Without any doubt, the most important time period in a school year is the beginning. Relationships are forged, expectations set, and the future is begun. The vast majority of teachers let these two weeks play out passively, without much thought as to the long-term repercussions of their passivity. The master teacher knows that when they do a fantastic job in the first part of the school year the rest flows downhill, as it were. With that in mind, here is a snapshot of the most important eight days of the school year.
The first four:
After 26 years in the classroom – 21 in public, five in private, 17 in poor rural, nine in large suburban areas – the most crystal clear revelation to me is that the building of relationships is the single most important aspect of the first week of school if we are to build a positive classroom culture. Not assigning homework, not setting rules and expectations, not just surviving (although that is super important), but to begin to foster relationships that will last the year and into the future. This is true at any age and any grade. Every classroom, just like every human, has a different personality. It is up to the teacher to forge these differing personalities into a thriving classroom culture. With that said, the first of the three keys to the beginning of school is RELATIONSHIPS. RELATIONSHIPS go both ways; we must, surely, get to know the students, but they must just as surely get to know us.
This starts with names. A person’s name is really the only thing they bring into the classroom and it is paramount to who they are as a person. During the first week, we need to make it a priority that we will know all the names by Friday. There are myriad icebreakers to do this and you need to use a few that are age appropriate so as not to belittle their maturity. I always try to make mine have a duel responsibility. For instance, I use the Clock as a “name-learner” and an organizer to put them into pairs.
Also during the first week, I want my students to get to know me as a person. They seem to have the perception that we turn out the lights when they leave, hang from the ceiling like bats, and drop down and begin teaching the next morning. They are so surprised to see me in the real world like grocery shopping. I’m a history teacher, so I tell stories. On the second day of school they hear about how I broke my arm in 7th grade throwing a baseball. It’s funny, revealing, and humanizing. When they hear about me, they are more likely to share about themselves.
The first week ends with one of the most important steps in cementing a positive culture in the classroom. Everyone talks about what the teacher needs to do to make the classroom positive, but few speak of the student’s responsibility. We need buy in from the young ones. With this in mind, I end the week by showing them the famous clip from The Matrix where Neo is faced with the decision to take the blue pill or the red pill from Morpheus. Then I spend a few minutes laying out my vision for the class. They must then make a decision: take the red M & M from the bowl on the way out and they are agreeing to do what I ask and trust that, as the leader of the class, I will do what is best for their personal and educational well-being. If they take the blue M & M they will have to have a conversation with me about the issue. I have actually removed one student in four years and put him in another class. The others have all bought in. I can then refer to that moment any time a student is not giving me his or her best effort. The M & M is not the point; students’ learning to keep their word and be a productive member of the class is the point.
The following week is spent on the next two major steps in the process: convincing them of the RELEVANCE of taking history and developing RIGOR in the subject matter.
If this important topic intrigues you, I have a full-day workshop entitled “8 Days to a Positive Classroom Culture” that will give you over two-dozen practical ways to develop the culture you desire in your classroom. By the end of the workshop you will have your plan developed and be ready to start the new year. Check out the Professional Development tab for additional workshops that I offer.
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