back to school, management, new teachers

Back to School: Setting Expectations


No matter how versed you are in your content area and pedagogy, one of the most important things of the true art of teaching is having the ability to maintain control over a group of people. I don’t mean this in a messiah-like or Jim Jones sort of way, but in the way that a shepherd can keep his flock in order. In education terms, I’m talking about classroom management.

In all my years of teaching, I confess that this is probably the weakest aspect of my craft. I’m definitely no artist when it comes to managing the masses. My particular problem was that I was a softie until things got too out of control and then I became Godzilla. I definitely don’t like releasing the Kraken, so I resorted to research and sought counsel from the some of the most gifted artists in this area.

Early in my career, a wise principal suggested I sit down with the kids and ask them what they think a successful should look like. From there we crafted a list of RULES and slapped it on the wall. When someone deviated from the rule, he was immediately busted and some sort of PUNISHMENT was enacted. The funny thing about the kids’ list was that it was a lot more draconian than any list of expectations I had ever seen. It was almost exclusively constructed of “DO NOT” statements that sounded like a school marm’s version of the Ten Commandments.

I started suggesting that we construct statements that are more positive sounding. I demonstrated with a sentence that showed how certain behaviors should look instead of what they should NOT look like. My example was: “Eyes and ears focused on whoever is speaking.”

When I frame this exercise, I don’t even like using the word “rules.” I prefer “expectations” or “procedures.” Heck, this year I might even entitle it “How We Roll.” The point is: keep it positive.

Gather your students together on one of the first days and do ask them what a successful classroom looks like. Write down what the students say and synthesize this list into a manageable document that can be posted for them all to see and refer to. Try to keep it simple. Craft your expectations so that everyone can succeed.


Picture credit: “Le Poulpe Colossal,” Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801.

back to school, new teachers, planning

Back to School: Plotting out Your Curriculum


Many school systems have very regimented curricula. I have a teacher friend who literally opens up a binder, turns to whatever day it is, and that day’s lesson’s objectives, procedures, materials, and assessments are all there for him. It’s more like an actor reading a script. Then there are those teachers who work in independent, charter, or less rigid school systems that have a looser grip on what teachers are supposed to teach. I imagine there are several shades of rigidity and laxness in between.

When I started my last job, I kept pestering my principal for the curricula for the courses I was going to teach. After all, I was teaching two languages to the entire elementary school, spanning some seven grade levels. It was a little intimidating! After she sheepishly handed over seven sheets of paper, I realized why she was so reluctant to do so; the “curricula” was a mere list of vocabulary words that were taught to each of those seven grade levels.

At that point, I was even more stressed out because I had a huge job ahead of me. Furthermore, without having had the chance to meet these kids, I was completely unaware if they knew these umpteen words on the page, or better yet, if they even knew how to use them.

After an initial full panic mode, I eventually rationalized with myself: “I’m just going to take it month by month and see where things go.” Sure, I had to make a general plan, but I had to stay flexible. I wasn’t sure what proficiency level each grade level was going to be at.

Flash forward fifteen years. I’ve been at my current school for five years. My Spanish teacher colleague in the primary school and I have decided that it’s time to fully align our curriculum. Over the years, we’ve done this task for Pre-K through grade 2. This summer we received a grant to write curriculum for grades 3-5.

Here are my suggestions on how to start your adventures in curriculum development:

• Network. If you know the teachers who teach below your grade levels or above them, check with them. See where your cohort is coming from and where they’re going to. If you’re teaching a beginning level course, then this step has been simplified for you!

• UbD. I embraced Saint Wiggins and worked out a backward plan. I established what goals I wanted students to meet at each grade levels I was teaching.

• Interests. I chose topics that resonated with each grade level. Farm animals might appeal to Pre-Kindergarteners, but my fifth graders would need something a little cooler, like superheroes or fashion. Once you’ve got the kids in your classes, you can poll them as to what they would like, or what interests them. You should probably plan out your first unit in advance until you’ve secured enough data to customize the course to their interests.

• Stuff. What materials do you have at your disposal? Do you have textbooks? Do you have readers/novels? Dos your school have a decent library? Does your department have materials to share with you? Or will you have to make everything yourself?

• Feel free to seek inspiration. Use your Google abilities to see what teachers are doing elsewhere. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. It is nice, however, to tailor another person’s wheel to fit your car. One size doesn’t always fit all. Check with your state’s department of education. Do they provide a syllabus? Teaching and learning standards? Use these as guidance as you’re plotting out a curriculum.

• What works? As I developed my thematic units, I needed to take into account what is developmentally appropriate for each level that I’m teaching. Do you really need to hold a first accountable for spelling in a second language? Another thing I initially had to keep reminding myself: at grade level A, I want topic X to be an introduction, but at grade level B, I want topic X to be for mastery.

As you’re crafting your curricula, let it sit for a day or two. Come back with fresh eyes and see if you’re still in agreement with the choices you’ve made. Don’t feel intimidated to make changes – or to spiral topics/vocabulary that feel worthy of repeating or expanding. Take notes – was a particular component particularly successful?

Writing a curriculum is by no means easy – nor will you ever feel satisfied with it as being finished. After my years at my school, I am still changing something every summer and having to work through these steps. Good luck!

back to school, new teachers

Back to School: Organizing Your Time


Once you’ve got your physical space all set, you can refocus your mental energy on the “big picture” of the year. I’m a planner. I have calendars and to do lists galore. A few years ago, I resolved to exclusively use an electronic calendar. I’m now doing a lot better with my time management despite a few initial hiccups. My to-do lists are all now in one electronic repository, resulting in no longer having post-its and bits of printer paper floating around my school bag, car, school desk, home desk, kitchen…you get the picture!

With these important pieces of information loaded onto my school laptop and home desktop computers as well as my iPhone and iPad, I have 24/7 access to knowing when I need to do something. A paper calendar can’t nudge me, but push notifications and calendar alarms are reminding me when to go to meetings, when to start working on a certain project, and when I’ve got a day off. I am on top of things!

One thing that isn’t decided – or at least shared with me until a few weeks before school starts, is my schedule. For us planners, this level of uncertainty can be unnerving. It can also hold you back from making schedules and class lists. This is when I need to embrace my inner yogi and command every iota of flexibility I can muster. I must say that over the years, I’ve really adapted to this lifestyle. It did, however, take years.

When your school has finally given you all the bits of information you need to know for the year, put it into your calendar. Use whatever system works for you. If paper still rules your world, then so be it. You can use color coding or highlighting if necessary. If you like electronic calendars, there are many from which to choose, such as the iPhone or even Gmail.

When I know I have large assignments due, like the grades and narrative comments that are due at the end of a marking period, I like to build work time into my calendar for that work to get done. After twenty years of doing this, I have a decent sense of how long this particular dreaded task takes and I make appointments with myself to do. Once you’ve got your unit plans worked out, put them into your calendars. Estimate when you’ll be assessing your students. When will projects be completed and due? Put these all into your calendar.

Be kind to yourself and space out the things that have heavy time constraints. Don’t put a massive amount of grading on your birthday. Or during vacation. Be kind to yourself. You have some degree of control over your calendar – so use it. You’ll thank yourself later.

As the year progresses, you’ll see a pattern emerge and you’ll be savvier about how much time to block out for certain activities. Good luck at organizing yourself for the demands of your time, one of life’s most precious resources.

back to school, classroom, new teachers

Back to School: Organizing Your Space

a_mess1Photo credit: Nathan Lutz, Classroom, 2012.

For years I pined away, wishing to have a classroom of my very own. I shot dirty glances at fellow colleagues who had spacious but uninspiring rooms, or worse, messy rooms. Here I am, on a hot sweaty day in August, sitting in my classroom, overwhelmed by the mess I created by rearranging, organizing, adding, and purging, and my eventual sprucing up of the place. My books need to be sorted and straightened. My supplies for the fall need to be counted and put away. I’m a little backed up on my filing. My plants have seen better days. I have several bulletin boards that need facelifts.

Am I starting to resent the responsibility of all this space? Yes and no. What I’m doing now is painful, but in a few short weeks, it will all be worth it when this room is full of kids, eager to be back at school to see their old friends and make new ones. I want my room to be a place where they can learn and grow, show off their work, and admire the work of others. I want to create spaces where they can collaborate on projects, or sit in solitude and get work done.

If you’re lucky enough to have your very own classroom space, you might be contemplating these same issues. If you don’t have your own classroom, can you work with the person with whom you are sharing the space? It doesn’t hurt to ask. More than likely, that other teacher would love help in designing a better learning environment.

Some things to keep in mind:

1. Resources area(a): Remember that this is not just your room, but the room of your students as well. Have an area where they can help themselves to basic supplies like tape, stapler, paperclips, paper, pencils, etc.

2. Classroom library: Even in this digital age, books are still a great resource. Be sure to have dictionaries and any books that are relevant to your discipline. Magazines are a great resource to have when quick students have downtime after tests or work is done.

3. Workspace: Be sure there is ample space for students to do work comfortably in class.

4. Collaboration space: Humans are social creatures. As such, we need to collaborate from time to time. Ensure that you have an area for students to get together to discuss projects or do pair/small group work. If you are short on space, can your chairs and desks/tables be easily rearranged to facilitate these types of discussions?

5. Storage. I’m a firm believer in the adage “Everything has its place.” I’m blessed to have a lot of cabinets. I have colleagues who do not have anything, so they’ve had to get creative. I’ve seen some teachers hide things behind curtains.

6. Esthetics: It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a classroom homey. A few cheap plants and posters can really spruce up even the dullest of spaces. As the years progress, give curatorship to your students. Display their work. Enlist students to care for plants or decorate bulletin boards. A word of caution: try not to overdo it with decorations and make the place overstimulating.

7. Change: Don’t feel like you have to keep things the same all year. If something isn’t working for you, change it. Ask your students what they think of the space. What works better for them?

Just as every child has the opportunity to make a fresh start every year, so do I, and so does my classroom. The kids I have from year to year like to come in a spot new things or differences.

Sure, I could leave things the same, but where’s the fun and interest in doing that?

Photo credit: Nathan Lutz, Classroom, 2018.