Get the School Year Started Off Right!

Ten teacher tips to ensure a fresh, but smooth start to your school year.

By Barry Nitikman


back to school kid

As teachers, we strive to start the school year off on the right footing—with a positive and clear set of expectations that are understood by all. Before you peruse my list, I'd like to say that I understand that readers will come from all different grade levels, different types of schools, different programs, and different socio-economic situations. What is a great suggestion for someone in my district, could be totally unrealistic for a teacher in another district. However, I am confident that some of the suggestions will give you a great idea or two to get the year going in a positive and promising way.

1. Send Parents a Letter

Since I teach the same grade every year, my beginning-of-the-year letter is similar from year to year. I include the following:

  • Introduction
  • Brief biography
  • Statement of purpose
  • Parent/teacher communication (specifically how and when to contact me)
  • Teacher/parent communication (assurance that I will be in regular contact with them)
  • Behavior expectations
  • Homework policy
  • Parent volunteer opportunities
  • Wish list
  • Technology resources
  • Special projects and events 

I conclude my letter by saying something like, “I love teaching, and I assure you that I will do everything in my power to ensure that your child has the most positive and rewarding experience he/she can have this year.”  

2. Make Parent/Teacher Communication a Priority

Let parents know that they will be hearing from you not only when something is wrong, but just to stay in touch and maintain the connection that is so important to their child having a successful year. Depending on your district/school/socio-economic situation, having regular e-mail contact is such a positive way to keep parents on your side, and it does wonders to foster cooperation and goodwill.

Make no mistake, this is one of the most positive and beneficial policies you can have. It will ensure a high level of cooperation and follow-through from parents when/if things get difficult during the year. Take the time to send an e-mail or tell a parent little things that go on during the day. For instance, “Junior is quick to raise his hand when I ask the class a question.” A parent with whom you’ve been in regular contact is much more likely to support you when you need to say “Junior is having trouble keeping his hands to himself.” Establish right from the start that you will be in contact this year—and then do it.

3. Hit the Ground Running with Your Curriculum

Over the years, I’ve found myself taking less time with introductory sorts of activities in favor of getting right into the curriculum. Don’t dispense with all of the introductions, but do make the best use of the time you have by getting right into what you have to accomplish while everyone is still fresh. How many times have you said in April, “If I only had three more days with this?” Those three days might be there already, in August or September. Carefully consider your community-building activities. Ask yourself, can I accomplish the same goals using curriculum-related activities? In many cases the answer is yes.

4. Refine or Replace Previous Policies/Routines 

This includes discipline, homework, scheduling of math vs. language arts, and even parent volunteer options. It is so easy to just maintain the same, comfortable routines you’ve always used. But with some reflection time, you might realize that there is a very different way of doing something that could have tremendous benefits for the class. Or perhaps, a small, subtle change could make a big difference.         

5. Establish Important Routines from the Start

This may seem at first glance to be the antithesis of #3 above, but it isn’t, because the time you spend on these routines will improve your classroom efficiency immeasurably over the entire year. In the book Teach Like a Champion, there is a section devoted to this topic (see my previous article.) So, I’ll just briefly mention one example that relates to this: one teacher describes how he takes at least a half-hour to an hour at the beginning of the year to establish a set routine for basic activities; in this case, passing papers in and out. The routines are not just discussed, but rigorously (and competitively) practiced and rehearsed until the class is completing them within about twenty seconds. Because these are routines/activities that will be repeated countless times during the year, the time saved is almost unbelievable; entire days are saved through the efficient use of time in this manner. Read the above-linked article, or better yet, get the book.

6. Take Pictures

You may be able to get a parent to do this, but regardless, in the days of smartphones and iPads, taking a full class set of pictures takes maybe 10-15 minutes total. I use the pictures for all sorts of things:

  • Class activities
  • Worksheets
  • Special projects

It adds a fun and personal touch that kids really enjoy. If you’ve never put kids’ pictures on a math activity worksheet (“Kayla is trying to save money for new shoes......”) you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much motivation it adds. 

Oh, and one more suggestion. If you can, and have the time and/or desire, take pictures of your kids with their parents. This is not always possible, of course, but you could even ask them to bring in a picture. I sometimes have trouble remembering who is who and keeping a little print out with family pictures (or just keeping them on my computer) can help jog my memory. 

7. Look at Your Classroom with Fresh Eyes

Or even through someone else’s eyes! Such as a trusted colleague, or a teacher friend. It is so comfortable, and so much simpler, just to set everything up the way you’ve always done it. And let’s face it, there are some years where you’ve got literally hours, at the last minute, to set up your classroom. But most of the time, you have at least a certain amount of time for reflection, where you could take a look around, with no limiting thoughts. You might just realize, or have it pointed out by that trusted colleague, that you don’t have to put the computers over there, or leave a big open area in the back, or any number of things. There is a human tendency to limit ourselves for the sake of convenience and secure routine. But try it: look at the room with fresh eyes, and think hard if there are different ways to utilize your space. Then ask someone else to do the same.

8. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

We all know this quandary: you have that nice, but unused set of books or novels, that box of ultra-cool math manipulatives you just can’t seem to get around to using, those United States flash cards that you haven’t brought out since you switched to 6th grade five years ago, but you can’t bear to get rid of them. If you haven’t used it, get rid of it! Give it to another teacher, a homeschooler, anyone who will use it, or throw it out. This applies to classroom teachers in spades. Many of us tend to be hoarders, and it is tough to think of getting rid of something that a) is in great condition, b) was really expensive, and/or c) evokes fond memories. However, you will be shocked at how much space can be saved or created through culling and passing along stuff that you simply aren’t using and aren’t likely to use in the near future.

My best advice is to look over your stuff with a ruthless eye, asking yourself one question only: Is this something I’m likely to use this year?” If the answer is an honest “No,” then get rid of it.

9. Prepare and Print Generic Class Lists

This will only apply to some of you, but in my case as a fifth grade teacher, I type up my class list on the computer in a table format (left row is a list of students, there are 5-7 blank columns to the right). I make several copies, which I keep in a file, and then use them all year long for grade sheets, check-offs, field trips, etc.

10. Research Your Future Pupils

I have found it to be immensely valuable over the years to have as much information as I can about my students prior to the beginning of school. There are some teachers who are just the opposite. They say, “I just want to get to know my kids naturally, and not have preconceived notions.” This can be a valid viewpoint, but I would argue that it is to the child’s and your benefit for you to have foreknowledge of any issues, problems, strengths, social/family issues, etc. Prior knowledge may help you to serve the child better. The simple act of putting Sally and Megan at different tables; or Manuel and Albert at the same table, which you would have had no way of knowing beforehand, can make a huge difference. After all, forewarned is forearmed!

I hope you will find at least one or two ideas here to help get your school year started off favorably. Have a great year!