As a teacher, I see the beginning of a new school year like it is New Year’s Day. It is a chance to start fresh, set goals, and resolve to be the best teacher I can be. Unlike New Year resolutions that are often abandoned after three weeks, resolving to be the best version of yourself as an educator is a goal that can be achieved and maintained throughout the year. Why? Because starting strong as a teacher sets expectations and establishes routines that students can continue to follow throughout the year. It all hinges on the first three weeks of school.
Teachers always worry about the nitty-gritty details of teaching – the classroom appearance, the bulletin boards, and the desk arrangements. I never knew a teacher who didn’t come up early on their own time to be sure the classroom was in order. Once that was done, the teacher could focus on other things. I often felt like teachers saw the classroom as their home. It had to be unpacked before they could invite students inside.
While that may be true, the very first thing teachers can do to begin the year strong is to get to know their students as individuals. As soon as they get a class roster, teachers need to become aware of each child’s story. What is his or her background, special needs, strengths and interests? For students who return to the same campus, their cumulative record will tell you a lot of information. What is their first language? Are they in any special programs? Are they on free or reduced lunch? How was their attendance last year? Knowing that kind of information can help teachers establish a relationship with the children that will build trust.
In her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 6th edition (2019), Dr. Ruby Payne quotes James Comer’s lecture at Region IV (2001) that “No learning can take place without a relationship.” What teachers do is teach, but for students to learn, a connection of trust must be established that overcomes the obstacles of cultural differences, economic limitations, or social classes. If a student doesn’t like a teacher, very little learning will take place.
Once school starts, teachers can find out their student’s interests and personalities. If teachers really “see” their students, respecting their differences and their needs, students’ achievement soars. Carmona-Halty, Shaufeli, & Salanova, (2019) found that “rather than focusing exclusively on increasing academic knowledge and skills, teachers should also focus on the affective elements of high-quality relationships with their students; that is, getting along with them, caring about them and showing interest, and providing help and support… to achieve better academic performance.”
Teachers must become familiar with the district’s curriculum and standards to measure student achievement in that content area. Teaching reading means you are teaching certain skills, such as identifying the main idea, summarization, or characterization. In addition to the “what” of curriculum, teachers need to understand the “How” of teaching the content. At what level of thinking are the students expected to understand a skill or concept? If teachers review the state or district assessment and present the curriculum in a way that aligns with the thinking level on that assessment, students are more likely to demonstrate mastery when they are tested.
Have you ever taught with a team, such as four teachers who all teach sixth-grade English? If you met to review a benchmark assessment and were frustrated that, although most of your scores were similar, that on some skills, a superstar teacher’s students greatly outscored the others? Ever wonder what that teacher did differently? The probable answer is that he or she taught at the same level of depth and complexity as the assessment.
For example, students may know how to divide a number; but that skill is rarely tested with just a computation equation. Instead, an assessment question may be a word problem that requires division as well as a process skill or a second computation involving addition or subtraction. During the first three weeks of school, look ahead to the first assessment and front-load your lessons with content that allows students to practice the level of thinking that will be tested. It is sure-fire way to guarantee success.
High-level thinking is a process completed in the prefrontal cortex. In children from poverty, this part of the brain may be underdeveloped. Jensen (2009) explains that teachers should not use poverty as an excuse for not being able to learn. Instead, Jensen recommends a “growth mindset” to develop skills that have not yet been mastered. Modeling high-level thinking and providing plenty of guided practice from the first week of school will help children master these skills and demonstrate them on assessments later in the year.
“Start Strong; Finish Strong” can happen with relationships, curriculum, and time management. The most valuable resource teachers have is time. They must make every minute count. A. V. Cyril (2014) explained that time management is actually self-management. “The skills that people need to manage others are the same skills that are required to manage themselves, namely, the ability to plan, organize, direct and control.” Teachers who plan regularly reflect on what works and adjust accordingly from the first week of school experience greater academic success.
From the first week of school, teachers must plan based on what students have learned and determine which students need either remediation or enrichment. Teachers who plan well report less emotional stress, being able to cover more curriculum because remediation was not needed as often, and a sense of efficacy. Sahito and Vaisanen (2017) concluded that teachers who had job satisfaction and motivation “spend their time, set priorities, plan, organize their activities, schedule their assignments, delegate their time and work, stop procrastinating, minimize and manage external time wasters, focus on one task at a time and avoid multi-tasking and feel positive to reduce stress and stay healthy.”
Are you ready to have your best school yet? Make the commitment to develop relationships with your students, understand the depth and complexity that is required of your content area’s assessments, and improve your time management by purposeful planning. Have a great year!
Carmona-Halty, M., Shaufeli, W. M., & Salanova, N. (2019). Good Relationships, Good Performance: The Mediating Role of Psychological Capital – A Three-Wave Study Among Students. 10, 306. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00306
Cyril, A. V. (2014-2015). Time Management and Academic Achievement in Higher Education Students. i-manager’s Journal on School Educational Technology, 10(3), 38-43. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1097402.pdf
Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Payne, R. K. (2019). A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach (6th ed.). Highlands, TX: aha! Process.
Shahito, J., & Vaisanen, P. (2017). Effect of Time Management on the Job Satisfaction and Motivation of Teacher Educators: A Narrative Analysis. International Journal of Higher Education, 6(2), 213-224. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1140572.pdf