The summer before my first year of teaching was a whirlwind. After completing institute with Teach for America, moving 1500 miles away from my family and friends, I was ready to get started with my first class of students. I planned getting to know you games, organized my classroom and felt ready to go on that first day of school. What I didn’t know then was that I needed a plan for how I wanted my students to be at each moment of the day. Giving instructions at the start of each lesson was not enough. I needed to teach my students what it meant to be a Boston College Eagle in my classroom.
1. What are the behaviors that drive you nuts?
This is a question I realized quickly will differ greatly by teacher.For some, having students moving about the classroom drives them crazy while for others it is a noise level. Some prefer their students to stand up and come to them to ask questions while others prefer a quiet hand to get the teacher’s attention. This question is very personal but is critical when setting up classroom expectations. If you are someone who dislikes having students moving about, what systems will you need so that students can have permission for standing up? If volume is something that bothers you, how will you teach students to meet your volume expectation at the beginning of the school year? Starting with a plan for the behaviors that drive you crazy takes away one of the largest stressors as you continue to work on expectation setting in the classroom.
2. How will students move about the classroom?
Elementary school classrooms are characterized by movement. Students will likely only be in one spot for about 10-15 minutes before having some sort of movement in the lesson. Thinking through what it looks like for students to transition from the tables to the carpet, the carpet to the tables, into a line, from squares into a circle on the carpet will save valuable academic time later in the year. Explicitly teaching students how to move about the classroom at the start of the school year allows routines to become mastered and for students to begin to understand what to expect during each part of the school day.
3. What are the incentives and consequences for students?
Rewarding students for doing what you want them to do is crucial in the first weeks of school (and all year in lower elementary school). I walked around with a book of stickers and gave students stickers for each compliment I could give them. By pumping up the positive at the start of the school year, not only does your relationship with your students start with a positive tone, students show more positive behaviors because they want your attention and the reward. It is also crucial, however, that if students are not meeting your expectations that there is some sort of predictable consequence system for them. By making the consequence structure predictable, students begin to learn how to separate the consequences from it happening to them to something that they can control.
4. How will you build a team culture?
Creating an identity for your classroom is crucial—and also very fun. Students will latch onto whatever identity you create and this can be a huge part of building a team. Saying, “As Eagles, we do…” makes it easy for kids to form a bond with each other as they are all working to be a part of the group.
5. How will your practice the expectations?
During the first few weeks of school, practice your expectations with your students. Practice transitions. Practice how to whisper. Practice what it looks like to work silently. As your students practice, provide feedback about what they are doing that meets your expectations.The more practice, positive narration and real time feedback you provide at the beginning means the more time you will save during the school year. Practice until students are consistently meeting your expectations and then practice some more.
Amy Stabile is the Dean of Instruction and Data for KIPP Explore Academy and a former kindergarten teacher. She is also a Teach for America alumna.