In my college of ed days, the old adage of “Don’t smile until Christmas” was already fading from use. But the idea of setting up the tone– and expectations– of a classroom right from the start is still an important one. Amongst the potential and/ or likely chaos of the first weeks, this can prove a challenge. Survival might even be questioned.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s some coping strategies that I honed in my years at the alternative ed program (you know, the place where the troublemakers go after the left the traditional classroom down the road. Except instead of the normal one or two challenging students in a classroom– or maybe a handful if you have a rough bunch– I had 20+ of them. Maybe one or two non-troublemakers there for health or personal issues.)
I figure if they work with this delightful bunch, then maybe they’ll work in a classroom where the students show up, more or less ready to learn and succeed–rather than test the fences like raptor, looking for weakness.
1. Be Flexible. Be able to adjust your plan and, ideally, have one or more backup plans. Maybe you can’t pull off that sort of smooth “It’s in the lesson plan” response, but being able to laugh about it or even just admit that you’re shifting gears can work too. Being able to adapt to changes is crucial– as is the ability to do so calmly without being flustered or upset.
2. Have a Couple Back Up Plans or Activities: Some of my classes were chatty and could be drawn into topical discussions. Others would give me that “I dare you to teach me” look. So , the first days of class, as they’re seeing what they can pull with Ms. Dickson, I have a couple varieties of activity and a couple back ups. Yes, I totally over-prepare with activities that are topical, important, and timeless (things like grammar review or practice writing effective thesis). If the planned “fun” activity goes over like a lead balloon because one of my dears has more “sway” with his classmates than I do (one of us is wearing a bracelet or ankle tether from the local jail, which lends a certain “street cred” amongst fellow suburban troublemakers), then I can shift gears to a group activity or even an individual project, which may allow me to meet the students without outright challenging the Tough Guy.
BONUS: Those timeless activities that I over-prepared? They work great for substitute teachers or other fillers throughout the term. Things I can pull out if technology goes awry, snow flakes prove too great a distraction, or another activity finished quickly and I don’t want to move onto the next Unit.
3. Be organized: Being organized really helps with being flexible. Having a couple back up activities in folders and binders allows you to pull out something prepared if needed, right now. Even though we use a computer system for attendance, I take that first roster and make a printed file with room for additional names– I could make sure I had attendance for every student in my room. No question about records during the chaos. Plus, if you can maintain an organized-ish desk, it does make for a positive appearance to the students.
4. Meet the Students, somehow: Maybe you do ice breaker activities and students response positively. Or maybe they stare at you and report, “I’ll take a zero.” Or even if the ice break goes well, take time to mingle with the students those first weeks. Beyond what they’ll share in front of the class! I really like to move around the room the first weeks of class as they are working on projects or assignments, finding ways to touch base with them, to catch them working well right at the start. I believe building the personal connection along with catching them working well can help build a positive classroom dynamic, which helps not only the first two weeks, but well beyond.
Clair Dickson, high school English teacher, likes free eTexts and Project Based Learning to stretch her meager budget. Visit her store High School English on a Shoestring Budget to stretch your budget.