Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Starting the School Year Right in the Primary Grades

If you're a new teacher, there are some things you'll want to do before the honeymoon is over. Not the honeymoon with teaching -- hopefully that won't end. No, the honeymoon period that a class of children experience when they enter a new class for the first time, the one they grant their instructors. They're ready to be back, they're ready to learn, they wonder what they'll find. They want their new teacher to think well of them, they want their new classmates to think well of them.

Some children display challenging behaviors from day one, but often classes enter subdued. The Responsive Classroom calls those first days is a grace period and lasts about three days: Kids enter on their best behavior, but after a few days, they begin to test limits.

Comfort level is part of the issue. Teachers want their classes to feel comfortable, but with comfort, there's more energy and more noise. Children are less alert to their surroundings, and that can make them prone to forget things they seem to know on day one, like how their choices impact others.

It can be easy to look at tables of alert and eager faces on that first day and overestimate. Don't!

Interactive Modeling of Classroom Expectations

The Responsive Classroom has provided a video about teaching the quiet signal on the first day through interactive modeling ( Educators can see how this teacher offers opportunities for practice. She comments after one trial that it took about thirty seconds, and says with a touch of excitement after a repeat, “That was instantaneous.”

Young children may be doing something very simple during that important practice time, even coloring -- coloring and art of course are among the things young children can have a hard time tearing themselves away from.

Routines that Need to be Taught

Kindergartners often don't know to put caps on markers. Primary students may not either -- or at the least, they may not appreciate the importance when they're in a room that seems to have a boundless supply, like a river that flows endlessly from its source. They need it all reinforced: Caps on markers, jars on lids, books and papers off the floor and out of the way of traffic. Here, too, it may not be enough to say that one closes the cap on the glue. They may need a demonstration. They may need to know what it looks and feels like when the lid is closed securely on the paint. They can benefit from some self-assessment and a bit of praise.

The following are examples of other classroom routines a teacher will want to teach very early on:

  • Where do papers go when they're finished?
  • Which materials can children get for themselves and what do they need to ask for?
  • Where do different materials 'live" in the classroom?
  • When is a good time to ask for, or get, a drink of water (When the class is sitting at the rug for a story? When they're walking down the hall?)
  • What signal can a child use for bathroom? For water?
  • Is there a signal that children can use to remind others to be quiet – and how exactly is the signal used? (If a friend doesn’t respond to a “quiet coyote” hand signal, is it a good idea to wave the “quiet coyote” hand signal around in the friend’s face?)

Building Work Accountability

Most children self-regulate better when they know they are accountable for their work. In some cases, it impacts not only their learning but the learning of others around tem. One of the most fundamental work goals for those first couple of days is laying the groundwork for that accountability. Ideally, no child has stuffed an undone paper into their desk before heading outside – or at least no child has done so without knowing that their teacher knows it’s undone. The first assignments the children do may not be scored with a four-point rubric. They may be cut and dry and basic, but the teacher can tell – quickly – whether they’ve been done.

Some teachers use “exit slips” at points throughout the year; some teachers refer to short assignments or reflections – a question or two posed on a small sheet of paper – as “your ticket to recess”. It could instead be a ticket to choice time in the classroom. Missing recess because of work that’s not done is controversial. Modern research says children need that active time for brain development and classroom functioning. Still, the transition to play time can be a good time for a check-in. Some children are in the space to consider how they could improve their use of time as they watch friends move to the Lego table or out the door.

Exit slips – often a single question that a child answers based on the previous lesson – are more than just accountability; they can serve as formative assessments.

Not every assignment can be completed in a session. The teacher may want to designate a place to turn in unfinished work for teacher review. The teacher may want one pocket of the child’s work folder labeled ‘not finished’.

Building Community

The early days are also a time to build a sense of community. It can be important to bond with a class early on. Children often brainstorm rules, talk about hopes and expectations, and/ or sign a classroom charter. Edutopia notes that greeting students with a smile increases engagement – not just on Day 1 but throughout the year. The first day is the best day to begin.

Many primary classes have a randomly selected student of the week who presents items that tell about himself or herself. The teacher may opt to be the first ‘student of the week’.