This week marks the end of the first semester at my school and, as I conduct reflection meetings with my teachers, the most common coaching request as we move into the second semester is to build more structure in their classes. Now is a great time to build, change, and revise policy because a new semester presents a time for revitalization. It’s time to evaluate classroom community.
The start of the class period is imperative to the success of the instructional time. Establish expectations for the academic environment. For example, finish all food and drinks before entering or enter with purpose by having a seat and beginning a specific activity. The teacher is the beacon for how students enter. If we are running around trying to get things ready; we are not sending the right message. Stand at the door, greet each student by name, chat a little to see how they are doing each day, and take attendance while they enter. This is a super easy and great teaching tool. It gives teachers the chance to connect with students, ask about their day/weekend, and remind them what to do when they enter.
There are so many benefits to meeting your students at the door, and it is an easy routine that you can start today. Remember, “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” You can set the tone of the entire class period by simply standing at the door and greeting the students by name. Traditionally, we have an activity ready for the students to begin. This activity should take no more than 5 minutes. Establish the expectation that students enter and begin immediately.
Once the bell rings for the start of class, students should already be engaged in something. Try not to take this time to work on anything yourself, but rather walk around the room and give value and praise for the activity. I like to hold a clipboard so they assume there is a value placed on the assignment, whether or not I am actually grading it, because as soon as they realize it doesn’t “count” they might stop doing it. Make comments to students about the work they are completing, let them know you are interested in what they are doing and that the activity is important for the class.
What happens if a student is late?
Inevitably students will be late to class. So what happens next? This too is teacher preference, however, it is important that you establish the procedure and stick with it. Some teachers like a little inbox for passes, so that a student enters places the pass in the box and joins the class, this way it is not a disruption, and once students have moved to independent work the teacher can check the passes and adjust attendance.
If the introductory activity is essential to the lesson, be sure it is on chart paper rather than a powerpoint, that way students who enter late can complete the activity. Maybe, you prefer to have a notebook that the student can refer to with the activity listed so that they can complete it at a later time. Although this seems like a minute detail, tardy students can become a disruption so it is important to decide your preference for lateness and teach the procedure to the students. Post this procedure in class so there is no disruption and you have a non-verbal way of handling late students.
What happens if a student is absent?
This is another procedure that is based on teacher preference but must be established and taught to the students. Try a 3-ring binder that houses the lessons, notes, handouts for the day. Have students refer to this notebook during independent work. Maybe a posted calendar would work better for you class. List the information on the calendar and have files right below the calendar to house any paperwork. Just like the late procedure, the absent procedure is imperative to avoiding disruptions in the class, so be sure to create a protocol and ensure the students understand this expectation.
Consider the procedure for late work as well. If a student is absent, how long do they have to turn in the missing work? Is there a form they need to fill out and attach to the work so that you know they are turning in work from a day they were absent, not just making up missing assignments?
How do we turn in paperwork?
Turning in work also seems simple, but can take up unnecessary time. Establish how work gets turned in. Is there a box for the class, do students pass work forward, are there table captains or class leaders who are responsible for collecting work? Passing out paperwork should also be considered. Although these seem like simple tasks, establishing procedures for these situations will help your class run smoothly, speed up transitions, and allow more time to be devoted to content.
Adjusting the Space
Keeping students in rows facing the front of the room is an archaic approach to learning and often hinders engagement. Consider all of the configurations you might use in a classroom, circle, horseshoe, groups, partners, debate, etc. Choose the top 4 and create table Olympics. Teach the students the most time efficient way to move the tables and have them practice until the transition only takes a few seconds.
Rick Smith, the author of Conscious Classroom Management, suggests taking a picture of each configuration and then placing it on the board at the start of class. Students see the configuration, move to prepare the class, and all is done in a matter of seconds without the use of voices. Martha Kelly, a high school theatre teacher uses songs. She will begin a song and the students have until the end of the chorus to have the tables set. She uses “the ants go marching” for rows, “circle of life” for a circle, and “it takes two” for partners. She starts the song, the kids join in, and within seconds the room is transformed.
Planning Lessons Early…making it a habit
Even with the best curriculum maps and pacing guides, we still run into the inevitable last-minute changes in building lessons and preparing for each day. Creating a routine in lesson planning and material preparation is essential for running a smooth classroom community, not to mention maintaining personal sanity. A deficiency in proper planning will inevitably lead to classroom community and management issues. Try getting two weeks ahead, I know it sounds impossible but we have to start somewhere. Build full lessons for two weeks and prepare all of the materials, copies, etc needed for those two weeks. Then each day, before you leave, reflect on the lessons of the day; what worked, what didn’t work, what needs to be retaught tomorrow, and what you need to just throw out.
I like to keep a small journal and review the day’s events right before I go home, this way I know where the kids are in each class as well as how I am feeling with the progress of the students and my progress as a teacher. Then choose one day a week that you will compose lesson plans, and keep to that routine. This way you are always one step ahead and journaling will help you stay connected to what is happening throughout. Remember, the lesson plan will not be flawless, you will always have to modify but staying a few weeks ahead will help you be prepared so that only a few changes need to be made.
We are all familiar with the teacher quote “the bell doesn’t dismiss you, I dismiss you.” This is a very important procedure. The last thing we want is for students to start packing up, checking out, or the worst of all, standing at the door. This is a procedure that is essential to maintaining bell-to-bell instruction. Determine your personal preference. Should students be in their seats to be dismissed, once the bell rings can they pack up and then wait for your dismissal, are they dismissed once they hand in something? Whatever your expectation is for dismissal, teach it to the students and stick to it. All it takes is one time to go back on this procedure and it will be forever difficult to reign it in.
Practicing Procedures for Classroom Community
Once you have established your procedures (and these are just a few, be sure to add in procedures specific to your class/content area), practice them over and over so they become routine. Consistency is key when it comes to structuring a classroom community, and just because it’s halfway through the year doesn’t mean you can’t start. Procedures or so important to the success of a classroom community. Although it may feel like you are spending a lot of time practicing these procedures, the time is worth it, because it will alleviate future distractions ultimately providing more time to engage in learning.
There is no one way or specific right way of doing procedures, most procedures are teacher preference and based on the needs and environment of your classroom. However, it is essential that you know your expectations and that you articulate and practice these expectations with your students. The more detailed and explicit your procedures, the smoother your class will run.
Procedures are essential to the structure of the classroom community, without them the majority of our time will be devoted to putting out fires instead of igniting curiosity. If you find yourself running into some procedural roadblocks, it’s not too late to develop and practice the class structure.
It is never too late to alter policies, procedures, or routines for classroom community but also remembers it takes 21 days to make a habit so be patient with the process, it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Piquès & Pirouettès
Jaime Patterson is the Executive Director of Creative Affairs for EducationCloset. She is passionate about supporting educators in their pathway to teaching and learning through arts integration and STEAM.