Top 10 tips for a smooth first week of school

Even though I’ve been teaching for a long time—I’m starting my 18th year—every August I still get those “school is starting” jitters. I’ll get anxiety dreams about forgetting to prepare something major, or I’ll panic that I don’t remember what to do on the first day. But every year without fail, once I start getting my room ready (I go in a little earlier than teacher work week), I usually begin to calm down. It gets me excited to get going, and I purposely push myself to try new things each year (this year it will be a flexible seating plan!), to keep it fresh, exciting and interesting. As I start thinking about the first week of school, self-talk helps keep me positive: I’ve done this so many times before and I’ve got this and I know what I’m doing.

Based on my years of experience, I’ll share some of my own top “starting the school year” tips that I would pass along to other teachers. Whether new or seasoned, teachers can learn from one another, so I hope that you can find at least something in my list that may help. May we all have a spectacular and fulfilling year of learning and growth!

Top 10 tips for a smooth first week of school

1. Establish the tone that will bring success the rest of the year. Your facial expressions, enthusiasm, tough love, kindness and thoughtfulness will all help the children bond with you and respect you more quickly.

2. Even if you don’t feel organized, make the room look as organized as you can. The more pride you show in your classroom, the more pride the children will feel. Label as many things as you can so that they children see that everything in the room has a home. Definitely be careful not to overstimulate them with walls plastered with decorations. Less is more. It should be colorful but not cluttered.

3. Create a system that will help the students to keep the room looking great. Delegate jobs with some kind of job chart—it’s so good for them! This year I’m making a job wheel, so all I have to do is move their name over one space. The first week is a great time to discuss and practice those jobs.

4. On day 1 establish classroom rules, ideally having the students “help” make them, though you may need to gently push them in the direction that you want. Keep those rules positive rather than lots of “do nots.”

5. After conferring with the students’ teachers from last year, make a seating plan that will work best, especially being aware of which children to keep far apart. Be prepared to make changes in the first weeks.

6. Allow your students to explore the classroom. Make sure they get to see everything in it and how they can used different tools and bulletin boards that are available to them. We always do a looking tour where children look around the room and tell me what they see or notice.

7. Have the children share things about themselves with their classmates in the first week. Talk to them about things we have in common with one another so that kids can start creating bonds with each other. Allow students to bring a show and tell at the end of the first week that will show everyone something that we can learn about them. Even if the kids know each other from before, there will likely be some switches or new students, so new bonds will need to be created.

8. Plan a reflective writing or drawing that the students can do in week one about their hopes or goals for the year. It’s such a wonderful thing to pull out at the end of the year and show the children. If you make student portfolios, this makes a wonderful first entry.

9. Practice important routines in week one. This can be lining up, transitioning from one activity to another, learning how to keep their things organized. I especially focus on leaving the classroom neat and cleaned up at the end of the day. (My students don’t leave their seat without pushing their chairs in.) Pride in their space is an invaluable lesson they can learn. Every few weeks the children will organize their belongings and make sure there aren’t stray items. We make sure all markers and pencils are put back where they belong.

10. I really do not plan for much academics in week one. I find if I work hard to establish routine and help the students become comfortable in our space, then all the weeks that follow will be so much smoother and more fun for everyone. It’s worth giving the time needed for the children to understand what you expect for the year ahead. You may not want to give homework so soon, but have them practice taking things home, bringing them back and putting them in the right place when they walk in.