By Molly Breen
The summer months can be a time to retool, refresh, and invigorate our teacher tool kits. We look to September as a marker for a “fresh start” with our student groups, and on the teacher side, our professional hearts pitter-patter in anticipation of doing better and being better than the year before. But we all know that the shiny-new-penny feelings of September quickly tarnish without enormous amounts of preparation and reflection.
That’s right. Good teachers make it look easy, but we know that a well-run, engaged classroom community doesn’t happen by accident. It is an alchemy of thoughtful preparation, knowledgeable instruction, flexibility, iteration, trust in relationship, and, I dare say, vulnerability. Creating true classroom community and clear expectations, a bedrock for the year ahead, is a process that starts before our learners even walk through the doors.
You get what you get and you don’t get upset.
Our student groups can be a bit of a wild card at the start of a new school year. Even if you loop (teach the same group of students for multiple years), it is likely that there will be new kids in the mix. Getting to know your students personally is a key ingredient to classroom community. I like to send my kids a photo card over the summer with a little note. The photo usually shows me doing something “human” and “un-teacher-y,” like riding a bike or hamming it up at the state fair. The point is that I am sharing something personal about myself and setting a tone for the year ahead. In my note, I like to ask kids questions, like: “Did you learn to do anything new this summer?” “Did you eat anything amazing?” Some teachers will send a blank postcard with their correspondence so that kids can send a response.
We’re all in this together.
Along with student connection, it’s essential to get to know parents—what are their hopes and dreams for their kids? What would be helpful to know going into the school year together? Questions about family culture can also help create a window to better understand your students and where they are coming from. Depending on how you roll in your setting, this can also be a great opportunity to ask parents for volunteer commitments for the year ahead. A simple one-page letter introducing yourself, asking a few questions of parents, and leaving a space for them to commit to helping out is an easy way to create connection with your most important partners.
Do as I say—and as I do.
When you create intentional connections with your students and families, you have already begun the process of building trust in the relationship. This is critically important for your next step: setting expectations and guiding behavior. (Truthfully, this is a year-long process, but it all begins in our first moments together.) In the responsive classroom tradition, students and teachers work together to (1) get to know one another and (2) create class expectations. This collaborative process helps everyone feel more connected to the school expectations (and more likely to follow them). On the teacher side, it’s important to consistently model what we hope for in student behavior. Nothing undermines your authenticity faster than setting up expectations for kind and empathetic behavior and then flying off the handle at a disruptive kid.
Your class expectations can be more specific than a schoolwide “big three.” For example, your schoolwide big three might be (1) Be kind, (2) Take care of our school, and (3) Listen to teachers. This is a great place to start with your student group. What does it mean to “be kind”? How can we take care of our school? What happens if we don’t listen to teachers? But your class expectations can be more specific to your group and class culture. Take time to develop these during the first three to six weeks of school. I like to keep a “sloppy copy” of expectations that we can continuously add on to during these first weeks. Over time, we refine the list and make a final copy with our top ten expectations that gets placed prominently in our classroom space for reference. My students like to decorate our final copy, so it is generally a thing of beauty in the end, for many reasons! These expectations should be shared with families and lifted up as a point of pride for your classroom community.
Stick to the script.
A behavior guidance script that supports your classroom expectations is a forever tool that will help you, your classroom volunteers or assistants, and—most importantly—your students remember the ideals you have established together. It’s up to you what the script sounds like, but it should be used consistently so your kids know that they can trust your process. My keys for a behavior guidance script are:
- Observe: Do you actually need to get involved or provide a reminder? Sometimes waiting a beat lets kids figure out a solution that you might not have been able to provide.
- Opening question: Without escalating things (“What’s wrong?” or “What’s the problem?”), ask a question to increase your understanding: “Is there something you would like me to know?” or “Is there something you want [your friend] to know?”
- Listen for understanding: Let children have a turn to talk and express themselves without interruption.
- Summarize: Repeat back in your own words what students say, ideally referencing some of your class expectations: “You feel frustrated because everyone is being so noisy and our classroom expectation is to use a quiet voice inside, is that it?” Summarizing is also a great opportunity to model a range of emotional language—not just happy, mad, sad.
- Agree: Once everyone involved has been heard and their words accurately summarized, it’s time to figure out a solution that everyone agrees upon. This can take some finesse, but because you have trust in the relationship that you began to establish way back in August, because you have a set of agreed upon expectations that create a social contract, and because you are consistently modeling acceptable behavior for students, you will always find a solution. And the brilliant thing: Over time, your kids will begin to implement this script without your intervention!
The cheese stands alone.
Mutiny may occur, even with your well-laid and best-prepared plans. Never fear! Model flexibility, call a class meeting, talk about the “elephant” in the classroom. You can go back to the expectations, rework them, rethink them, and start anew. Sometimes I have learned my most important teaching strategies through challenging behavior or the crumbling of a good plan. The key ingredient here is to be open to change and iteration. Don’t be the cheese, standing alone, dedicated to the original classroom ideals, when the situation calls for a new approach. And don’t be afraid to look for resources to help you navigate the unexpected. Asking other professionals is always a great place to start, but I’m a research junkie, so I tend to look for well-researched approaches to provide a starting point for any instruction. As one of my grad school professors told me, “Stand on the shoulders of giants!” That is, don’t be afraid to use someone else’s ideas if they are proven to work. Our class communities have so much to teach us if we allow them to. Reflection will help you grow both personally and professionally. Ask yourself, “How am I contributing to the problem? What do my students need from me? Where can I get more support or new ideas?”
Building anything takes time, and once you have a stable structure, it requires maintenance. If we approach our fresh start to the school year with this in mind, we can keep that shiny-new-penny feeling all year long. But a little tarnish adds character, and who doesn’t want more of that?
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed a broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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