school exterior

It’s time to dust off those cobwebs, teachers! To kick off 2015 right, we’re revisiting one of our favorite posts from the TeacherPop archives about returning from Winter Break. Teach For America alum Maggie Dahn gives you some great pointers for making the first days back to school a little bit lighter. 

One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first year of teaching was neglecting to plan for that first day back to school. I figured that my students “already knew” the expectations and would “remember” classroom procedures. I thought perhaps they had matured over break and would come back with a renewed sense of responsibility.

In. my. dreams.

The only major difference between winter and summer break is that over winter break they’re expected to remember what happened before the new year. They come back to the same classroom with the same teacher (you). What they did in December has become a distant memory. Wait, I have to do my homework every night? What do you mean I have to raise my hand? And…who are you?

You can prepare yourself for the inevitable (second) first day. Treat the first few days back to school in January just like your first few days in September.

Here’s how I would do it:

Refocus students on their goals. This is the single most important thing you will do when you get back to school. You can frame their goals by first talking to your students about New Year’s Resolutions. As a class, you should revisit your class goal or have students look at their individual goals for the year. Is there anything they want to change? Is there something they can add to make it better? January allows for students to have a fresh start in some ways, and you can help them by making the time to reflect on the most important things. (Bonus: this is good for you, too!)

Build and sustain culture. You set the tone in your classroom. How do you want your students to treat each other? How will they resolve conflicts? How do you want students to define themselves? You could frame each day for that first week to focus on a part of your students’ identities. Monday could be “I am a leader.” Tuesday is “I am a friend.” Wednesday would be “I am a rock star student,” and so on … Create mini-lessons that help students explore these ideas in a meaningful way and have them post their work in the room so they remember come April. Help your students form positive perceptions of themselves as leaders, friends, and students.

Add some polish. Is there a new seating arrangement you’d like to try? Do you have an awesome idea for a bulletin board or visual tracker? Jazz up your classroom a bit. Don’t go back before your first day to do this, but make it fresh for yourself and for your kids during that first week back. My new obsession is baby food and mason jars to hold pencils and erasers on the tables. Although I was nervous of mixing glass and first graders, they totally work and the kids even commented, “This is pretty!” And I’m buying tiny plants for each table. The environment teaches the students almost as much as I do, and I want to create a beautiful space where they want to be.

Focus on the little things. Now is the time to get things all the way right. If your students are having a difficult time transitioning from lunchtime back into the classroom mode, fix it now. You can do this by explicitly teaching how you expect them to reenter the classroom before it is time for them to make the transition. Then, as with anything, you need to practice. Do it again. Do it again. And then do it again (despite the moans and groans) until it is right. And if you don’t get it 100% right the first day back, do it again the second day.

Here’s to a happy, productive 2015!