Preparing your Hearts, Minds & Classrooms for Back to School
By Rebecca Ward, Project Manager & Staff Developer
(This blog was originally posted in August 2021, but we believe this message is just as timely for this year!)
Chirp, chirp, chirp. The cicadas outside my window are singing their summer song, reminding me that this season is still in its peak. Yet despite their cadance, as an educator, once the calendar turns to August, my thoughts and imaginations are positioned towards the fall and upcoming school year.
If you are an instructional coach or classroom teacher, you are also likely looking ahead at the start of school. After the last two years, with so many crises and changes in teaching and learning, we all hope to start the year with clarity and consistency. In this short blog, we’d like to offer you three areas to consider and a few questions to ponder as you start gearing up for “back to school”, not just thinking about schedules and units, but preparing your heart, your mind and your classroom.
Start with the heart:
Teaching is highly engaging, intellectual and emotional work. We bring ourselves and our histories to the small group table, to the whiteboard, to the read aloud area. It is only through slowing down enough ourselves as teachers that we can ask critical questions, think analytically, and plan intentionally.
Before thinking through your curriculum maps, your classroom library set up, or your room layout, we’d invite you to reflect first on your own experiences, apprehensions and hopes for the coming school year.
The day you plant the seed, is not the day you eat the fruit. However, by starting at the core of who you are as a teacher and who you hope to become alongside your students, you can create a trajectory for a school year that is interwoven with hope and possibility.
Quick Tip: Find a quiet place and take out a journal. Carve out a few precious minutes to write for yourself! This exercise will not be in vain.
Questions to ponder:
- What are the goals that you have for yourself as a teacher?
- What kind of teacher do you want to be this next school year? Who will you be and become?
- How will you see your students this year?
- Who do you want your students to be and become?
Preparing your mind
The best teachers know themselves and students well, but are also experts in their content area. Please do not neglect the rigorous work of curriculum mapping as you prepare for the new school year. Many educators will remind you of the importance of the first weeks of school and the necessity of establishing routines and expectations up front. However, if you don’t actually think through the arc of your entire school year and where you want students to end up, you’ll find yourself needing to recreate systems in the middle of the year.
Ideally, you can work collaboratively with others to talk through units of study in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Do you need to know your lesson plans for the whole year? By no means! But, we recommend that you create some kind of year at a glance document so you know what the big goals are throughout the year. This will support you, your students and your families.
Quick Tip: Find a colleague and take out your planner. You don’t need to do this alone! Whether you choose to use a digital tool or paper and pencil, working together through planning the year will support your teaching.
Questions to ponder:
- Where do we want students to be by the end of the school year? In Reading, Writing, Math etc? Where are the benchmark points throughout the year?
- What are the units we will be teaching and how do they align throughout the year?
- How will we align our prescribed curriculum with culturally responsive teaching practices?
Setting up your classroom
In his book Atomic Habits James Clear writes about how changes in our environment are highly correlated with changes in our behaviors. Now that we’ve thought through ourselves, our students and our teaching, we can design our space to nurture the endeavors we aspire to create. In other words, we can change our environment to support the learning behaviors we’ve identified.
To be clear, we are not advocating for finding the perfect “pinterest” version of your classroom so that you and your students will “look” put together. In fact, research shows that less is more when it comes to classroom decoration. What we hope instead is that you will envision how the space in your classroom will be used for large group, small group, and individualized instruction and plan your space and resources accordingly. A classroom doesn’t have to be polished to perfection to be ready for incredible student learning. In fact, leaving space for students to create their environment alongside you is a wonderful learning experience.
Quick Tip: Get into your room and take out your camera! Walk around the room at eye level of a student and snap a few photos. Take stock of how your room looks visually. Again, the goal is not perfection, but seeing your classroom through a camera will help you to clarify what may be a distraction or what may be invitational.
Questions to ponder:
- How does my classroom invite all students to learn?
- How am I organizing my materials so that students can have independence?
- Whose voices am I elevating by displaying information? My own? My students? Others?
The start of the new school year is both an exciting and anxious time. Our hope is that you will find some time for yourself to prepare not just bulletin boards and baskets of books, but the heart work of reflection, the brain work of planning, and the physical work of designing a classroom that welcomes all students to learn and grow. We are cheering you on!
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