The Five Non-Negotiables For Your First Week
Whether you’re a first, second, or thirteenth year teacher, there are so many things to juggle at the start of the year that your first encounter with new students can seem unmanageably daunting. I’ve talked to many new Teach For America teachers who spent much of their valuable time after Institute making posters and decorating their classrooms. While a comfortable learning environment is important for student achievement, beautiful walls are not paramount for the first day. If you’re already there, bravo! But if you’re among the many others who feel like the sand in your hourglass is falling at a dangerous speed, here are the five non-negotiable things to have ready to go before you start your first week.
1. Enough desks arranged how you want. While isolated cases exist where schools have fewer desks than kids, most schools have enough seats to accommodate all of your students, so search high and low if your roster has more kids than you have desks. Also, make sure to overcompensate. Even though those extra five desks don’t exactly jive with the laudable, Tetris-like myriad of desks you’ve managed to fit within the walls of your room, find a way to get them in. You never know how many new kids might show up on days one through five. Extra Tip: Contrary to the ubiquitous stereotype that all classrooms should have rows of desks that face “the front” of the classroom, I don’t think this sends the right message to kids. Many of us have visions that eloquently describe the ways in which our students will be discussing, collaborating, and learning together. How are they to achieve this if the physical space in which they spend all of their time with you isn’t conducive to collaborative learning? Think about what seating arrangement aligns most accurately to your vision and start with that on day one.
2. Seating charts, rosters, attendance sheet, and behavior tracking. Have a seating chart that is easily readable for you (worry about the subs later), accurately represents the layout of your room, and has space for notes you might want to take for name pronunciation or a special need. Also, have the most updated roster available so that you can quickly update your records in case an administrator needs information. Then, determine how you will track attendance and start doing this during the first week. Even if things get crazy with students adding and dropping your class, at least you’ll have the records as well as a week’s worth of practice. Most importantly – and most difficult for me – have a behavior tracking system in place and use it diligently during your first week. Of course, this must be preceded by explicit instruction of rules and consequences (see #3 below), but an unwavering commitment to behavior management during the first week is an investment in good student behavior down the road. Behavior tracking is an indispensable tool to help you manage this process right off the bat. Extra Tip: Have a different clipboard for each of your classes with all of these sheets attached to each one. Instead of flipping awkwardly through a thick wad of preps, you’ll have everything you need for that period in one place.
3. Posted list of rules, consequences, and rewards and plans (note plural form) for teaching rules and procedures. Your expectations for student behavior need to be clear and visible, so post them in a prominent place and refer to them often when both disciplining and rewarding. However, the most important part of this is your plan for how you will explicitly teach the rules, consequences, and rewards. Your rules and procedures plans should be as detailed and carefully crafted as the plans you have for content. Likewise, your check for understanding needs to be methodical, recurrent, and uncompromising. Be wary of falling into the honeymoon trap by thinking that all of your students “get it” – if they seem comfortable with the rules and procedures today, practice them tomorrow, and again the next day, and again the day after that. Repetition can feel painful, but the payoff in students’ behavior and grasp of expectations is more than worth the practice. Extra Tip: Teaching the rules and procedures takes longer than a day. It may seem like you’re taking valuable time away from content, but the more your students are prepared to engage with the material, the more they will take away from it. Craft detailed plans that cover the major things you want your kids to know in the first week and spend multiple days on them. Don’t bore them to tears – make sure to weave rules and procedures in with the content, but don’t expect students to master them on the first day.
4. An easily accessible to-do list. This seems simple but can be pretty challenging. You are on your feet all day and probably frequent some 73 different locations between 8am and whenever you go to bed. Keeping a to-do list readily available can help you manage the dozens of different requests you’ll receive from your administrator, students, MTLD, friends, etc. The trick is sticking to one list for all your needs and meticulously updating it each day to reflect what you have or have not completed. Extra Tip: If you always wear clothing with pockets, like me, I suggest using a notebook small enough to keep in your pocket because you drastically reduce the risk of losing it by carrying it with you at all times. If you aren’t as much of a pocket person, I’ve had equal success with a small, yellow legal pad – you just have to make sure to tote it around with you wherever you go and update it constantly.
5. Detailed lesson plans. By now, you’ve certainly had some time to reflect on your content and what you want for kids over the course of an entire year. While it’s essential that we keep our eyes on that long-term vision, it’s also time to shift our focus to the nitty gritty. We need to make sure we have a clear plan for what kids will be doing every single minute of the day. In the mix of getting to know students, reviewing and practicing rules and procedures, and navigating the novelty of a “regular” school day, we can get easily sidetracked and become more lax on our plans. Avoid falling into that trap by creating your plans now and simply adjusting them during the hustle and bustle of the first week.