As a teacher myself, one of the most challenging times of year is September (or even August for some teachers!) when everything is new. Teachers need to establish classroom routines, set high expectations for students, establish rapport with families, and get started on academics as soon as possible. For myself, the most important aspect of starting a school year is establishing community. To me, community can mean school, classroom, link to families, even a community of colleagues with teachers and support staff. Here are some strategies I’ve used to help build community right off the bat!
- Let your students dictate much of the community building. This can include student decisions on classroom guidelines, decorating their own space, setting up class libraries, creating and assigning class helper jobs, and more. Most years, I have students submit their own classroom floor plan options, and the class votes on a design best for learning. We reassess the design after a few weeks and make changes if necessary. Giving your students ownership over their learning environment has enormous benefits down the road.
- Create consistent messaging to center your school year. This can be a class credo or manifesto, simple statements to drive home important aspects of your class, or quotes and sayings applicable to the school year. One year, I used the messaging from the book Fish by John Christensen, who observed the employees at Pike Place Fish Market. This had double meaning for my students, being so close to Seattle ourselves. Just this past year, our classroom message was “Professional, Powerful, Personal” and all students knew these were our three goals. Our work, our attitude, our behaviors all worked toward these three simple words.
- A classroom can be a second home to both a teacher and students. Find design elements in a classroom to make it comfortable for both you as a teacher, and for your students as well. In past years, I’ve had shelves of toys and stuffed animals that students are free to use as a fidget or a comfort for those difficult days. Allow students to find ways to make your classroom comfortable! Research shows that any way we can lower a student’s anxiety level leads to better academic performance. I noticed one year that my students performed better with soft, focused lighting. How many of our classrooms blast students with thousands of watts pouring out of commercial lighting! Try to create a themed atmosphere, one year my classroom looked similar to a classic library, with small lamps on desks and small groups of study areas.
- Get rid of your “teacher space” and join your class! This is always difficult for me as a teacher. However, I’ve found that I do my best teaching when I’m in the same space as my students, and do not retreat to my teacher area. I have seen teachers remove any aspect of a teacher desk, and simply pull over another desk to a group of students. Try it for a week, see if you can go a whole school day staying away from a “teacher space” and really engage with your students. They will appreciate that you are on their level, and you may just prefer it as well!
This list is by no way comprehensive. What ways have you found to start your year that gets everyone started on the right track? Please share your ideas with us!