Real teachers share inspiration and creative tips that will help turn your classroom into a unique learning space.
Back to School Checklist: Organizing for Success
Teachers offer tips and strategies for creating the right classroom environment and establishing class rules to start the school year right.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Designing Your Learning Environment
A successful classroom invites students to question and explore. Shannon Grieser says it helps to set up her elementary class in sections: "One for read-aloud time, one for the classroom library, one for science activities and hands-on learning, one for the students' belongings, etc." For secondary students, she recommends having specific areas where they know they can find assignments, see what's planned for the day, and get books for specific subjects. She says, "Having a place for everything and making them known to students will allow the environment to be functional and easy to control."
Organize your classroom in a way that is conducive to learning.
Keep learning tools such as pencils, paper, maps, etc. in easy-to-access places — and be sure that everything has a place to minimize clutter. Clear all walkways around the classroom so students can easily move around between activities. To plan the best layout, use the Class Set-Up Tool.
Determine appropriate lighting and temperature.
Spend a few days in your classroom before students arrive to adjust natural or electric lighting. Do you need to keep the window open for a breeze? If it's too cold, contact the facilities department right away. Check conditions in all areas of the room — from the door to the middle to the corners.
Give your space personality as well as structure.
Extras like the colors on the bulletin board, posters, plants, and class pets should reflect both your personality and your teaching style.
Follow practical safety precautions.
Run through these essentials before school starts each day to ensure that you provide a comfortable, secure environment:
- Students' desks are arranged so that you can always clearly see each one.
- All sharp art supplies and materials are stored out of reach.
- Instructions for emergency procedures (like fire drills or blackouts) are posted.
- All exits are clear (doors and windows).
- There are no cords, loose rugs, or supplies on the floors that students could trip over.
"I always take into consideration the atmosphere of my classroom environment," says Terry Garfinkel, "which I find is adjusted when the students come in and make it their own space." Once you determine how the class best absorbs lessons as a whole, you can add touches that generate excitement for learning.
In her three decades of teaching, Terry Garfinkel has found it valuable to let students take part in creating class rules. She believes students are more apt to understand and respect limitations if they have a role in setting them. Garfinkel does always insist on one guideline, though: "My only rule, which I say right off the bat, is that I won't tolerate anyone hurting others' feelings," she explains. That rule includes having students respect her feelings as well as their peers.
Gather suggestions from students, then use these steps to successfully implement your class rules.
Select a few meaningful rules for success.
Keep it short. Your final rules list should include only the most important points. This will keep students from feeling overwhelmed and better enable them to remember all the guidelines. For instance, Grieser's own rules include:
- Respect all students, the teacher, and their belongings. For younger students, this rule can be written as: "Keep your hands and feet to yourself," "Do not name call," "No hitting," "Treat others as you want to be treated," etc.
- Come to class prepared.
- Raise your hand to participate.
- Listen while others are speaking.
Clearly state how rules will be enforced.
Discuss what happens when a student breaks a rule — hopefully you won't have to hand out punishments often, but when you do, implement them with fairness and consistency. For example, students will lose points for not handling in an assignment on time.
Post class rules in a place where all students can see them.
Have students create artwork that decorates the classroom with the rules or have them make illustrations of the regulations being followed.
Get the word out to parents.
Send home a copy of the guidelines.
Remember that it takes time to get used to new rules.
Garfinkel always issues a practical reminder to parents, student teachers, and peers: "It takes six weeks for a year to solidify," she says. After that, students should be aware of what behavior you expect from them day to day. Construct a "Bill of Rights" lesson to officially set your new class rules.
Forming a Solid Foundation for Communication with Parents
Building mutual trust with class parents from the start helps provide students with a strong foundation for learning throughout the year. Whether you send a letter to parents, call them before school starts, or meet them in person, make contact early and plan to follow up with them throughout the year
Mail home a list of your goals.
Ask your school administrator for a parent directory of incoming students so you can send each one a letter. In it, provide some professional background information about yourself and what you hope to accomplish as an educator this year.
Meet face to face.
Schedule a conference with parents before school starts or very early in the school year to learn what you need to know about their child. Garfinkel's class parents are given a list that asks questions about a student's personal, emotional, social, physical, and academic strengths and weaknesses. She explains, "Together, we come up with a list of goals for the year. That document is referred to for the year, and changes are made and suggestions are added."
Encourage classroom visits.
Invite parents not only to conferences and visitation days, but also offer them the opportunity to join your class on a regular school day. Provide information for how they can schedule one of these visits.
Give regular updates on progress throughout the year. Instead of just sending home a report card that relays that a student gets an "A" in reading, write specifics: "Timothy has improved his reading skills by leaps and bounds. Not only did he complete his first beginner chapter book, but he has also mastered spelling ten words that gave him trouble earlier this year."
Accommodating All Students
"Teachers and students must form a relationship that is both trusting and comfortable," says Grieser. "This is the foundation for creating a classroom in which students feel safe, have fun, and learn a great deal." Accept individualities from the get-go and use them to your advantage. When you identify the unique learning needs of each child in your classroom, you take an active role in helping them reach potential. Here are the best ways to provide students with the opportunity to learn from the moment they step into your classroom.
Engage students in active learning.
"I want the students to feel connected and find the joy of learning the lesson," says Garfinkel. Don't be afraid to be silly to keep their attention, she advises. "I do so many crazy things so they are excited. You have to act and turn on!"
Watch and learn.
When you keep an eye on what your students are doing during quiet work time, you are more likely to catch where they are making mistakes or getting flustered. Resist the urge to grade assignments during these times; instead, walk around the classroom to gauge if they comprehend the lesson. If a student looks like he is struggling, offer quiet encouragement — don't draw attention.
Support students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP).
Realize that you may need to speak slower, more clearly, and with less complex terms so that students with limited English can comprehend instructions. Use visual materials like overhead projectors to supplement the lesson whenever possible. Work on pronunciation and vocabulary after school, never in the middle of a lesson or during a verbal response.
Be sensitive to learning disabilities.
Structure curriculum that will allow a student with special needs to progress under your watch. Talk with parents about the best strategies for learning in the classroom and at home. For instance, a struggling reader can listen to an audio book while he reads along with the text. This makes it possible for him to build vocabulary and comprehension skills while keeping up with his peers. See more tips about teaching students with special needs.
Believe in your students.
Encourage them when they are doing their best work. "Every child, no matter his color, ability, body, or mind, can and should learn," maintains Garfinkel.
Setting a Plan for Success From Day One
"My expectations are quite simple," Garfinkel says of the first day. "I want to allow my students to feel a sense of comfort, structure, and fun! I always plan a time for drama, through role-playing, using puppets, or anything to take the attention away from them." Use these strategies to preserve the comfortable atmosphere you set at the start of the year.
Get to know each other.
"When children come to school on that first day they are very nervous, not only because they are meeting new teachers and classes for the first time, but for most, they are reuniting with friends they haven't seen all summer, trying to make new friends, or maybe even a combination of both," reminds Grieser. "We need to understand students' nerves and spend the first day getting to know one another."
Settle in with a story.
"I am very interested in making sure students know that we have something in common and that nervousness becomes comfort in a short amount of time," Garfinkel shares. "I always tell a story from a book about a shy little girl and this usually helps those butterflies from the night before."
Go around the classroom in a circle and ask introductory questions. Find out about your students' favorite school subjects, books, pets, and hobbies. When their nerves settle, this helps truly assess what kinds of learners you have in your class. Grieser has a trick for getting students more comfortable: "I answer the same questions my students answer, but I'm also sure to share something that doesn't connect me to school to show that I'm just like them." Check out our back-to-school teaching ideas.
Make lessons fun and active.
Garfinkel believes that lots of movement and collaborative activities are the best ways to get students focused on school. Set aside time for creative writing and play music for inspiration, review math with a fun game, and of course, read aloud. You can also have students act out a story as you read.
Keep things in perspective.
"I never really find out if the first day is a success until the end of the year," says Garfinkel. "That's when I hear all the things that the students have enjoyed, and they mention the beginning of the year as a high point." Get feedback at the end of your school year and remember to use it when planning for back to school. If you are a first year teacher, ask a colleague who taught your grade the year before for advice on what worked for them.
Promoting Collaboration Between Colleagues
Faculty members are a great support system. Establishing a culture of professionalism, respect, and collaboration can help you all attain greater success. "A teacher is, should be, and wants to be a learner at all times," affirms Garfinkel. "That is what keeps the relationships with other professionals meaningful." Follow these tips to build your peer system.
New teachers can use the start of the school year as an opportunity to get to know faculty members. Meet with the teachers within the department or grade and seek out the librarians and other staff members. Ask colleagues questions about the school: What are the policies on parent involvement? What kind of after school programs are there? Are there professional development groups in the district?
Be part of a support structure.
Longtime faculty members should also make an effort to reach out to veteran teachers and new staff. Volunteer to show a new teacher the school grounds or offer to help an older teacher hang banners in her classroom. Organize a social or athletic club among faculty to promote friendly as well as professional interaction.
Your teaching style may differ from other teachers at your school — and that's good! Work with a colleague whose specialty is something different than your own to create a rich, cross-curricular lesson such as studying the history of Ancient Greece through art. The possibilities are endless. The key is to keep an open mind!
Don't forget about the office, the cafeteria, and the janitorial staff.
Be a friendly face to supporting players who keep the school running smoothly. It helps, too, to know how things run behind the scenes in case you need supplies or special assistance.
Attaining Personal and Professional Development
One of the most important steps to being a consistently good teacher is to regularly re-evaluate why you first become an educator and how what you do rewards students and yourself. The next step is to look for ways to sharpen skills, such as seizing the opportunities below.
Test out teaching strategies based on student feedback.
Changing the lesson plans or daily routines you've used for years may be difficult, but being open to change and revising your strategies based on students' suggestions can lead to a richer experience all around.
Keep a professional portfolio.
Use a high-quality binder or portfolio to display your resume, a short summary of your teaching philosophy, successful activities you've used with students, lesson plans, and favorite projects. Each year, add any formal evaluations. Also include a copy of your certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. If you haven't received this, find out more about how to earn your certification.
Start the new year with back-to-school lesson plans, book lists, printables, and learning activities for all grades.