That first month of school

Some of those reading this have already gone “back to school.”  I am a teacher squeezing the last bit of summer out of the break from my regular school year work, and as soon as I’m home it is “game on” again. But don’t let the well oiled machine of school reformers fool you, they will demean educators by crying “summers off,” along with using other euphemisms to sell you short on the job you do (e.g. “job for life”, “impossible to fire”…).

You know better, and so do I. If I am not sorting through old stuff to see what I can upgrade, adjust and use new; if I am not in my building in meetings, workshops, and professional development; if I am not scanning every clearance rack/sales shelf book-store giveaway; if I am not reading and researching to find ways to jack-up my teacher game…well, I always am, so I can’t even wrap that sentence up effectively. Bottom line is that teaching is hard, ongoing work, and anyone who does it knows it. We also tend to share our best practices with each other, with our newest colleagues, and now even online through sales sites. I still haven’t quite latched onto that concept-to me it’s like a smile and a kind word. It helps; it’s the right thing to do; so that’s what I do. I have an “every day is Friday” take on life and I approach my job the same way, with the key being to be ready for every day to be Friday. Share a smile, send a great note home, do something nice for somebody.

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This time of year, my teaching focus is on setting my students up to start early with a positive frame of mind, and to want to come to school every day ready to share, give, put their best into it and know that the next day they can do the same. Don’t get me wrong, some days will still be rough; some students will still be tough; but in the end you will decide how you react in those situations and what end result you will steer towards. You can’t control all outcomes or avoid every undesirable one, but you can set yourself up for more good ones and that’s what I like to do.

So, in my first month, this is what I do:

1) Get ready to begin noting, in a very casual way, the challenges, strengths, and potential in each student in a narrative style. Talker, lead organizer, resistant, artistic…what do they seem eager to do and what will I need to cultivate to a degree. A sheet for each student that allows me to set and track goals for…

  • the painfully shy to share effectively by Thanksgiving when called on; raise their hand for a chance to share effectively by Valentine’s Day.
  • the chronically disorganized to develop and utilize an organization system with some degree of success.
  • The hard-to-get-along-with to become an asset to a peer group doing cooperative work…

These are just a few of the myriad of personal development characteristics that educators are constantly monitoring throughout the school day, and have no choice but to work on if better student outcomes is the goal. Of course there are academic benchmark goals you have no choice but to track, but in the end the personal development goals will be the deeper power that utilizes the academic skills effectively, and in terms of personal and professional development-nothing works better than ongoing contact with the public and the parents being served. So in addition to tracking student progress, I encourage my own progress and that of parent/guardians with this:

2) Make frequent contact with parent/guardians and have a plan for if and when you need to contact them quickly.

  • Know the phone numbers they can be reached at if needed, and know if your school and/or administration have a policy regarding teachers contacting families. Not that they should, but in instances of something more serious (discipline, injury…) the school may want to be official contact for their protection and yours. For general updates, questions, cooperative plans regarding behavior/schoolwork, and especially good news or observations to share: a way to get a hold of parents and guardians is always a smart thing to have.
  • Keep some “news from school” type notes on hand. I burned through my stack before Valentine’s Day one year, but did not stop or drop the practice-I just switched to sticky notes until I refilled my quirky teacher-note supply. These notes are great for things as simple as “Had homework in every day this week” or ”Raised a hand and shared a great observation with the class today…” These are just examples, of course, and comments would be tailored to the goal you are working on, or possibly follow up to an issue discussed in a phone call.

I don’t try to contact every parent every day-but staying in touch is a must, especially when there are specific goals to be worked on. I should know what those goals are and why they should be goals at all.

So…”summers off” accusers: as soon as I’m done writing this, I am setting up my template for the coming year. No, I am not in school, and neither are my students. Yes, my students-to-be are probably playing outside, learning how to get along with others, discovering things in their neighborhood…maybe even reading a book?

Regardless, they are warming up for that first month, and so am I.

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