The 5 most important things to do in the first month of school

For educators who feel overwhelmed at the start of the year, these simple actions can help you get centered and focused

If the beginning of the school year feels like you’re being pulled in 12 directions at once, then you’re not alone. Student have nervous flutters about returning to school to see their classmates, and teachers are getting back into their work routine while trying to balance all the demands of the new school year.

Although it can feel overwhelming to set aside time for your own goals, it’s important for teachers to do exactly that. With all the requests coming from others, teachers have to carve out their own priorities to maximize teacher wellness and student learning.

In my classroom, I like to get a few big wins in the beginning of the school year. If I take care of these priorities, it improves the quality of instruction, classroom culture, and, ultimately, student learning, for the following nine months.

Here are a few things I suggest all teachers focus on in the first month of school:

1. Assess students’ knowledge and abilities.
Before you can begin to teach students and move them forward, you have to know where they are. Even if you feel pressured to begin a planned curriculum early in the year, do not neglect this step.

Assessing students based on what they learned last year and what they may have forgotten over the summer can feel like a time-waster, but it is actually a time-saver in the long run. This is because this can:

  1. Help prevent you from wasting time by repeating things that students have already mastered
  2. Help you plan your extra help, small group, or 1:1 instruction as you identify students who have specific needs that need to be addressed

Fortunately, there are several tools to help this process. For example, Reading Horizons offers a dyslexia screener product that can help teachers identify students who may have dyslexia. Too often these students can slip through the cracks or be misclassified; this tool can help to set you on the right track. I also use GoFormative to watch students complete writing tasks in real time and view their responses to text-based questions. This data helps me to make better instructional decisions throughout the school year.

2. Set specific timelines and goals for first instruction units.
There’s nothing worse than when students settle into the school year and realize: This class is going to be boring. Why does this happen? And what makes the difference between a class that bores students and one that excites them?

One of the most consistent pieces of feedback I’ve received from students on both ends of the spectrum is about the pace of class. Students want to feel that the class makes consistent progress. No, I’m not encouraging you to rush students through the first unit of your curriculum. Instead, I suggest setting reasonable timelines and goals for your first unit and doing your best to stick to those. It is better to plan a brief, more minimalist first unit and complete it on time than to begin the year with a slow slog through a never-ending series of lessons.

I give a hat tip to Dave Stuart Jr. for first suggesting this in his School Year Starter Kit. Finishing a unit within the first month or so builds momentum and also helps to build the teacher credibility Stuart Jr. often writes about as a strong predictor of student learning.

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