Getting the Year in Place: Six Things to Think about Before the First Day

I walked into an empty classroom.

A teacher desk sat at the front of the room with twelve student desks before it. The walls were blank, intimidating white canvases, the bulletin boards brown ones. As a first year teacher, I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I looked through Mailbox Magazines, desperate for inspiration or at least direction. I agonized over writing a welcome letter to parents who most likely did not speak English. I fretted over what my classroom lacked. I had a week to prepare before the students came, and I was clueless as to where to begin.

Some of us face this fear – whether it’s our first year teaching or we have dozens under our belts. Perhaps that’s because at the start of school we face what most people don’t encounter until January first – a chance to start over.

Every school year is a chance to start again – a new group of students, a new teaching strategy, a new classroom decor. A lot of us went into teaching because we wanted this opening for creativity. Like our new year’s resolutions, we want the way we start our school year to set a great tone or the months to come, so how does a teacher do that? What are the keys to setting up a successful classroom?

6 Things to Think about Before the First Day

  1. 1

    Plan Your Year

    I’m a big proponent of getting plans in place as soon as possible with the expectation that they can and will change as the year progresses. But that’s one reason I find it essential to have a rough plan of the entire year before the students even arrive on the first day. To put it simply, look at the material you want to cover, divide it by the months in your school year, and pencil in rough units/chapters you plan to cover. Do yourself a favor and schedule time for catching up, too, since most teachers, even those with great intentions, tend to get behind at some point in the year. Once you have a rough plan in place, you can tackle some of the other topics for setting up class the right way.

  2. 2

    Think about Your Walls

    How many bulletin boards do you have in your class? How much wall space do you have? Not every classroom needs to be a decorator masterpiece, but there are some things worth getting in place at the start of your year. Plan on designating one area for student work – displaying projects or papers if you plan to include that type of work in class (and you’ll have at least some kind of idea because you already roughed out your year’s schedule). Designate one area for student ownership. By that I mean an area where they can share what they are learning in English. You might consider a vocabulary wall, a Goodreads wall, or something else that fits with what you intend to teach. Plan to use one wall area for the unit you are studying. You might put up all sorts of materials related to your unit – pictures, art projects, maps, charts, etc. You know what works best for you, so set the space aside and then fill it how you think best. And optionally, set aside an area to add to the décor of your classroom. You might choose a bulletin board design that stays basically the same throughout the year but just changes a little with the seasons. Or you might use decorations that you like or you think your students will. Whatever you do, choose something colorful and fun.

  3. 3

    Arrange Student Desks

    Classic desk arrangement of columns and rows isn’t necessarily most effective for English as a second language classes. The point of learning English is to communicate, and communication can be hard when all a student sees is the back of the person in front of him. Consider arranging desks to make larger tables, to form a circle to facilitate group work, or in another arrangement which allows students to see each other and communicate with each other. The more they see their classmates’ faces, the more likely they are to talk and put the English they are learning to practical use.

  4. 4

    Create Learning Centers

    If it’s possible, designate a few spots in your classroom where students can learn independently. A classroom library is a great way to encourage independent learning as well as literacy improvement, and make sure you have a comfortable place to sidle up with a book. Just be sure you have reading materials at different skill levels and ones that will interest the students in your class. You can supplement your classroom library with materials from your school library that tie in to whatever subject you are studying whether it’s sports or gardening. Your classroom doesn’t have to be large to have other centers that are effective. You might also have a student computer available with some bookmarked websites where student can do independent learning at ESL websites. From ABC Mouse to Dave’s ESL Café, there are plenty of sites that offer English lessons and quizzes that your students will benefit from. And those extra worksheets you don’t use in class? Set them at a free desk and invite students to do them on their own when they have a few free minutes. It will be good review for them and less paper waste for you.

  5. 5

    Determine the Supplies You Will Need

    Some schools provide more supplies than others. If your school provides less than you will need throughout the year, it is okay to ask parents to supply items. It is not unusual for teachers to ask parents for supplies like tissues, Clorox wipes, crayons, glue, and other items at the start of the year. If you have your year planned, you will have a better idea what exactly you will need in the months to come. It’s best to ask parents for these items at the start of the school year and then simply store the extras in your classroom. So draft a letter, have someone translate it if necessary, and have copies ready to send home on the first day of school.

  6. 6

    Give Your Room Some Personality

    It’s the little things that make a big difference in student lives, and one of them is getting to know you better. Put some of yourself into your classroom so students feel like they know you as much as you know them. Consider space for a class pet or some plants, and teach students how to take care of them. Put some personal photos on your desk or include some items in class that mean something special to you, and tell your students about them. Don’t be afraid to let your room reflect who you are. Your students will love it, and you’ll feel more at home in your classroom.

I learned a lot my first year teaching, and much of it involved getting ready for the school year before it began.

When it comes time for your new-school-year resolutions, thinking ahead can make all the difference for you and your students.

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