The opening of the new school year brings with it loads of excitement, drama and, yes problems. If you're a brand-new teacher, outright terror may be an additional factor with which to contend. As a teacher of 35 years, I've developed a checklist of actions you can take to head off or alleviate most of the spills, chills, and last-minute panics common to opening days. The excitement, I've found, never wanes and keeps me coming back year after year.

Before the Students Arrive

  • Before the term begins, get acquainted with school policies and practices, hours, attendance procedures, fire-drill regulations, and cafeteria rules. Schools often provide this information in a handbook. If not, take notes.
  • Visit the school and locate your room, the principal's office, nurse's office, cafeteria, gym, faculty lounge, media center, and so on. See if you can get your keys so that you can get into your room. If not, ask for the exact date on which they will be available.
  • Introduce yourself to the other teachers on your hall — they can be real lifesavers during the first few days of school. Take time to meet the librarian, nurse, cafeteria manager, custodians, and any other building staff.
  • After you have your keys, decorate and organize your room. Create displays to catch your students' eyes and spark their imaginations. Locate spots for each of your centers. As an elementary teacher, I set up centers for listening, art, books, science, manipulatives, and math.
  • If you have desks, arrange them in traditional rows until you get to know your students. Affix name cards with clear contact paper to students' desks.
  • Before school begins, mail each of your students a handwritten postcard. (Some districts will provide them.) Describe a specific activity that the children can look forward to, provide them with your room number, and end with a cheerful postscript. Sign each card with your name.
  • Purchase and prepare your materials, whether from the school supply room or your personal stock. Organize personal documents in color-coded or labeled folders and binders. Set aside sales slips for school-related purchases, because you can use them for deductions at tax time. I label cards for categories such as books, paper, and decorations, then file receipts by category.
  • Make a detailed schedule for the first few days. Your administration should give you a master schedule to follow, including curriculum time guidelines. Factor in time for restroom breaks, lunch, and recess.
  • Create lesson plans for the first few days, following the administration's curriculum guide for your grade. Plan at least twice as much material as you think you will use. Detailed lesson plans provide security, especially for new teachers. Writing everything down in files labeled by color will help you to keep track of your lessons.
  • Post a list of five basic rules on the wall. Experienced teachers often choose to involve students in the rule-making process, which engenders a sense of ownership and community. New teachers may feel more comfortable setting their own boundaries and may want to avoid enforcing rules that are far stricter than those they would have made up on their own! Keep your rules short and simple; for example, "Be seated quietly by 9:00 A.M."
  • Get to school early on the first day. You'll need the time, because traffic increases when the school year begins. You will also need time to ask any last-minute questions, rehearse your plans, and relax.
  • To handle the stress of the first day, I drink a cup of soothing herbal tea instead of my usual caffeinated beverage. I choose an outfit in a restful shade of green or blue. Before the students arrive, I read something inspiring, such as a poem, in a quiet place.


Opening Day!

  • When the children arrive at your door, greet them with a smile, a handshake, and a "Good morning." Encourage them to find their name tags on their desks and be seated.
  • Once all the children are seated, go over the rules.
  • Make the first day a day of learning. This will establish you as a professional. Don't waste precious time taking roll call while the children fidget and zone out. Simply mark them as present or absent while they work. Accomplish something tangible and constructive that a child can take home. I ask my students to draw and/or write about the best thing they did during the summer.
  • I take a photo of each child on the first day and put the pictures up on a bulletin board. I tag each photo with the subject's name, which helps me in class to attach names to faces. After dismantling the board in the spring, I send pictures home as Mother's Day gifts.
  • Parents can take up a lot of your free time unless you are clear about your availability. Send a note home during the first week to let them know when you're available and the best way to get in touch with you.
  • Find someone to lean on. Every teacher needs a colleague or a mentor to turn to for advice on classroom challenges. Your school may already have an established mentorship program; if not, seek someone out.
  • Take photographs throughout the year illustrating the activities taking place in your classroom centers, during outdoor time and special events, and so on. I find this not only useful in planning for the coming year, it also provides a record of things I have done, helps me recall how I set up the room, and makes great public-relations material for parents or visitors who ask what our day is like.
  • Getting organized will smooth your transition into the school year. When all your ducks are in a row, you can look forward to an amazing year and a new, exciting experience every time you hear that opening bell!