5 Quick Start Skills for a Successful School Year

Have you ever thought, “I wish I had known this before now!” when discovering an easy solution to a problem you spent too much time trying to solve? This is a common sentiment for new teachers and those transitioning from substitute or assistant roles into lead teaching. While some skills and knowledge require “seasoning” to acquire (i.e., time and wisdom), there are a few critical best practices that all new educators can quickly learn and leverage. The following five jumpstart tasks ensure your transition into the classroom is smooth and successful! 

1. Plan Classroom Routines and Transitions 

Successful teachers write step-by-step directions for the core activities and transitions students complete regularly. Of all routines, the entry routine is arguable the most important way to set the tone of a positive classroom environment. Plan three to five quick, simple, and safe steps for all routine action students take in your classroom: entering and exiting, engaging in whole-group discussions, obtaining materials, transitioning to the restroom or water fountain, or moving into small groups asking for help. Check out this entry routine:  

  1. Line-up silently in front of the door. 
  1. Greet the teacher using one of the options on the welcome poster.  
  1. Walk quickly, silently, and safely to your seat.  
  1. Complete “Do-Now” activity on your desk silently until the timer rings.  
  1. If done early, read your silent-reading book.  

In addition, consider planning alternative steps and responses for situations in which students do not follow the procedure. As expert teachers know, being prepared for possible areas of concern and potential mistakes helps educators avoid frustration when students do not meet expectations. What are some common classroom scenarios or moments within the instructional day for which you might prepare step-by-step procedures that will later become routines?  

2. Establish Classroom Norms  

Norms are agreements and collective expectations about how community members will interact and work together safely, respectfully, and successfully. Norms promote accountability and increase the overall efficacy of teaching and learning in the classroom, both virtual and in-person. Students benefit from opportunities to take responsibility for their actions and practice values like respect, justice, and community. 

Safe and effective learning environments have a set of norms that are concise, positively framed, universally applicable to all scenarios in the classroom, and deeply rooted in inclusive community. Norms that are positively framed focus on what teachers want students to do, not what they want students not to do. A great rule of thumb is to avoid any negative adverbs when writing norms including “no,” “never,” and “not.” Consider the following examples of highly effective norms:  

  • We work hard and use time wisely.  
  • We make good decisions.  
  • We respect ourselves and others.  
  • We are safe and accountable.  
  • We solve problems creatively.  
  • We do our best.  
  • We seek help and seek to help.  
  • We value our community.  

Watch our recent webinar in which Dr. Lynn Beal discusses the vital importance of classroom management and norms to foster learning recovery for students who may fall behind. What are three to five norms you might integrate into your classroom?

3. Prepare to Integrate Formative Assessments.  

At the start of a new school year, you’ll want to quickly start learning about your new students. Formative assessments are informal activities which provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skill, allowing you to gain insights about their level of understanding, learning strengths, and areas of need. Formative assessments include games, quizzes, small projects, and other low stakes learning activities that help teachers check for understanding, identify ways to support students who may struggle, and reduce overall anxiety in the classroom. 

Formative assessments should be able to provide quick snapshots of student understanding or ability. Some examples are Exit Tickets, verbal checks for understanding, Kahoot quizzes, and other activities in which teachers gather quick data to make instructional decisions to help students learn. A formative assessment is usually not a punitive or otherwise points-related activity (i.e., pop quiz or test) in which students can experience negative repercussions for getting the wrong answer. Rather, a formative assessment is a teaching strategy and a data-gathering tool that leads to equity in the classroom and increased student outcomes. 

Integrating formative assessments into instruction provides opportunities for teachers to begin to engage in data-informed instruction whereby information about student understanding and mastery is an integral part of the process of planning instruction. Click here for three examples of the power of formative assessments.   

4. Build Relationships with Students and Families  

Student-centered teaching and learning rely on teachers’ ability to build relationships of trust and respect with students and their families. Start the year by administering a student survey to determine the backgrounds, needs, and interests of your learners. Take the time to inspire students to talk about themselves as you learn about their dreams and aspirations. This knowledge will help you to design engaging learning activities and build a classroom community in which students are intrinsically motivated.  

On day one, start building relationships with families through positive communication home. This might include introductory phone calls, welcome letters or emails, or messages via a school’s learning management system. Get started with positive communication as soon as possible so that any future messages about problems that may arise are not the communication home. Veteran teachers often recommend five positive family communication for every one negative communication. Open clear lines of communication with families to jumpstart the school year.  

5. Build a Professional Network 

Last, but not least, is the incredible value of developing a network of trusted colleagues to support, nurture, and uplift you as a professional. Grade-level and subject-area teams in the same school building may provide insight on students who they have served and wisdom to successfully navigate school-wide systems and processes. Importantly, online communities available through social media and professional organizations help teachers to develop robust professional learning communities (PLC) which improve teacher effectiveness through the sharing of resources and best practices. During the school year, you may spend a majority of your days as the only adult in the classroom, which can feel isolating, but you are never alone! You are part of a global community of professionals who can support, guide, and help you on the good and bad days.

Whether you are entering into your first year as a teacher, transitioning from being a substitute teacher or teaching assistant to becoming a lead teacher, or joining a new school community, these essential tasks will help you start the year with success!  

Joseph A. Pearson, M.S.Ed.
Professional Development Officer, Moreland University

Additional Reading