This year, like most teachers, parents and students, I was lucky enough to have TWO first days of school. At least that was what it felt like. My first, first day was Thursday before Rosh Hashana. We had a total of eight school days interspersed over the course of 3 weeks with frequent breaks for secular holidays, Jewish holidays, and erev holidays.
This Monday was my second, first day. Come Friday (if I make it Please G-d), I will have taught my first full week of classes this year. So, although school began over a month ago, I figure I can write about some things that teachers think about during the first few weeks of school.
This year, I hope to write about how to improve learning in the classroom. But, before we can even begin to discuss the nuts and bolts of pedagogy, Ed-Tech, or PBL, we teachers need to figure out what our classroom culture is going to be like. Planning how our classroom feels emotionally is just as important as planning lessons and learning content.
Here are a few principles that have worked for me and are easily transferable to all grades.
1. Develop a relationship – Teaching a child is not the same as programming a computer. The child has this funny thing called “free will.” No matter how well a teacher teaches, the student needs to want to learn. One of the biggest motivators for a student is their relationship with a teacher.
How does a teacher purposely develop a relationship with students? Rabbi Noach Orlowek says, “If it is important to you, it is important to me” When I care about my students’ interests and lives because they are interested in them, I create a bond.
If they like baseball, I better know who won the game last night. My students know I don’t care about baseball. But they know that I know that they care about baseball. If they are absent, sad or distracted, I let them know I notice and care.
Goal for the year: Try to make a connection with at least 2 students a day about something that is important to them.
2. Each student is his own world – Students want to know that a teacher sees them as individuals. Our students are in big classes and come from big families. They want to know that someone gets who they are as a person, not as a member of a group. During the first few days, I try to do ice breakers and have the students tell me about themselves. As I learn more about them, I direct comments to them in and out of class to let them know that I know them for who they are as important individuals in their own right.
Some teachers ask students to write numbers on their papers for ease of sorting. What a shame! Our students are not just a number in our classes. They have dignity – they have a name! We need to use their names when speaking to them and when writing comments to them. During class, I also direct comments to them as individuals.
“Shimon, I know you are a lefty, so just listen to this pasuk in Navi”
“Kiryas Arbeh was a city of GIANTS, no Akiva not THAT kind of GIANTS”
Leah, I know you are the class expert on sweeping, can you help us out by teaching us how to do it better?”
When students feel proud of who they are as an individual and not just as part of a group, they take pride in what they do, become independent thinkers, and are more thoughtful in their choices.
Goal for the year: Reinforce that each student is an individual by addressing each student by his name at least once a day.
3. Fix myself first – I have expectations for how my students act, talk and treat others. I want them to respect themselves, their time, other people and other people’s property. I can’t teach respect if I don’t practice respect.
To model respect, I need to be thinking about my own character. I’m not perfect, and have plenty of flaws that need to be improved. When I focus on my own character, I am less critical of my students’ mistakes and have more patience to help them improve. Self-improvement also sets an example for the class that learning and growth are life-long processes. Students don’t feel threatened when they realize they are not perfect because they have a model of how to accept their process of growth as a positive rather than being embarrassed that they are not perfect.
One day, a colleague commented how calm I was when some students were acting like children. I was surprised at his assessment but also proud. I have a tendency to get emotional. I had been working on my own emotions so that I could deal with classroom interruptions calmly. It was gratifying to hear that a colleague perceived me differently than my inherent nature.
Goal for the year: Pick character goals of my own, and reflect on them on regular basis. Think aloud about self improvement to model the process for my students.
4. Plan routines – Things go smoother when the transitions and common tasks are on auto-pilot. Getting students into routines at the beginning of the year means that I don’t constantly have to be involved in negative interactions by constantly correcting and being critical. I can focus on the positive and the learning instead.
Routines don’t just happen though. They require time, planning and reinforcement. At the end of the summer, I thought of classroom events that happen regularly. How will my students hand in papers? How will they line up for recess? How will I get their attention? What happens if a student bullies? It takes a lot of time to to practice the routines but it is well worth the pay off after a few short weeks.
Goal for the year: Spend the first few weeks practicing routines even if students learn less content. If there are times of chaos in the class, think of systems and routines that could improve the situation.
5. Plan well – I try to stuff my classes with as much learning and engagement as possible from bell to bell (and beyond if possible). Human beings want to improve. It’s part of what improves the universe. I have confidence that if I give opportunities to learn, my students will try to grow. I try to make these learning opportunities active and student-centered with multiple learning modalities so every student has a way to access the learning if they want.
Goal for the year: Review my lesson plans nightly for multiple learning modalities and active learning. Look for down time and incorporate learning of some sort.
6. Humor and Positivity – Students are more engaged when they are relaxed. They can focus on learning when they feel comfortable and there is a light atmosphere of good cheer rather than pressure and stress. You can do serious work even if the mood is not serious.
As a teacher, I set the mood in the room. I force a smile on my face even if I am tired. My students are looking at me all day. Looking at a sour face is a real downer. In my classroom, I need to be a positive person and to use humor to diffuse many difficulat situations.
Goal for the year: Smile. Get enough sleep so that I can find humor even in tough situations. Bring humor and joy into the learning.
7. Teach optimistic thinking– on the top of my tests, I write “The best you can do is to do your best!” I encourage my class to recognize that they are special, that nothing is ever the end of the world (except perhaps the end of the world) and to believe in themselves that they can be successful .
Some of our students grow up in critical homes and need to learn how to view the world more optimistically. They need help retraining their thinking from highly critical to self-nurturing. When students are more forgiving of themselves and celebrate their successes, they don’t need to engage in negative conflicts for attention.
The first weeks of school is an important time to reinforce this message. Kids don’t want to make mistakes. They are scared that they will be mocked by peers and lose the respect of their teacher. I always try to celebrate mistakes that come from hard work and effort so students learn that hard work, effort and perseverance is more important than getting it right.
Goal for the year: Praise effort over aptitude.
8. Realize no one is perfect, not me and not them – sometimes I have a bad day. Sometimes, they do. Rather than letting that set the tone for the rest of the year, I need to be able to let the day go and start over the next day.
Goal for the year: Reflect on the many positive parts of my day and let go of the negative. Problem solve rather than getting annoyed.
With these few tips, I hope that my classroom will be one of joy, learning and cooperation. I hope to enjoy myself this year and I hope that my students do as well.