Starting the school year right Part 1: Setting the Pace

Stuck in downtown Camilla rush minute traffic yesterday, I pondered the beginning of the school year.

The one frustrating thing about teaching is that sometimes you feel like you're putting your hand in a bucket of water… when you take your hand out, you don't see the mark. It is a very “what have you done for me lately” profession and each year we start over.

[noscript_1]But we cannot be discouraged! Nature gives us insight into our profession.

If you look at my beautiful hydrangeas, last year's bloom is still is a reminder of beauty. Although it is brown and faded, it is still lovely in its own regard and a reminder of how well I watered and fertilized the plant last year. It is like the last school year. I have reminders of how great things went in the past.

But also like my hydrangea, the most beautiful creation is this year's new growth. Teaching is very much a present profession. The greatest gifts of teaching are accomplishments in the present moment. The breakthrough, the unreachable kid who was reached, the life that was changed. Those are the presents that last in our minds and hearts.

Good teachers in some ways are like adrenaline junkies, always longing for the high that comes from reaching just one more kid and having just one more breakthrough.

As I ponder the beginning of this year, I think of the advice that my mother, a 20 year business education teacher, and my sister, a 15 year middle school gifted certified teacher, gave me when I began teaching four years a go. My practices hinge on their advice to: set the pace, establish the flow, and establish the plan. I will post a four part series on this.

As you begin the year, consider these thoughts:

1) Set the pace

My Mom always says, “You can never be tougher than you are on the first day, first week, and first month.”

Although students may have had you as a teacher previously, each year is different.

Here is what I typically do on the first day:

  • I'm ready – I am waiting for them at the door.
  • This is my turf – I give each of them a card with their assigned computer number and their textbook. Giving an assigned seat sets the tone and splits up problems before they happen!
  • I care – I greet them by name and make eye contact.
  • Information card – I have them fill out their information on the card including birthday, parent names, e-mail addresses, etc.
  • Textbook features – At the door, I immediately hand them an activity to do to familiarize them with the features of their textbook. I do not want them to start off by talking but immediately with working. They also need to know how their textbook is structured and how we will work with it. (I remember not knowing about an appendix or tool in the back of a book until the middle of a school year. There is no excuse for a teacher not covering this on day 1.)
  • Paperwork – I cover the discipline and acceptable use policies and send them home to be signed. This is their first grade and if it is not turned in the next day, I call or e-mail their parents.
  • How is the class structured? I talk about the work flow for that class, handout team lists, grading scale, major projects, my expectations and point out my homework board that is on a white board at the side wall.
  • Why should they care? We talk about why the subject is important. As with most things, I do this by asking questions. Examples: “Who knows what accounting is? Why is it important?” If it is an elective, “Why are you taking this class?”
  • Weed out the slackers – If the class is an elective, I always give homework on the first night. That helps weed out those that think it is going to be an easy class. It gives them a quick overview of the subject and lets them decide while there's still time to switch to another class if their work ethic or subject matter doesn't match their expectations. (Over time you will get a reputation if you are a good teacher, but initially this is important!)
  • Something cool – I always show or mention something cool that I know they don' t know about and leave them hanging. This is important, because I want them to go home and share something cool with their parents on the first day. If you can get kids excited early and positive “buzz” going on with the parents early, it will serve you well.
  • Don't be a used car salesman. I NEVER say: “this is going to be easy”, “this isn't hard,” “you'll like this class” or “we're going to have fun.” They can decide for themselves. These phrases come back to haunt you when you're in the throes of that tough project. As much as I believe in harnessing fun as a tool in the classroom, let them decide what's fun. There's nothing worse than being sold a bad bill of goods on the first day.
  • Discipline – If I have a discipline issue, I deal with it firmly, immediately, and appropriately. I follow the discipline ladder. Usually, I only have one or two discipline referrals the first week and one or two the remainder of the year. If you “let it go” the first day or week or month, kids will expect you to let it go the rest of the year!
  • Tardies – On day two, I close the door when the tardy bell rings. Students are not allowed entry until they bring their tardy pass from the front office. I start teaching at the moment the bell rings. They have to learn early that they need to be in their seat, ready to go.
  • Bell Work – I am a huge believer in bell work. If they get in socialization mode, it is so hard to get out. I hand them something at the door, or have something on the board that is to be done as soon as they get in their seat.
  • Reward good behavior
    I have bonus tickets for +5 on the lesson of their choice (keyboarding and fundamentals). These go daily to the first one or two people in the room who have started their work. I do this daily for four days and then intermittently throughout the remainder of the year. Partial reinforcement is a powerful motivator! Don't just discipline the wrong, incentivize the right!

    On tests, every discussion question is a potential bonus question. If I ask for 5 items but there were 9 they could have learned, I want students who learned all 9 to benefit. This creates incredible mastery and increases the level of excellence in the classroom. It also helps those who may have studied the “wrong thing” to show their expertise.

Tomorrow we'll talk about establishing the flow: people, paper, and information. I hope some of you will also share your thoughts here.

Never miss an episode

Get the 10-minute Teacher Show delivered to your inbox.

Powered by ConvertKit
Picture of Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

All Posts »


Delaney J. Kirk July 23, 2006 - 5:07 am

Great advice! I teach three day workshops on classroom management and we spend the entire first day just talking about the importance of first impressions and how you establish yourself and make connections the first class day. And your mom was right…start off with very high expectations!

Andrew Pass Educational Services, LLC July 23, 2006 - 2:31 pm

It’s very imortant for teachers to have confidence in themselves and to exude that confidence. I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years and still get nervous before my first class of the year. However, I don’t show my students this nervousness. I’ve found that if I feel I’m going to succeed and my students know that I’m confident, my classes will be more successful. I’m not sure why this feeling in its own right is important. But I’ve found it to the be the case.

Andrew Pass

MrsC July 26, 2006 - 4:07 am

Great post. In the blogging world we get so bogged down in “techie” related topics that we forget the basics. These tips are so practical and would be awesome for beginning teachers to see. I am glad to know that someone else is already planning the school year. I highly recommend Harry Wong’s The First Days of School to all new teachers. I often read through my notes in the book before each year begins. Thanks for this post!

Juliana C August 9, 2006 - 1:33 am

I love this post! I am a new administrator and I am using a blog for my new teachers on Harry K. Wong’s “The First Days of School”. This fits right with what we have been talking about! I have posted your site as a link for my teachers to see and hopefully use your outstanding points and ideas.

Kay Buffamante August 15, 2006 - 7:43 pm

I have been a teacher since 1974. The last 16 years of my career have been in the field of professional development and I love the practice of sharing our practices in such a fluid, immediate manner.
If you have not taken a look I would urge you to consider the site
(I know I should be able to make a link but I am pretty new to BLOGS)
The work of Harvey Silver and Richard Strong will give you strategies for the many days that follow those first few days. The work is across grades, contents and is free! And they won’t pester you with emails. You can use the site as works best for you.
As you prepare for those opening days, be excited about the chance you have to make a difference.
And don’t forget to use the technology that the kids are already using outside of school. Find a way to have those discussions about being safe on the internet vs. banning them from sites. And have a blast with this great profession of ours.

belle August 20, 2006 - 5:09 pm

I am a first year teacher in sixth grade and I am quite sure I am just as nervous as they are! (I hope they don’t know!)
Thanks for echoing the wisdom of so many experienced educators and for enforcing that discipline and classroom management take priority, so that instructional time can run smoothly.
My first week was a bit noisy and I’m ready to buckle down and mean business – I made some mistakes in those first five days, but none are irreparable.

patrickj January 25, 2007 - 2:08 am

Life-saving stuff for a new graduate like me. I had a grade two for one term in 2006 and this year take on the teacher librarian role and have been feeling a little intimidated by the change. I wish I’d learnt this stuff at university.

Vicki A. Davis January 25, 2007 - 12:42 pm

Thank you, each of you. It is mid year and I refer back to these posts now to refocus and get back on track. I started the year with these expectations and my students have done amazing work (eg. Flat Classroom Project that won the international edublog award for 2006 for best wiki!

I’m glad I have a wise Mom, because you are right, patrick, these items are often not taught at university!

pjforbes August 3, 2007 - 12:05 am

Thank you so much for the tips on beginning the year. I think your analogy of the hydrangeas was so cool. This will be my second year teaching 2nd grade and although you are teaching a higher grade all your tips can be modified. I wish I would have read these last year. Again, thanks for the tips.

Gregg Hilker August 16, 2007 - 9:58 pm

Thanks for the tips! I’m going into my 8th year of teaching and I have used some of your tips already just from my own experiences of teaching the first few years of my career. I like the idea of giving out a homework assignment the first day – sends a message to the students that you as a teacher –“all business” but after a month or so be able to have fun after you have established your reputation.

JAMS August 4, 2008 - 6:35 pm

I needed this. Thanks so much for the tips. I have been teaching for many years, but it always helps to become aware of what others are doing. I guess this is an affirmation for me that what I am doing continues to be appropriate.

Anonymous July 22, 2009 - 2:43 am

Great ideas. I will have my teachers go to your blog before school starts this year.

Ms. Cash-Staley July 23, 2009 - 12:33 am

Thanks for posting these ideas. Now I can start the year off with inspiration and confidence. ( I am never good about the whole “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving” thing!)

DAllen July 29, 2009 - 2:42 am

This is an excellent site for all teachers, but especially new teachers. Our new teachers meet daily once school begins and this site will help them with ideas for starting their classes. These processes help students feel secure in the classroom and that the teacher is in control. When students feel secure and know what to expect, they can learn.

Abraham Annex September 6, 2010 - 2:21 pm

Hey, just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog and content.
My name is Lee Abraham, I’m 24 years old, and just finished my first year of teaching US History and Government in Georgia.

I just started a blog of my own and was wondering if you could check it out,
and let me know what you think,
especially if you have any advice.

Thank You

Comments are closed.

The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere
Update Required Flash plugin