Every teacher I know is playing their first day out- whether with the experience of last year fresh in mind or the optimism of the very first year ahead. I quite enjoy the anticipation; it forces me to reflect on last year’s good intentions, last year’s “what worked and what did not work” so to speak. I’m also a goal-orientated educator; articulating objectives or reflecting on past practices helps set the tone for the year ahead. And, since I have a captive audience, I’m adding my list to the millions of other posted lists about the first days of school. Only this list is the real list; the list of things you most need to do. After twelve years of teaching, this is the list that works for me.
- Eat breakfast. Even a small one. This may sound like practical advice more than teaching advice. Eat breakfast. I spent many a school year running out the door without something in my stomach. I spent many a school year wondering why my mornings just didn’t run as smoothly as my afternoons. The one thing I did last year that change everything: breakfast. Even if it was on the go, I had something prepared in my stomach every day. Soon, I was up early so I could eat breakfast which means I was in my room a little bit earlier and I was in a great mood to attack the day. It’s the same for students as it is for teachers- a little breakfast goes a long way. Before I knew it, I was a morning person. This year, I was gifted a kerig machine for my classroom and I’m tempted. Very skeptical, but tempted; after I do number 3, I may add it to my classroom tech arsenal.
- Have templates, will use. My teacher mentor from years ago gave me one of the best gifts: a collection of templates. Have a student who has been absent and needs a reminder to check in? I have a template for that email. Need to contact a parent about a student update? I have a template for that email. Need to update class on snow day make up work? I even have a template for that email. Figure out what you need for the year and create those before the first day. Leave room to make them personal (I do not make templates for feedback or comments in a gradebook) but efficient. I have a template for the first email to all parents that I modify depending on the year. I use my absent student one all the time. Keep these electronically; mine live in my OneNote Teacher notebook in word doc form.
- Clean your room. I sound like my mother who insisted that you really couldn’t do anything in a messy environment. She’s right; last year I opted to clean my room before leaving for the summer. I really spent time thinking about how the space was used (turns out I don’t need an extra bookcase for supplies) and how I want it to be used (I moved the lending library near the door- students grab and go with ease). I eliminated the need for a desk two years ago; it just seemed to be a collection of things I didn’t want anyway. Now heading back, I’ve got some leftover supplies from my summer class that need a home. I’m excited to clean the department supply cart (a solution we came up with after declaring that no one wanted to keep the same supplies in every room), and I’m using washi tape to re-organize my dry erase boards. I’m also re-examining how to better situate technology in my very old classroom; the document camera needs a new space and I’m hoping to convince technology to re-wire my projector. And I clean. With Clorox. Everywhere.
Establish your core. I’m not talking about exercise, at least not physical exercise. I mean your support group, your colleague core. If you are new to your school, reach out to the person you will most work with and establish some mutual grounds. Email your librarian, your IT department, and your department head. Ask questions, schedule a time to meet before the school year gets started. I reach out to the librarians with my course syllabus; the IT department and I meet to discuss the new technology I’m implementing. I usually lunch with a few teachers in my discipline and invite new ones. It’s important to feel connected to a sense of community, whether that be big or small. Teaching very much takes a village and realizing how each of us connect is a big part of student success. Any teacher who feels like an island is never well placed for a good year; if you aren’t a fan of big groups in the lunchroom, invite others for a coffee break. While it takes time to develop a professional learning community, it takes one coffee break to feel connected. And that’s a start, for both you and your students.
- Plan your next break. I know, school hasn’t even started and I’m suggesting planning your next break! I learned this years ago, when teacher burnout really threatened to end my career. Before school starts, I plan the first vacation break in the new school year. It can be as big as a week long diving trip (oh March, you can’t come soon enough) or a small weekend get away. Have one in mind; better yet have one planned. You will not have time to do this during the first months of school. It will motivate you, re-invigorate you, and absolutely sustain you. My first trip involves Harper’s Ferry, a convenient hour away. I have a cute bed and breakfast planned right in the middle of October when the leaves are at their best. I may bring grading along, but I will at least be resting as the first two months of school are marked down on the books.
- Get a haircut. Maybe a manicure. Okay, this one is maybe not a hard fast rule, but a spirited one. Make yourself physically ready to greet the first day. Find a first day outfit, get a first day haircut, or treat yourself to a manicure. When you feel your best, you will be at your best. Maybe rock that brand new
purse handbagpatagonia messenger. Do something that signifies a new start. After all, that’s exactly what a first day is, no matter how many years of teaching: a new start. This year I may do all three.
- Start mapping your collaborations or projects now. Most teachers spend a lot of their summer re-inventing their curriculum, excited about how to make it new. I will be honest: I spend most my summer trying not to think about my curriculum. It rarely works in entirety; by this time I have an idea about new things I’m willing to do or new projects I’d like to try. My first project is relatively easy to start: I’m re-doing the vintage game Guess Who? for the literary classroom. (More on that soon.) I’m also re-thinking the science fiction elective and hoping for a buy in from the science department. Newspaper will utilize Microsoft’s Teams this year and this week I’ve started to establish their group site. (Remember that utilizing a new technology can sometimes be a project itself.) I’m also re-doing a play I wrote because a student asked to produce it this year and wondering how to package the script. All of this really gets my brain thinking and excited for the first day!
- Bring your kitten to work. I’m just kidding. Probably not an advisable thing, even if your kitten is just as cute as mine. Instead, bring a happy photo for your classroom. Just one or two; your students don’t need your life story in pictures. Have one photo that makes you smile on those days you may need one. I rotate mine out- sometimes it is my mom, sometimes its a kitty picture, and sometimes it’s just pictures of cupcakes. (I’m not kidding.)
- Invest in a good planner and then use it. I’m a moleskine devotee; my planner is a red 5 by 7 moleskine notebook. I fill it in well before the first day, even taking an hour to double check my school email for events I might have missed. I also utilize Microsoft Outlook on my laptop as well as Google cal for my phone. Even so, the red moleskin is my dedicated school planner. And I love the size- I can fit it into a bag with ease, the color is quick to spot, and the binding doesn’t catch on fabric. I take notes right next to the calendar grid which is essential in faculty staff meetings. Trust me, if you are navigating both a calendar and a notebook during a quick meeting, you will miss things. I highly suggest a planner that leaves you room for both. I have my planner with me through everything but lunch.
- Leave room to have room. There is such a thing as the overplanned, overscheduled teacher who has a spot for everything. That is just not me, and I find that often times it leaves little room for collaboration or those wonderful spontaneous moments when a project just clicks with the class. Prepare, but don’t over prepare so much that you leave no room for the grinds to grease. Let your students help guide your curriculum; leave room for them to explore. I’m teaching Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and intentionally leaving some room in the course schedule for discussion. And in the event there is no discussion, it will be okay. I’m going to let them guide me that week.
Now I’m feeling like I need cupcakes, a kitten, and my course schedule completed. Happy first day to all my teacher friends, and be sure to add to my list. What did I miss?