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Sept. 6, 2010

All new teachers have one thing in common: first-day jitters. The fear of the unknown often takes over, and teachers wonder how they will manage to “manage” their classroom when they don’t even know their students. This article provides new teachers (and existing ones) with a few tips for a manageable and enjoyable classroom. Follow these guidelines, and your classroom will fall into place. *Of course, I can’t guarantee that things will work out exactly as listed below (students are never predictable, and if teachers can remember this, they will be able to adapt must easier).

Visualize and Create: How do you want your classroom to look? This is not an exercise in interior design, but rather one on feel, on environment. Every teacher has his or her own picture of the ideal classroom, but what many teachers forget to do is visualize their class and plan accordingly. There are a few simple ways to turn your vision into reality. The following list starts with easier aspects of this exercise and continues to more abstract concepts:

Making a Workable Space: Imagine standing in front of your students. Where will you stand? Where will they sit? How will their desks be arranged (and will you be able to group them easily and with smooth transitions)? Are students able to walk to the board, or are the desks too cramped? Where will they hand in their work? Do you have supplies for them? Where will these supplies be housed? Making your classroom a place where both you and your students can easily function is vital for classroom management. If your students have to spend even a few minutes searching for a stapler or hole-punch or if you don’t have a pencil sharpener or a place for students to put work, precious time will tick away – along with your sense of management.

Now that you have visualized your “space” you should make it happen! Arrange your room in the way you imagined. (By the way, even if it is not the beginning of the year or if you are not a new teacher, this exercise can be useful for you. How can you make a good room even better? Think Feng Shui.)

Conquering the Name Game: Students love to feel like the teacher is invested in their lives, and the first way you can ensure that your students know you are aware of them on a personal level is by remembering their name. Sound simple? It might, but so often, teachers forget that the name is the gateway to the individual; students feel disregarded when the teacher forgets them. I am terrible with names; because I am not a “visual” learner, looking at faces doesn’t help either. At the beginning of the school year, all my students seem to meld into one being that simply looks like a teenager. In spite of my name-remembering handicap, I have figured out a few tips that have helped:

  1. Seating Charts: I create seating charts on the first day of school and place my students in them alphabetically.
  2. Welcome sheets with a question that asks students to tell me something about them that I should know (what do they need to be successful?). This extra snippet of information at the beginning of the year has helped me to associate a personal story with every student, which in turn helps me to remember the name.
  3. Calling on Students: I force myself to call students by name, so it is imperative that I create several classroom activities that first week where I must repeatedly call on students. Of course I use my seating chart, but after a few days I usually find that I don’t need it anymore.
  4. For younger classes: Ice-breakers like Betty Banana or Gus Grapes. Students go around the room and have to memorize each person’s name and “food”. By the end, we all know each other’s name.

Defining your “Deal-Breakers”: Just as Dr. Phil states, people must be cognizant of their own, personal deal-breakers. A common pitfall for newer teachers (and some established ones) is that they have not defined which aspects of classroom behavior they can put up with and which ones they cannot. For instance, one of my absolute rules is No Throwing. This many sound obvious, but if a teacher does not define this rule and mete out consequences when it is broken, students will end up throwing pencils, pens, drinks, paper, etc. all in the name of loaning supplies to their peers. Whenever I would see a pencil being thrown I would imagine the parents on A Christmas Story saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” The worry over every potential pencil-tip eye-injury was too much stress for my already overloaded system, and so I created this deal-breaker. Stress – Gone.

So how do you determine your deal-breakers? Decide what aspects of behavior you absolutely will not tolerate, under any circumstances, and set these ground-rules the first day of class. It doesn’t matter if your students are 5, 15, or 50. People need boundaries and they aren’t mind-readers. Students won’t know what you want unless you TELL them. Of course, none of this telling works if you don’t have a consequence for each behavior – don’t forget to define these as well.

Planning to Win: We are teachers; we’ve already done our schooling so we shouldn’t have to study anymore, right? WRONG. This is a myth! As teachers, we owe it to our students to study, to learn, and to BE the example of the model student we want them to be. How can we encourage continual learning if we ourselves do not learn? How can we suggest daily writing if we do not write on a daily basis?

Also, a teacher must constantly build his/her ethos with students: try not preparing for an AP class and see how your students feel about you. Their respect for you will go out the window, and you will spend a semester trying to prove to them that you know your stuff. So my suggestion for all teachers is to plan on studying and learning. Read the texts with the students. Write with the students. Teachers who discover right along with their students create magic in the classroom – no longer is there a “master of all knowledge (teacher) and a “receiver of knowledge” (students).  In a true discourse community, students and teachers learn together. Want to create “Chemistry” in your room? This is perhaps the most important key. (For more about chemistry, read my blog post on the topic.)

New Teachers and Planning: New teachers have it rough. It is ALL new, from the students to the prep to the place of employment. I would pencil in study time and simply plan for it. Also, although this might seem awkward, lecture notes help sometimes for new teachers. You don’t have to remember EVERYTHING, (hard to believe, eh?) and sometimes a little study-aid is the perfect stress-reliever. My first year of teaching, I spent hours typing study notes to my units (American Lit was my first prep) and although it took some hard work, I was prepared for my lessons. A prepared teacher can be fluid and vibrant and passionate; an ill-prepared teacher will flounder and hesitate, and this translates to the students. If YOU don’t get it, they certainly won’t.

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