Smooth Sailing Back to School Tips: Preparing for the New School Year

It is around this time every year that my classroom to-do list starts looking a little lot overwhelming.  I tried separating my lists into different categories like “Classroom Set Up” and “Academics” and “JUST GET IT DONE!” but I still felt like I had all of those things left on my to-do list, and I needed to get them done before school started.

Now I'm learning, slowly but surely, what really needs to be done ahead of time and what can wait.   I've been brainstorming this list for weeks, trying to figure out the best advice to give you.  These recommendations are based on my experience in the classroom, and I know that everyone will have different opinions on them.  Take this advice with a grain or two of salt and share your additions (or arguments against my advice) in the comments. I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts on what can and can't wait as you prepare your classroom.

DO Have these things ready before the first day (or the first time you will be meeting with parents).

Make sure you have a plan in place for how you will communicate with parents.  Know the answer to all of these questions before you meet with any parents.

  • How can parents stay up-to-date on what is going on in the classroom? Will you have a newsletter, a blog, a website or wiki, a homework book, a student planner, a behavior log?
  • If you are going to have a newsletter, how often will you send it home, and where can parents expect to find it?
  • Will you send home graded papers on a daily basis, or in a Friday or Monday folder?
  • What is the best way for parents to contact you if they have a question or concern?
  • How can parents expect to hear from you about a child's behavior, good or bad?  Will you call them directly, send them an email, or send a note home in their backpack?

Think through how you want to handle homework throughout the year.  Here are some questions to ask yourself.  These are ALL questions that students and parents have asked me at least once.

  • Will students have consistent homework each week?  (For example: Do they have weekly math, a reading log, fluency or fact practice, etc. that will come home every week for the entire school year?)
  • In addition to “standing” weekly homework, will you send home unfinished work with students to complete at home?
  • Do you plan to have students complete any projects at home?  If you plan to have them do book reports or math projects at home quarterly, be upfront about that so parents can plan for those additional activities.
  • How will you communicate about homework to parents AND students?  Will you have the class write in a student planner at the end of each day or are students responsible for writing homework down on their own?  Are you going to have parents sign planners every day?  Is there a homework folder that students need to put homework in?
  • How do you grade homework?  Completion?  Accuracy?  What is your justification behind the way you are grading?
  • What is your late policy, and what are the repercussions if homework is not turned in on time?
  • Where and when will students turn in homework?

Before students walk in the door, have a plan in place for how you will reinforce positive behavior and how you will redirect negative behaviors.

  • Are you going to have a clip chart system for individual behavior?
  • How will you reinforce positive behavior and what are the consequences for inappropriate behaviors?

What do students do AS SOON as they walk in the door?  Make sure you are prepared to set that expectation from the very first day.

  • Do you have something that students can reference if they aren't sure of what to do in the morning?  Consider having a list of things to do “When You Arrive.”
  • What do you have in place to make taking attendance easier for yourself?  Create some system that requires students to do something to show that they have arrived.
  • When students finish morning tasks (like making lunch choices, turning in homework, sharpening pencils, etc.) what should they be doing?  Most people refer to this part as morning work.  Make sure your students don't have even a second to get off task.

I mentioned this in my Meet Your Teacher Night post, but make sure you have a plan for all of the supplies that will be coming into your room.  This will not only save you a little sanity on the first day of school, but for the rest of the year, too.

  • Will you have community or individual supplies, or a mixture of both?
  • What procedures will you have in place for handing out supplies that aren't already at student desks?
  • Where will you store extra supplies (especially big items, like tissues, Clorox wipes, or Ziploc bags) so that you can easily access them?
  • If a student walks in with a backpack full of supplies on the first day of school (or at Meet Your Teacher Night), what should he do with them?

Make sure you decide ahead of time what notebooks, folders, or binders you will be using for which purposes.  If you are lucky enough to request supplies from parents, chances are you have already decided this.  Regardless, make sure you know if you want all of your students to use the red folder for homework and the yellow folder for math, etc.  This will help you in the long run, but if you don't plan ahead, you won't have as much opportunity to be as organized.

If a student finishes early, what can he or she do?  I have talked a lot about the importance of planning for Early Finishers, but I can't stress the importance of this on the first day of school.  I mentioned earlier in the post to not let students have a free moment on the first day of school.  Inevitably, though, students will work at different paces, and you will need something to keep those early finishers occupied in a meaningful way.  Explaining early finisher activities should be on your list for discussion on the very first day of school!

Yes, your schedule will change a lot throughout the year, and we all know that no day is ever really the same.  However, do your best to have a “typical” schedule ready to go for the year so that you can follow it on the first day.  It's all about setting expectations for the rest of the year, and the first day makes such a huge difference.  If you plan to implement math workshop, try to have at least some semblance of that on the first day, even if it's just exploring math manipulatives in groups.  Consistency is key!

Now that I've given you a list of things that you should have ready to go before the first day, there are a few things that I have found are less important than they seem. These are things that I used to focus heavily on, but I now see that they aren't quite as big of a deal to work through before school starts.

By all means, if you have extra time, these are things you might consider getting worked out ahead of time, but if you have 100 other things to do, in my humble opinion, you can save these for last.

  • Seating Arrangements.  Find a suitable seating arrangement (are you a row person or a group person?) that will work for your needs for the first week of school.  Find the arrangement that will fit within your classroom, but don't spend hours upon hours thinking through the possibilities.  The reality is that it will probably change a dozen times throughout the school year based on your class or the unit you are teaching.
  • Decorations on the walls (including the halls).  I always start the year with borders on my walls and in the hall, and that is pretty much it!  I wait until I have student work, anchor charts, and other meaningful, classroom-created products to hang in the halls.  When students and parents arrive, the classroom looks clean and ready for student work to grace the walls!
  • Name Tags (for the big kids).  I used to spend the night before school started writing names, laminating, cutting, and taping student names on those big, fancy reference name tags.  And, probably at my own fault, the students never used the references on those name tags, and we had to take them off for testing anyway.  With bigger kids (grades 3+), I always have students put a sticky note on a desk of their choice when they come to Meet Your Teacher Night (which usually happens a few days before school starts).  If a student does not come that night, I place a sticky note with their name on it on one of the empty desks.  When they arrive on the first day of school, we spend part of the day making our name tags.  I laminate them that night, roughly cut them out, let the students finish cutting them nicely, and tape them to their desks the next day.  They LOVE it!

Ready to start planning your first week of school?  I have shared my first week of school lesson plans and activities on my blog!

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