The back-to-school teacher checklist: 'What are you going to keep sacrosanct in your classroom this year?'

One teacher-writer shares his routine for starting the school year afresh with new students

Thomas Rogers

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1. Set expectations

Every teacher will have some kind of routine for starting the school year afresh with new groups of students. My first tip is to consider the “little things” first. So, for example, when students turn up to their first lesson with you, how will you appear? Where will you stand? Will you have them line up outside? How strict will you be with this?

For me, a strict policy of a straight line and a swift walk up and down, greeting students but also asking them to address any uniform issues, is a perfect way to show that you will have high expectations before they even enter your classroom. On entry, explain to them the procedure in a calm and authoritative manner, without hesitation. To walk in quietly, in single file, always works well.

My favourite method that has worked over the years has been to ask all the students to stand at the back and then assign them seats in a (sometimes predefined but sometimes not) seating plan. Again, this is an opportunity to ask for silence while you do this and to make eye contact with each student.

At this point, body language and tone are crucial. Try not to stand behind the desk. Move to the centre of the room with a calm yet commanding attitude. Don’t appear afraid, even if you are petrified. Remember that in the first lesson, performance is key in creating the right impression.

In that first lesson, some teachers wouldn’t set expectations or ask the students to do so. I do though. It’s worth checking out the idea of “sabotage” by Paul Ginnis here: it’s a great activity that ends with the simple message that you expect students to take responsibility for their own behaviour in class. In terms of what your expectations will be, consider what you think are the most crucial things and try not to over complicate. So, for example, for me, not talking while the teacher is talking is essential and would be met with “zero tolerance”. What are you going to keep sacrosanct in your classroom this year?

2. Create opportunities for students to get to know each other 

Whether it be through the classic “find someone who...” or perhaps a bit of circle time, students will appreciate the opportunity to learn something about each other.

On 1 September, it was the 20th anniversary of my first day as a child at secondary school. I hated it from the word go. I felt small, I felt timid and I felt out of my depth. I don’t remember speaking to anyone properly for weeks. I just got my head down. I remember being scared of all the teachers, without exception. I remember how huge this new world was. Mazy corridors with stern-faced prefects who appeared like giants in the hallways. I remember struggling to not get pushed over whilst shuffling in between lessons, carrying what I hoped were the correct books.

The new students, whether in primary or secondary, will feel an element of this, too. So trying to keep this in mind, amongst all your other key priorities, is surely essential. This blog from Kate Jones is a fantastic introduction to what you could do to put students at ease.

3. Get to know the basics about your students

Data is data. However, there are some essentials that will allow you to learn what you need to know very quickly. For primary school teachers: key stage 1-2 results, Sats scores and reading ages. For secondary teachers: KS2 scores, Sats scores and a baseline test. Many schools employ the baseline test as a measure of a student’s ability within a particular subject area.

Although these tests are typically very difficult to compose, they do offer an opportunity to understand a student’s grasp of key subject-based concepts. However, as with a test I generated for history students, it’s very difficult to make these valuable and measurable. If you are going to do any form of baseline test, a key question is surely, why are you doing it? Or, more brutally, so what?

4. Rome wasn’t built in a day

Inset days can leave you in a fluster. Suddenly, one million things get put in your intray with little hope of completion any time soon. However, the teacher in you will want to get them all done and soon.

The temptation is to dive head-on into a few weeks of completing tasks far removed from the essentials of simple lesson planning and initial assessments. Sometimes, you just need to take a step back and acknowledge (especially if you are a middle leader): “There is nothing I can do about that now, leave it until another day."

5. Make a plan for the first weekend

Come up with a plan for the weekend. Any plan. Preferably something you can look forward to. It doesn’t have to be grand or bold but something that will help to put that first week back into some context and keep you (relatively) sane.

6.  Remember, its always like this and it is always OK

Regardless of how buried you feel, things always work themselves out in time. I’m speaking to myself now.

Have a great first few weeks back! 

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs and tweets at @RogersHistory

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