From the opening bell on, nine teachers share their best secrets.
Beeman Elementary School, New Haven, VT
Grade(s) I teach: 5/6 multi-age
Years taught: 5
Type of school: Small, rural school (162 students)
The first few weeks: I spend a lot of time on building classroom community, even more than I do on academics. It pays off in the end because if the kids learn how to work well together, you are not constantly fighting social issues.
Building community: I use a lot of games, such as those from Project Adventure (www.pa.org). They are cooperative, group-building, "no loser" types of games. Fun, but with a hidden agenda. One of my favorites is called Wizards and Gelflings. It's basically an imaginative form of tag in which the Gelflings have to escape the Wizards and save their fellow Gelflings.
Setting rules: We come up with a classroom contract. First we brainstorm answers to the question: "What does this classroom need in order for us to be successful learners?" One rule I always try to include is "Leave a place better than you found it." That applies to mental as well as physical "places." For example, don't just come into a conversation and say that someone is wrong, tell him or her why you think so; find a solution together.
Best classroom management tip: Sometimes you have to be like a kid to understand kids, especially upper-elementary. In order to hold them, you need to know how to be one of them at times. To play and have fun. Some teachers forget that. But you can still teach strong learning values at the same time. I think you can do both.
Why I became a teacher: I went to and worked at a children's summer camp in Freedom, NH, called Cragged Mountain Farm. Most of the staff there were teachers, and I wanted to be able to teach and return to this camp every summer!
PS 126, New York, NY
Grade(s) I teach: 1
Years taught: 12
Type of school: Urban; mostly minority students
Setting up the classroom: In setting up the room, there's nothing I do that doesn't have a purpose! My room is very sparse, for safety, and so I can see everything that goes on. I also set up my supplies so that I don't have to break the mood while I'm teaching. I have a kit of supplies next to my stool and easel on the rug. If I need them, I can reach for them without having to get up and walk across the room.
Teaching kids how to navigate the classroom: On the first full day of school, I take the children on a tour of the classroom, starting at the door. They line up and I introduce every area. I also label every section. This helps the children to be independent. I remind them over the first weeks: "Who can point to where that is? Does anyone remember where the math supplies are stored?" and so on.
Kids' supplies: I try to eliminate opportunities for strife. For example, the children can only use plain yellow pencils. They can't bring in a special Winnie-the-Pooh pencil. There's nothing to fight over that way.
Best classroom management tip: Consistency, in your language and where you place things in the classroom. Demonstrate to children that you mean what you say. Show them, rather than tell them. Whatever you do, make sure that you model it for them.
Why I became a teacher: I always played teacher when I was a kid, instead of doctor or lawyer. I prefer working with children. No two kids are the same, and no kid is even the same day to day. It's fascinating.
Hartly Elementary, Dover, DE
Grade(s) I teach: 3 (currently on a break)
Years taught: 10
Type of school: Small, rural school in a farming community
Setting up rules and routines: I put kids on a color system using Lee Cantor's pocket chart: Blue, good day. Green, first warning. Yellow, lose recess. Orange, lose recess and parent contacted. Red, lose recess, parent contacted, see principal. I also add a Gold Card to the chart for "Golden Behavior." If they keep their gold card until the end of month or year, they get a reward.
Setting up the classroom: I want the room to be inviting and the environment to be welcoming. I have aquariums, plants, throw pillows and rugs, and so on. I also play soft music in the background. It's usually classical, but as a reward kids can pick a CD that I have already listened to and previewed. I find this builds relaxation, attentiveness, and a line of respect.
Best classroom management tip: I try to treat my children as individuals. For example, I let them eat healthy snacks (such as carrot sticks and pretzels) and drink water during the day as they need to. Adults do that, yet we expect children not to?
Why I became a teacher: I substitute-taught in special education in Los Angeles. Then I subbed in an inner-city classroom in LA. It was the challenge of my life. It made me grow. I was hooked. This had been my calling and I just didn't know it.
Mayflower Mill Elementary, Lafayette, IN
Grade(s) I teach: 4/5 gifted and talented
Years taught: 10
Type of school: Medium-sized rural school
An effective system of classroom management: I use something called "Mini Economy." At the beginning of school, my kids have to fill out a job application with real references-I tell them all the jobs and what each pays. Each pays $5-$8 a day in what I call "Boyd Bucks." The jobs with more responsibilities pay more. The kids have to weigh responsibilities versus the salary and consider if this is a job they can handle. The kids earn their salaries each week and can use the Boyd Bucks to buy small trinkets. If their homework is late or they neglect to follow a rule, they must pay a fine. I also teach them about saving money. At the end of the year, local businesses will donate gift certificates that the kids can bid on with their Boyd Bucks.
Tech solutions for classroom management: I set up an Excel grid so that my homework checkers have a system for recording what's due, what's missing, etc. There are blank spaces to record assignments and to check off when something is turned in. I also use Excel to make a table with all the kids' names down the left-hand column. Across the top there are four big boxes. The question in the first box might be: "What's your favorite subject?" The other three boxes are blank.
As a class, we generate a list of questions to put in the boxes. The kids choose three, and use them to survey the rest of the class. One of their questions was: "Have you flown in a plane?" We graph and chart the results and make a bulletin board and post it outside the classroom.
Setting up rules and routines: A lot of the rules are taken care of with their jobs through the Mini Economy system. I have a Chair Person who arranges the chairs; I have an Environmentalist who arranges the books on the shelves. Little things like that. Once I explain how you're going to pay a fine if these things aren't done, a lot of the problems take care of themselves.
Why I became a teacher: I idolized my own teachers. I come from a small town, and these weren't teachers making the front pages. They were just nice people. I saw how they helped kids and how they spent their days, and that's what I wanted.
Pleasant Hill Elementary, Topeka, KS
Grade(s) I teach: 6
Years taught: 23
Type of school: Suburban/rural, 300 students
A great first-day activity: I use an activity from Instructor that I got 23 years ago called "What's Your Bag?" The kids fill a lunch sack with items and introduce themselves in a "show and tell" format. I learn about their interests and their passions. If I know they have a certain passion, I let them becomes the expert on that during the year. We build mutual respect.
Managing technology use: I let my students take the lead on technology. Some-times it's the kid who doesn't excel at sports, or may not be looked up to in other ways. This empowers them and gives them a moment to shine. I rely on these kids a lot.
Best classroom management tip: Remember that your room is a safe haven for many children—that might be the only positive thing they have all day. We need to create situations where kids are feeling successes, big or small.
Why I became a teacher: Norma Sue Jenkins, my second-grade teacher. I have always written to her. She made learning fun. Being a teacher and working with kids sounded like a good thing.
El Dorado Elementary, San Antonio, TX
Grade(s) I teach: 2
Years taught: 6
Type of school: Urban, approximately 590 students
Starting the first day: I pack a goodie bag for each child with a pencil, eraser, bookmark, and a poem. I also include a chocolate hug so they can remind me to give them a hug each day, a pack of Smarties to remind them that they will learn a lot, a sticker to remind them that we are a family and will stick together, and a star to remind them that they are all stars.
A first-day emphasis: I emphasize to students how organizing their things will be an expectation throughout the year. This will make things flow easier. The second most important thing I do is to establish a family atmosphere in my class.
Moving around the school: We practice lining up and walking in the hallways to the cafeteria, gym, music, library, and restrooms. We practice our routes and where I expect the line leader to stop, so I have time to walk up and down and monitor all along the line. After the initial practice, all I have to say to the line leader is "walk to the first stop or second stop."
Best classroom management tip: Organization! Everything from paperwork to closets to student desks. Also, delegating class jobs to students so they take responsibility for how their classroom runs. I change student jobs weekly. Students are paid with paper money and are able to buy things from my class store, such as erasers, pencils, bookmarks, stickers, and extra computer time. This is a great classroom incentive.
Why I became a teacher: My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Rocha. She was a fantastic teacher who left a great impression on me for life.
Shannondale Elementary, Knoxville, TN
Grade(s) I teach: 2
Years taught: 1
Type of school: Suburban, 300+ students
Starting the first day: I greet each child at the door with a handshake and say "Welcome, this is our room." This makes them feel part of everything. The first day of school can be very scary for primary-age children, so I want to make them feel more comfortable. In the summer, I send a postcard out that says something like: "You're getting ready to be in the best second-grade class ever!"
Setting up rules: We make the rules together on the first day. I don't call them rules, however; I call them procedures. If kids don't follow the procedures I don't put their names on the board. No one needs to see that. I use a behavior notebook with a form for the child to fill out. A question might be "What life skills should I have used in this situation?" Just having kids sit out doesn't do much good; this technique gets them thinking and writing.
Best classroom management tip: If you have a spot for everything in the classroom, and you go over it carefully during the first week, it's really easy for kids to find everything and follow routines.
Why I became a teacher: I was working with abused children as a social worker, going into classrooms. I enjoyed it so much I realized I wanted my own classroom, so I could also teach reading, writing, and more. In a sense, you have to be a social worker as a teacher.
Casis Elementary School, Austin, TX
Grade(s) I teach: 5
Years taught: 8
Type of school: Large, urban (600+ students)
Rules and routines: Students need to feel that they have a say in the rights and responsibilities that govern our classroom. On the first day of school we work together to come up with a list. Prior to posting these lists, everyone signs their name on the poster to show that they agree and support these tenets central to our classroom environment.
Modeling this student-centered democratic process demonstrates to each child that their voice is a valued and important component to our classroom.
Monitoring small groups: I have library book pockets on a bulletin board with each child's name printed on the outside of the pocket. Next, I cut and laminate red, orange, and green strips that fit into the pockets. I have students place one of the three colored strips into their pocket so I can take a quick status of the class. A child will select a green strip if they are doing well on the given assignment and are able to work independently; students who need some assistance from the teacher or a peer will use an orange strip; and students who need teacher assistance on the specific assignment will use a red strip.
Best classroom management tip: Begin each day with a class goal that you have arrived upon together. Write this goal down in the same area of the room each day so students have a constant visual reminder of the day's goal.
Why I became a teacher: As a child I had a difficult time mastering math concepts and as a result was often nervous and anxious in school. I finally found confidence in math through the help of a wonderful college professor. In turn, I want children to feel safe while inspiring them to take risks!
Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, Sherman Oaks, CA
Grade(s) I teach: 6
Years taught: 7
Type of school: Charter; many immigrant families and second-language learners
Preparing for the new school year: I do home visits before school even starts-I'll call future students and parents and set up appointments. I ask questions such as: "What are your expectations?" "What are your child's strengths? Weaknesses?" We touch base. It breaks down a lot of barriers. It takes a lot of my time, but it pays off. When the kids walk in the first day, they know you. A big part of teaching is the relationships you have with students.
Managing two or more languages: We have a very successful dual immersion bilingual program. The kids spend the first half of the day being taught in Spanish, the second half of the day in English. The next day I reverse the order: English first, then Spanish. I make sure to review what we did the day before in the other language, in case someone missed something.
Best classroom management tip: Get to know your students. Develop a positive relationship. Have high expectations and set them on day one, and make them clear to the students. I also think looping is a great system. I get to teach most kids for three years. We get to know each other really well.
Why I became a teacher: I grew up the youngest of six kids, all migrant workers. I worked in the fields as a kid, every summer since age nine, through college. My parents were a big inspiration-they pushed education on us, and made sure we didn't have to go through what they went through.
Jennifer O. Prescott is the managing editor of Instructor.