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.

3: Choose routines, habits, and systems.
This point is perhaps best addressed through a series of questions that teachers must ask:

  • What happens at the beginning of class? The end?
  • What happens when students are absent?
  • How do students distribute papers and other supplies?
  • Do you have a specific procedure for when students need to leave the classroom?
  • How should students submit homework assignments or projects?
  • What kind of policies do students need to know about using technology in your class?

While it’s comforting to hear other teacher’s ideas for these questions, ultimately, this is a very personal list. For a quick win, develop your own habit of reaching out to parents, especially to share good news. I use Remind to stay in touch with students or parents. Bloomz also offers a tool that teachers can use for sending high-quality multimedia messages to parents, as well as managing class calendars, organizing volunteer sign-ups, and arranging parent-teacher conferences.

4. Choose tech tools.
As I mentioned above, it’s important to develop systems and processes for using technology. Some tech tools have a learning curve for teachers and students. Because of this, it is helpful to invest some time into getting students onboarded into these apps or tools earlier in the year.

Another benefit of choosing tech tools earlier in the year is that many tools offer high-quality baseline or pre-assessments. Two I like are No Red Ink and ThinkCERCA. They offer assessments that teachers can give both before instruction and later on in the year as a way to measure progress and plan future instructional needs.

5. Build a strong class culture.
Students of all ages need to feel comfortable and respected in order to learn. For older students, setting norms can happen through curriculum-based discussions and activities. In other words, teachers may simply start to teach and infuse culture-building processes into that teaching. Other teachers, especially for younger students, prefer to take a more direct approach to culture-building by using icebreakers.

To be honest, I hated doing icebreakers when I was a student because I was reserved and soft spoken. An awesome tool that helps to address this problem is Lightspeed Redcat’s handheld microphones. Teachers can give these to students to amplify their voices. This simple change can improve the success of icebreakers by giving the activities the feel of a special event while removing students’ concern about not speaking loudly enough.

Most of these actions require investment. These activities and resources may take extra time to implement in the beginning of the year and you may feel pressured to skip it all and jump straight into your curriculum. But that would be a mistake. Because if you’re willing to take the time to lay a strong foundation in the first month, then the following nine months will go that much smoother.

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