During my first years teaching, I struggled to learn the many tricks and strategies to run a classroom effectively. I wasted hours trying out new ideas and what I thought were creative systems until I discovered what worked. But rookie teachers don’t have to learn things the hard way. Use these tips as a starting point to develop your own classroom strategies. Talk with your colleagues about what works for them and, most important, what doesn’t, and keep the conversation going.
1 | Stash a set of spare clothes.
What do you do when, in the middle of that fabulous art project, a bottle of glue spills all over your leg? Teach the rest of the day with your pant legs stuck together? No way! Ask a colleague to cover your class for a few minutes, grab the spare clothes you packed away in your closet for just this reason, and run to the teachers’ lounge to change. No one works well when uncomfortable. If you’re covered in glue, paint, or puke, you want to be able to change out of those soiled clothes and move on with your day.
2 | Build your bulletin board to last.
Every school has its own requirements for bulletin boards. Some principals want them changed every month, some bimonthly, and a few, it seems, want them reworked every week to resemble an exhibit at the Louvre. Whichever it is, you’ll likely need to adhere a background to the bulletin board before you post your students’ work. Instead of using paper as the background, which you’ll have to replace every two to three weeks, find a large piece of fabric. Not only will the fabric look better than paper, it will last for several months, saving you the time and energy you would’ve spent redoing it every few weeks.
3 | Appoint line lieutenants.
Whoever said, “Always walk at the front of the line!” never bothered to look behind them. Teachers leading their class often have no clue what is happening behind them, or even if anyone is following! Choose two line leaders and tell them to stop every 10 to 20 feet, at physical landmarks like parking meters, trees, or classroom doors. As they lead their classmates to the destination you’ve indicated, you’ll have the freedom to walk up and down the line, talking with kids and making sure everyone is on task.
4 | Don’t buy a new rug!
Many a new teacher has been lured into buying an expensive classroom rug. But before doing so, consider who’s paying for it. That’s right: you. If you need a rug, find a local carpet store and tell them you’re a teacher and the size you need. If they have a remnant in good shape, they’ll likely let you have it. You’d be surprised how willing many businesses are to help out local teachers. Or buy a bunch of inexpensive bath mats for kids to sit on—they can be easily washed or replaced as the year progresses.
5 | Create opportunities for parents.
Not all parents can commit to an ongoing role in the classroom (e.g., as parent liaison) or even to a daylong field trip. Diversify the ways parents can participate and offer opportunities that pose a minimal or one-time commitment, such as a neighborhood walk, helping with dismissal, or organizing class materials in the morning. How about a midday 30-minute art project? Make parents feel welcome and let them know they possess a skill that is useful to you and the class. This will encourage more participation, and soon you’ll be telling families you don’t have room on the next field trip.
6 | Give students time to brainstorm.
It can be disheartening to see the same hands raised over and over again. And it’s frustrating for the kids who feel they don’t have a chance to gather their thoughts before you call on the first student to raise his or her hand. When you ask a question, give your students some time to “turn and talk” to a neighbor so they can brainstorm together. Or have kids write down their ideas on clipboards. This encourages everyone to partake in the discussion.
7 | Never share bad news alone.
Whether you’re a veteran of the classroom or it’s your first year, if you have potentially upsetting news to share with a family, such as recommending that a child be evaluated for a learning challenge or reporting disruptive or violent behavior at school, it’s always wise to bring someone with you to the meeting to bear witness to the conversation. It can be a member of the school administration, a guidance counselor, a school psychologist, or a fellow teacher. The witness can back you up and help explain the issue if you become flustered.
8 | Create good traffic patterns.
I’ve seen new teachers spend hours carefully setting up their classroom, without considering that there will be 30 kids rushing around the limited space. After two weeks, they inevitably end up reorganizing the entire room.
When setting up your classroom, keep one thing in mind: traffic patterns. Whether you use desks or tables and cubbies, or a mix of both, keep the traffic plan simple and straightforward. Kids need to be able to move around—traffic jams are going to slow transitions to a crawl and create problems in your carefully planned day. First, think about the physical flow of students through the room. Once you’ve got that figured out, you can plan all the other details, such as the class library and the shelves holding manipulatives and supplies.
9 | Keep your principal happy.
Principals are like battlefield generals, making countless split-second decisions throughout the day, so the last thing they want to hear is one more problem. One way to help your principal get through the day is by simply sharing some good news rather than asking for something. Leave a note or, if you see her in the hallway or office, tell her about something that went really well in your class or a student who made a breakthrough. Don’t expect a response, but it’s likely she’ll take note of it. It will undoubtedly remind her, in the midst of multiple disasters, why she does the job.
10 | Collect many mentors.
Most likely you’ll be assigned a mentor in your first year of teaching. This veteran teacher is there to help you throughout the year, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find other people who can guide you as you make your way. During my first year, in addition to my assigned mentor, I found a couple of mentors on my own, both in their third year of teaching; I found it easier to relate to them since they were still relatively new.
Instead of my simply asking them questions, we decided to team-teach. One teamed with me two mornings a week for language arts and math, and I teamed up with the other once a week for art and physical education. This was a far more productive approach than peppering them with questions. I was able to learn from watching them teach, and they were able to provide me with pointers when I taught.
If you’re not up for team teaching yet, you can ask a mentor to come to your classroom to watch you teach. This is a very direct way to receive feedback that you can put into action right away. Whoever your mentor is, it needs to be someone you feel connected to, want to learn from, and, most important, trust.
Otis Kriegel, M.S. Ed., is a veteran elementary teacher, an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Steinhardt School, a lecturer at Bank Street College of Education, and the author of Everything a New Elementary School Teacher Really Needs to Know (But Didn’t Learn in College). He has conducted his workshop “How to Survive Your First Years Teaching” for hundreds of student teachers and experienced educators.
Image: Illustrations by Andy Ward