A New School Year: Getting the Little Things Right

2011 Symposium2

Even though I have students every year they are in my PK3-8 building, the start of a new school year is still filled with excitement and anticipation of good things to come. It is a fresh start for students and teachers, and an opportunity to establish good habits for the entire school year. Early in my teaching career, I was so anxious to begin teaching, that I foolishly skipped over establishing routines and expectations. The fact is, the “good stuff” just doesn’t happen if classes are not accustomed to following protocols and students in a class are having difficulty cooperating and collaborating with each other. It may sound cliche by now, but classes really must be “learning communities.” With all of this in mind, I’d like to discuss specifically what my goals are for the first couple of weeks of school. Some of these are things we will continue to work on throughout the year, but I like to establish them all and begin working on them right out of the gate.

The first is what I call the “one hundred percent rule.” It is not original with me.classroom
Doug Lemov wrote about it in his book, Teach Like A Champion. Simply put, every student will follow every direction every time. It sounds ambitious, but if I don’t expect it, students will never do it. Every student is capable of following directions if they are clear, organized, and observable. When students know exactly what they are supposed to be doing, and what I am looking for them to be doing as I observe them, they have a much better chance of engaging in the lesson and succeeding.

My second goal is called “it’s in the doing.” A student is not finished until what they are working on is done right. It isn’t only finishing that counts, it’s quality of work. By insisting that everything be done right, I set a standard that demands work be taken seriously. When I say everything, I really mean it. This is where the little things are important. They set the tone and attitude of every student. How they enter the room, what they do immediately after they enter, how they use their voices, pass in work, and move around the room, how they participate in class activities. Everything matters. It is worth the time to practice passing in papers, entering the room, and using the correct voice level, because when everyone is doing those things correctly, everyone has a better opportunity to learn. As part of this goal, I refer to the three Os: be orderly, organized, and on-task.

teacher-and-student4The third one is “be responsible.” This gets to self monitoring and personal choices. I think we give children to many chances to get their behavior right or appropriate. If a child gets three chances before any consequences are imposed, doesn’t that mean it’s okay to do the wrong thing three times, but the fourth time suddenly it’s not okay? Does that really make sense? If a student chooses a bad behavior, s/he needs to go back and practice the good behavior s/he should have chosen. The child needs to practice replacing inappropriate with appropriate or more appropriate. Then, if the child makes the same bad choice again, a consequence is automatic, and becomes more severe for additional occurrences. But the focus is not to get to the punitive side. Practicing doing it right and then praising the child for doing right the second (or third) time is more effective than waiting for the child to do it wrong, and then punishing him or her for doing so.

Next comes “be positive.” Live in the present, don’t harp on the past. Assume the best; be helpful, not accusatory. Settle conflicts quickly, quietly and privately. Build momentum to keep the class moving forward. Take up a challenge and win. Look to your future. All of these  focus the child’s attention on what they are doing and what they are working to achieve. It minimizes or eliminates distractions and tangents, and fosters a positive attitude and supportive environment for all learners.

Finally, I tell my students to use precise praise. If they see someone doing something well, given them a specific compliment. A big part of this goal is to be friendly to others and demanding of yourself. I tell students we often get this one backwards; we make demands on others that we don’t make on ourselves. The other parts of this goal are to find fun in what you’re doing, whatever it is, stay calm, get an explanation when you need it, and don’t be afraid to be wrong or to fail. On this last point, I tell my students I’d rather they tried and failed, then not try to avoid failing. If they try and fail, they can learn from it, try again, and succeed. We don’t say “I can’t do it.” We say “I can’t do it yet. That is what education is all about.


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