As we head back into our classrooms for a new school year, there are a lot of things on the minds of educators. Class schedules, grading, lesson plans, school meetings, observations and so much more. Getting back into the daily teaching schedule can be a challenge, especially after having the summer “off.”
However, many educators don’t actually take the summer off, instead they take advantage of the extra time to engage in professional learning. Whether by attending conferences, joining book studies, participating in online learning events or even heading to their classroom to prepare it for the new school year, being prepared for school is always on teachers’ minds. Having the summer off, even if only for a few weeks is nice, because it provides time to relax and recharge and also time to be better prepared than the year before.
No matter how many years of experience an educator has, a new school year can be stressful because of all of the tasks that we have and of course, with the challenges we have experienced in the past two years. Shifting from fully virtual, to hybrid and back to in-person instruction, while trying to keep the learning going and balance so much was not easy. Because of this, it is important to start the year with goals and use our prior experiences to set some clear focus points for ourselves and our students.
For many years, I remember conversations with colleagues and friends who are teachers, about how they couldn’t sleep the night before the first day of school, attributing it to being excited and nervous about starting a new school year and doing it right. For me, it was always the second day and every day after that.
For many years, the first day of school was simply the time to introduce myself to students, talk about what they could expect in my class and provide any materials that they needed to take home for their families. I started each year with rules and procedures. Unfortunately, I did not realize that the content could wait. I should have placed more importance on creating a supportive classroom community and focusing on building relationships first. Now before the year starts, there are some questions that I ask myself:
- Did I reflect enough on my teaching practice and have I identified areas that I want and need to work on?
- Am I prepared with new ideas, whether different methods or digital tools to bring into my classroom that will help to engage students in learning?
- What are some ways that we can build relationships and get to know one another?
- How can I create a welcoming classroom space that fosters creativity and curiosity for learning?
There are many more questions that cross my mind. It comes down to thinking about and reflecting on what we learned about our practice and methods used during the past school year. Which activities and methods impacted student learning but also on building essential social-emotional learning (SEL) skills? Which methods or tools helped students to feel more connected with their classmates as well as the content? When we cultivate a learning environment where students have choices, feel comfortable and become more confident, it amplifies their learning potential. It leads to a supportive classroom community.
As we head into a new school year, it is always the perfect time to try a few new ideas and see how the students respond to gauge what the impact could be on learning and then decide where to go from there. Teaching the content material is important, but finding ways to boost student engagement and foster the development of essential SEL skills are also important. With so many things to consider, I am choosing five focus points for starting the new school year:
1. Build Relationships: Starting on day one, we need to get to know our students and let them get to know us too. When we create opportunities for students to connect with each other and build a collaborative and supportive space, we will see how it positively impacts the learning that happens in our classroom. By starting with relationship building, we will create a space where students feel comfortable making mistakes and know they are supported by us and their peers. Creating a comfortable, supportive space is essential for learning. Have students create an “About Me” or use icebreakers to get to know each other and make sure that you participate too.
2. Set goals and reflect: At the start of the school year, have students set some goals for themselves in your class. Not just students, it’s also important that we set goals for ourselves and share them with our students. When we do this together, we hold each other accountable and provide the support that we all need in our classroom space. We know the importance of SEL and by setting goals and reflecting on them throughout the year, we will be focusing on self-awareness and self-management in particular, which are essential for student learning and being prepared for the future. Provide some questions for reflection such as: How do I think it went? What would I change? Are there areas that I can improve upon?
3. Create a community: Students need to know how to access resources for the class and to be able to connect with the teacher and classmates. It is important to set up a space or have a system for being able to communicate with students. Sending an email every Friday with a recap of the week, using a messaging app, or designing a class website, are all good ways to create a learning community. Having a space where students can interact and access the resources they need to be successful is important and we have definitely learned how essential it is, after our experiences over the past couple of years. Another thing to consider is how to involve students more in the design of the learning experiences in the classroom and have them truly be a part of the learning community.
4. Promote collaboration: In preparing students for the future, we know that one of the essential skills they need is being able to communicate and collaborate with others. Students need opportunities to do this in the classroom as well as in a virtual space. Using different methods like station rotations for example where students can work with peers, or through digital tools such as Flip, Google Jamboard, or Spaces, we can promote collaboration. Students can build content area skills while also building digital citizenship skills and SEL skills at the same time.
5. Foster creativity and curiosity for learning: When we create a learning environment where students feel welcomed and supported, they will feel more comfortable participating in class activities, interacting with their peers, and taking risks with learning. Provide students with different choices for creating and sharing what they have learned. Use methods like genius hour or PBL to spark curiosity and promote student-driven learning. Offer choices in digital tools that foster creativity such as Book Creator, Buncee, Canva, Genially, Storybird or Storyboard That.
Start the year with some focus areas and involve students in the discussion. Get their feedback, ask for ideas, and enjoy the learning process together. Don’t be afraid to take some risks with new ideas or tools. With new ideas, we can boost student engagement and creativity, spark curiosity for learning and student needs and interests will be better met.