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Five Easy Steps for Getting Your School Year Off to a Successful Start

By Genia Connell on August 6, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Every year when the calendar flips from July to August, I suddenly feel myself getting just a little bit nervous. I begin worrying that I’m missing a huge sale on markers or glue sticks somewhere. Buying those very first school supplies always makes me smile, because, truthfully, I haven’t changed much since I was in the 3rd grade. I still love getting ready to go back to school!

From years of experience I know teaching isn’t just about what I do in the classroom from September until June. The key to a successful year involves a great deal of planning well before the first bell rings. This week I’m sharing the five most important things I do in order to get off to a successful and organized start each year.


Reach Out to Parents and Students Before the Year Begins

Getting to know my students can take longer than I like at the beginning of the year. Therefore, shortly before school starts, I prepare separate welcome letters for all my students and their parents. After introducing myself and giving them an idea of what to expect in the upcoming year, I ask parents to respond in writing with information about their child’s interests, learning styles, strengths and challenges, along with anything else they think I should know in order to create an effective learning environment for their child. The responses are usually honest and perceptive and always heartfelt. Each letter gets a personal response from me which helps foster a friendly relationship with the family early on.

The student letter includes a mini homework assignment with detailed instructions on how to write a letter back to me. I also ask each student to bring in a favorite picture of themselves that we use in different ways throughout the year. These first pieces of student writing provide a great window into the thoughts of the students coming my way. They also let me see whose parents do their homework for them!

While I start with the same basic letter, I personalize it as much as possible, especially if I know the family or the student. Making a connection early is vital for me and establishes with parents how important open lines of communication are to a successful year.  You can adapt my letter to fit your grade level and customize it with contact information or simply use it as a starting point for your own letters. I always file the letters away and enjoy pulling them out throughout the year as reminders of how much my boys and girls are learning, and how insightful their parents were. 


Get Organized With an All-in-One Binder 

After the letters are sent, gettingi myself organized is next on the agenda. Every year I put together a single binder that holds nearly everything I need. I used to carry a lesson plan book, grade book, and folders for this and that. Because I am on a never-ending quest to make my life easier, I discovered that putting everything together in one place is a great time-saver.  Now at the end of the day, I only have to grab my binder before I walk out the door, which leaves me plenty of time to look for my car keys!

To put together my organizer, I print divider pages and put them into a sturdy three-ring binder with a plastic overlay. This year I am using new polka dot dividers, but I’ve also included last year’s blue and green dividers if you prefer that style. The cover sheet goes under the plastic, and I laminate the other sheets before adding them to the binder. The order of the pages is definitely your personal preference. The last pages of the binder pack include half sheets and smaller cards. The half sheets make great notes to send home throughout the year, and the smaller size frames work well as labels, name tags, or mini-notes for the kids.

The fun part is filling up the binder. I’ve included some of the files I use if you would like to try them too. Look for more to come as the year progresses. Of course you will have to play around with my forms to make them suit your style and your class, but I hope you find them as helpful to your organization as I do. Below are some binder fillers to start the year:


Prepare for a Substitute Teacher Before You Need One

Is there anything worse than coming back after you’ve been out of the classroom and having your class greet you with, “You won’t believe what happened yesterday!” When you leave your children in someone else's hands, you want that person to be well prepared so the day goes smoothly and successfully. Being organized for a guest teacher is vital to your students' ability to learn in your absence.  When I have to be out of the classroom, I leave a comprehensive folder on my desk, along with my plans, to hopefully answer every question the substitute may have, or at the very least direct her to someone who can. You never know when you may unexpectedly be absent and being well prepared can certainly help avoid those next-day horror stories.


Take Away the First Day Jitters

When I was in elementary school I could hardly wait to get to school on the first day. I realize, however, that for some students the transition to a new grade can be scary. They’re not thinking about the joys of learning on day one, they are wondering who is in their class and if their teacher is going to be nice. Because I want my students to feel happy, safe and comfortable from the first moment they enter the room, I always follow a few simple guidelines on the first day of school. Much of what I do during the first few days can definitely be attributed to the wisdom of teacher and author Harry Wong, whom I heard speak at a reading conference years ago. His book, The First Days of School, should be on every teacher’s must read-list.



Greet your students before school on the first day

Our students line up outside in front of the building so I always head out there about ten minutes before the bell rings to meet and greet my new class. I introduce myself to each student in the line and welcome them. A big smile, a few kind words and a handshake or hug from the new teacher goes a long way in dispelling anxiety. 


Label your classroom clearly with your name and grade level.

In our building, moving to 3rd grade means going to a completely different side of the school. Every year on the first day I see it: a new 3rd-grader walking down the hallway, eyes darting left and right, not quite sure if they should pick the door on the left or take what's behind door number two on the right. Having a clearly labeled door takes away the fear many students have of walking into the wrong classroom on the first day of school. Making sure my students know they are in the right place takes away a lot of those first day jitters.


Assign seats on the first day.

Before the start of school I place a name tag on every desk. When students arrive, I ask them to hang up their backpacks and find their seats. Having a seat assigned automatically takes away any worries a student might have about where or by whom they should sit. I normally have students sit in the same spot for a couple of days, which gives me a pretty good idea of personalities, and who should or shouldn’t sit by each other. It’s at that point the name tags get taped to the desks permanently, and I make my first real seating chart.


Put them to work right away.

On every desk there is a sharpened pencil along with a word search titled "Who is in Room 14?" For some reason on the first day, students seem to wander in over an extended period of time. The boys and girls who are there keep busy solving the puzzle and excitedly discovering who their classmates will be this year. I use Puzzlemaker to create my word search, then copy and paste my puzzle to a Word document so I can change the puzzle size and the fonts.

The second piece of work they do is titled "My First Day of 3rd Grade." Students fill these worksheets out and then table share what they wrote. This activity is a quick way to visually assess their writing abilities and see if they know basic information like their address and a phone number where they can reach a parent or guardian. I collect and file these papers, and the next time they see them is on the last day of school when they get passed back right after they finish a similar sheet, "The Last Day of 3rd Grade." Students absolutely love seeing how they wrote nine months earlier.


Provide an icebreaker.

Getting students out of their seats and purposefully talking to each other is a great way for new classmates to make connections.  One fun icebreaker I made is called "Autographs, Please!" It’s filled with activities that students may have done over vacation. Students try to talk with every member of the class, including me, in order to get a different signature in each box.

Before this icebreaker begins, we discuss conversation skills such as introducing yourself, making eye contact and responding to a question. Every year, this activity seems to have an immediate impact on the classroom environment as students laugh and chat with each other in their quest to fill their sheet. These short conversations are often the start of new friendships in our room.


Let them know what your class will be like.

For the past ten years or so I have made treat bags for my students to give to them on the first day of school. As soon as they walk in the room students see the bags tagged with their names and the words "3rd Grade Survival Kit." Excitement builds through the day and they can hardly wait to find out what is inside. Each bag is filled with everyday items that symbolize some aspect of our year. Shortly before going home, we take all of the items out of our bags one by one and discuss their meaning. The items I have chosen for the bag let the students know they are in an encouraging environment where we will all look out for each other and where effort is expected and rewarded.


Send a mini-newsletter home on the first day of school.

Students aren’t the only ones with fears on the first day of school, and a mini-newsletter can do a lot to help parents know you will keep them in the loop throughout the year. This note lets parents know when our specials are, what time lunch is, our snack policy, etc. I also ask them to send me their e-mail information so I can quickly switch over to electronic communication.

Hopefully some of these ideas will be helpful to you in your classroom as you start a new year. I find putting a little extra time and effort in at the beginning saves me a lot of time as the year goes on. Now, as long as I have been teaching, I am constantly looking for something fresh and better to try. I hope you’ll share a few of your ideas on how you start your year in the comment section, so I can learn from you! Next week I will be writing about books I use to get my school year started. What are your favorites? 



Comments (27)

I am sooooo excited about this article and all of the links and resources on it. I have been looking for these items since the school year started in August...found it. Thank You!!!!

I wish I saw this email before the start of the school year .But I will refer to it as needed. Also, I sure will use it next year. Thank you very much for sharing!

Thanks so much for sharing the binder. You are so talented with technology!! You have helped me so much with your ideas.

Thanks so much for your comment. Wishing you a wonderful start to your school year!

Hi Genia,
Thank you so much for your post. You are a lifesaver-literally! School starts tomorrow for the kids and I had been so caught up in meetings and setting up my room that I had no time to plan some fancy stuff for my kids. I read your post like 7.30 pm and went to Wal-Mart to purchase all the stuff. By 10.30 pm, the survival kits for my third graders are ready, and I prepared the puzzle for them to start working on as soon as they come into my room. Thanks again for sharing, and most of all for giving your resources free.

Hi Kemi,

You just made my day! I'm so happy these resources were able to help you get your year started. Best wishes to you for a successful school year! Genia

I absolutely love your ideas! I have very active parents at my school and your resources are truly wonderful and will blow them out of the water. Thank you for your ideas and sharing these resources! So excited to be learning from a great!

I love the binder covers! I have to say I'm technically challenged and wanted to print yours just as they were; however, the school year is 2012-2013 on the both sets. Could you tell me how to change the year?
Thank you!

When cleaning out my basement a few years ago, I came across a box of old and leftover wallpaper. I took it to school and used it to cover all my bulletin boards. Never have to take it down, doesn't fade, a great way to save on paper, and it's easy!

Hi Genia,
After 4 long years of endless applications and interviews I finally, TODAY, landed my first classroom teaching gig! Your comprehensive resources have simplified and streamlined my own thinking and I am truly grateful! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Congratulations Genevieve! Good luck on getting everything ready and get ready for the ride of a lifetime. Scholastic has wonderful resources for teachers.

Thank you. I have found this to be very helpful in making sure I am ready for another year.

Thank you so much for the ideas and tips for starting out a fresh new school year. I am excited to start a binder!

So happy you found the tips helpful! Wishing you a wonderful start to your school year!

Thank you so much for sharing. I am a 4th year special education teacher, but this will be my 1st year to have my own classroom. I am so happy I found you on Scholastic. I have been searching for a fun way to get to know my students and to communicate to parents. I love your ideas. I have already saved and adapted many of the downloads.

Hi Sue!

Thanks so much for your comments and best of luck to you this year in the classroom! Check back in a few weeks for brand new tips and ideas from me and all the other Top Teaching bloggers.

Take care and have a great start to your year! Genia

Great article. Thank you for the binder covers!!

Thanks, and happy you could use them! ~G

I have been teaching for almost 15 years, but in Kindergarten. I'm so glad to have come across your blog...awesome!!!!! So many wonderful ideas and activities! Wow!!!!!!! Thanks so much.

Thanks for your kind words, Robin! Genia

I can't say how excited I am about all that you've put here. I am in my third year at UCF and you are employing everything that I have learned. It's great seeing it here. Thank you for all the resources. I am putting them all into my Future Teacher Box. I've started collecting items that I will need for my classroom, and this has to be the most useful thus far.

I can't thank you enough! :D

Thanks for your comment Jessica! I'm so glad some of my ideas are going into your Future Teacher Box. Best wishes on your journey to becoming a teacher! ~Genia

Thanks for some great ideas!

Thanks for sharing all of your tips! I'll be back for more ideas!

I'm so glad you like the binder covers. I hope you find them as useful as I do! ~Genia

Love the binder covers! Terrific ideas for a successful start of the year. Thanks for your hard work.

Great article. Thank you for the binder covers!

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