to spend money to call your shot. Just make a promise to your students –we’ll go out early for recess, I’ll give you a break in five minutes — and then make sure you do it. Do this enough, and you’ll gain your students trust.

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