Rick Lavoie

Strategies to Start Off a New School Year

August 2003

The overwhelming majority of questions I receive in August come from teachers who are anxious about the opening of the school year. Their concerns center on strategies to get the year off to the best possible start in their classrooms.

Those of your who are familiar with my work - particularly the How Difficult Can This Be? workshop and video - know that I believe in the importance of relating to and understanding the children we serve. This is no easy task.

You see, there exists a great and significant irony in the field of Special Education. That is: "Most of us who teach every day, ENJOYED going to school when we were kids…and most of us did pretty well there."

Consider. Common sense would dictate that few adults would choose to make a living in an environment that s/he feared or abhorred. Most teachers enjoyed their school experience and found the classroom to be a haven for learning, sharing and friendships.

Most special education students view "A Place Called School" very differently. Their past experiences have taught them that the classroom is a place of failure and frustration; the school bus represents a daily ritual of rejection and bullying; and the playground is haunted with memories of rejection and isolation. As you read this, many of your incoming students are experiencing great dread and anxiety as they anticipate those first days in a new classroom. They know, through bitter experience, that their academic skills and social competence will be sorely tested… and often they will not be equal to the challenge. Thus, the 180 day cycle of failure begins once again…

As teachers, we must understand and accommodate for the significant anxiety that our students face as they enter the school year. Go to your computer and make a poster for the Teacher's Lounge with the following quote:

"Coming to school every day can become a hopeless task for some children unless they succeed at what they do. We teachers are sentries against that hopelessness."

Below are some strategies, techniques, procedures and inspirations that may help in getting your school year off to a constructive and supportive start: "Nobody ever plans to fail; but they do fail to plan."

  • If you are the "new teacher in the building", take active steps to get to know the school ... and to let the school know you. Acquaint yourself with the philosophy, policies, procedures and personnel. Read the Faculty Handbook. Walk the hallways. Introduce yourself. Meet the custodian, nurse, librarian and food service folks.

    Don't wait until they come to you. Communication is an ACTIVE - not a PASSIVE - process.

  • Traditional (row-on-row) seating plans usually work best at the beginning of the year. Save the more creative arrangement until you know the kids better.
  • Remember: The first day of school sets the tone for the year. "Getting Acquainted" activities are great… and appropriate. But the majority of the time during the First Day should be spent on academically-oriented school work. If Day One is a Play Day… Day Two may well be a disaster. ("We have to do WORK??!? I thought you LIKED us!")
  • When arranging your seating plan, allow for ample traffic flow. Countless classroom skirmishes are caused by the jostling and bumping that occur when rows are too tight!
  • Your three main goals for Opening Day are:
    • (a) Get to know them.
    • (b) Establish expectations.
    • (c) Stimulate enthusiasm.
    • Sometimes we get so focused on (a) and (b) that we forget about (c).
  • Once your classroom is all prepared and decorated… walk around the room on your knees and get a "kid's eye view". You might find yourself making some changes once you have seen the room from their perspective.
  • When planning your room, avoid creating "dead spaces"… every inch of the room should be functional!
  • Some teachers are reluctant to assign specific seats to students because it "violates the child's right to autonomy". GET OVER IT! Assign 'em! Let them know that the seating plan will be temporary, however.
  • Decide on your policy regarding your desk. Some teachers proclaim their desk as "HANDS OFF - PRIVATE PROPERTY". Others have an "OPEN DESK" policy wherein kids are free to borrow materials and supplies.
  • DECORATE! Your classroom is your "home" for eight hours a day… it should reflect your personality and your interests. Posters! Signs! Banners! Souvenirs!
  • Take a moment to send a welcoming postcard to every student in your class before school begins. Believe me, they will be magnetted to refrigerators all over the neighborhood.
  • Create a welcoming classroom environment with each kid's name prominently displayed on bulletin boards, desks, folders and charts. This sends the comforting message, "Come on in; I was expecting you and I have prepared for your arrival. Welcome!"
  • GREET EACH CHILD! Your goal should be to say something personal and individual to each and every child on the first day.

    "Good morning, Anna. I have a niece named Anna and she even looks like you!"

    "Welcome, Mike. I understand that you live near the new Mall. I will bet that the construction was pretty loud all summer."

    "Hello, Freddie. I guess your Dad is Freddie Pringle who owns the plumbing company with those flashy silver vans. Do you ever help him in the summer? My Dad was a plumber."

    "Good morning, Sean. I like that Red Sox T-shirt. Did you get up to Fenway this summer? I was at the game when Nomar hit two grand slams… "

    You will be the topic of conversation at many dinner tables that evening. ("I like my new teacher. She talked to me today.") Kids feel so anonymous in school. This technique recognizes their individuality and worth. What a great first impression!

  • "What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expect generally happens." -B. Disraeli
  • Share yourself. When you introduce yourself to the class, tell a bit about your family life, background, hobbies, pets, etc. When I was a kid, I thought that my teachers went into their big oak closets at the end of the class day… and emerged the next morning. I remember my shock when I saw my first grade teacher in the supermarket ("They EAT?!?!?!?!")
  • Be enthusiastic and warm. Teachers used to say, "Never smile until December." They were wrong.
  • Review each child's cumulative folder BEFORE schools begins. Note each student's special interest and talents… not merely their test scores! I disagree strongly with those who believe that you should not review files before the year begins because you will develop "preconceived notions" about the child. Ridiculous. Wouldn't you want your doctor to review your medical history prior to treatment?

    However, give every kid a chance to "wipe the slate clean" and start each school year off fresh. I was a bad boy in fourth grade. I remember entering my fifth grade classroom on the first day of school and being met by my scowling new teacher… "I've heard about you, Richard. If you think that you are going to get away with misbehavior in my class, you have another think coming … BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!" What a motivating way to begin the year! She thought that she was preventing future problems. WRONG! She just threw down the gauntlet. My fifth grade year was worse than my fourth!

  • Your first few days should be meticulously planned. Again, this sets the tone for the year!
  • Post your short, simple classroom rules. Some samples:
    • Respect material, equipment… and each other.
    • Raise your hand for permission to speak or leave your seat.
    • Use "indoor voice" when speaking in class.
    • Be on time.
    • One person talks at a time.
    NOTE: All classroom rules should be stated positively ("Respect each other"), not negatively ("No Swearing"). Tell 'em what you want 'em to do, not what you don't want 'em to do.

  • Don't take roll call! What an impersonal way to begin a relationship! Take Polaroid shots instead and post them.
  • If you must take roll… at least make it fun (e.g., "When I call your name, don't say here". Instead respond by telling me your favorite Brittney Spear's song; your favorite TV show; who you think will win the presidential election, etc., etc.)
  • Send a note home during the first week to let parents know when you are available for conferences (e.g., before school? over lunch? Tuesdays and Thursdays only?)
  • Learn kid's nicknames. But don't assume that every William is a "Bill" and every James is a "Jim". Ask them.
  • Use the first week to explain, demonstrate and reinforce your classroom rules, routines and regulations. Also discuss emergency procedures and your grading policies, when appropriate.
  • Kids feel very comforted and secure when you give them an idea of what a "typical day" will be like. ALWAYS post the day's agenda on the wall before each class. REMEMBER: Kids with learning problems generally do not like surprises! They take great comfort in the structure that you provide.
  • Let your sense of humor show… particularly when problems occur. Laugh WITH - never AT - your students
  • Make the students feel welcomed and valued in your classroom. Many special needs kids feel that school is a depersonalizing and irrelevant institution. It is a sad commentary that kids' self-esteem often increases markedly immediately after they drop out of school. Sad.
  • Enforce your rules consistently. To do otherwise erodes students' trust and respect.
  • Communicate - consistently - your belief in your students and your faith that they WILL succeed, grow and progress. PRODUCTION SELDOM EXCEEDS EXPECTATION!
  • Reject the child's behavior… but never reject the child.
  • Recognize, encourage and reinforce positive behaviors and achievements. Never take cooperative and helpful behaviors for granted. Behavior which is reinforced is repeated.
  • In the first week, establish a classroom environment that values COOPERATION over COMPETITION. Remember: Competition is motivating only to the individual who thinks he has a chance of winning!
  • Catch 'em being good.
  • Praise publicly, criticize privately.
  • I believe strongly in Strand Objectives. After the first few weeks of school, find a quiet place to sit and reflect upon each individual kid in your caseload. Develop one long-term, significant goal for each student.
      The goal may be subject-related:
    • "Billy will learn the multiplication facts."
    • "Janet will learn the rules of capitalization."
    • "Jeanne will learn how to make change."


      the goal might be social or behavioral:
    • "Steve will use appropriate tone and volume when speaking in class."
    • "Mike will consistently and appropriately use please and thank you in conversational speech."
    • "Jim will volunteer more often in class discussions."

    Record these goals in the back of your Plan Book. Revisit them once a month and ask yourself if you have done anything to meet these goals. This procedure keeps you focused on the unique needs of each student.

Have a great school year! The kids deserve nothing less than out best efforts.

To paraphrase my friend and mentor, Dr. Larry Lieberman:

"Teaching has an advantage that few other occupations have. When you are angered and frustrated with your unresponsive principal, the inedible cafeteria lunches, the demanding and unreasonable parents, the ever-decreasing budgets, the chronically malfunctioning photocopy machine, the inevitably tardy book order and the overwhelming paperwork… you can always go into your classroom, close the door behind you and be with the kids!"

Commit to yourself that you will focus your energies, attention, time and resources on the kids this year.That's why we're there!