The new school year is upon us! It feels like just a few weeks ago we were saying goodbye to students and colleagues and heading into a summer of rest, recovery, and reflection. Now that we’re back, it almost feels like we never left, and many of us return thinking, “How can I make this year better than the last?”
Earlier in my career, this time was all about action. I’d go back to school and instantly focus on the “now”—first-day activities, first-day lesson plans, setting up my room—without thinking about my goals for the year for myself and for my students. I was jumping into the nitty-gritty too early without a long-term vision of what I wanted to accomplish with my students that year. I was doing all of these tasks to check them off my list, but I didn’t really have a compass set to help me accomplish these important tasks with a purpose.
Now, after twelve years in the classroom and almost a decade serving other teachers as an instructional coach, I approach back-to-school time a bit differently. Here are four tips I have for making this year the best year yet!
1. Set a Vision for the Year
It is so easy to get caught up in the surge of back to school and miss accounting for everything learned the year prior. While we’ll often remember to update a lesson plan or change a resource, we won’t always create a vision, a guiding star for what we want to be true for us and our students by the end of the school year.
Set aside time to reflect on last year and think deeply about your vision for the school year. Think about your vision for teaching and learning in your classroom and how you will help your students both see the value of this vision and want to follow you on this path. Consider how to create space for students to contribute to making this vision a more common and inclusive one along the way.
Then, ask yourself a few key questions:
- What vision will I set for what I teach and how I teach it so that my students can see the relevance of what we are about to embark on together?
- What do I want my classroom to look like, feel like, and sound like when we are running at full potential in a few months?
- What values, norms, and, eventually, procedures will help us get to this place further down the road?
While you may not achieve all of your goals right away, starting the year knowing where you want to go will help you and your students build the right culture to get there. The goal setting and reflection strategy is a great tool to help you get started.
2. Be Open to Making Big Shifts
Once you have your vision, you may realize you’ll need to make some changes—both big and small—to bring your vision to reality. Many teachers consider educational approaches such as project-based learning, mastery-based grading, or differentiation, but it can sometimes feel like these things are too big to tackle. However, if your vision leads to you taking on a new instructional approach—take the plunge, but come up with concrete, actionable baby steps to get there.
Once you have articulated your vision, breaking it down into small, incremental steps is not only okay but probably the only way to go. By adding one piece at a time, and by being strategic and reflective along the way, you will create the best chances for yourself to continue to build toward your vision in a meaningful and sustainable way.
For example, if you are thinking of implementing mastery-based learning in your classroom in which students are expected to master competencies at their own pace , think about a first step that feels more manageable to build. One such first step could be to test out the idea of creating blocks of time during which students can use formative assessment data on a smaller set of competencies, in order to set personalized goals for competencies they would like to master and work on simple pathways toward mastery; something like the fill in the gaps strategy, for example.
3. Stick to Your “Why”
It’s easy to get overzealous when trying to implement new concepts or ideas. What starts as a simple Google search can turn into a list of 100 new strategies, lessons, and tools you need NOW! While there’s no harm in listing them all and even creating a vision board, it’s important to first ask yourself, “Why do I really want to do this?” Revisit some of the questions you used to create your vision. If you cannot articulate a reason you want to make an instructional move and how that move relates to your vision, chances are that you might not be able to get yourself or your students on board on this challenging journey.
After doing this, go back to your board and force yourself to select just a few strategies that align best with the big ideas you just outlined. Then, try them one at a time, building on successes and learning from challenges. Throughout your process of implementation, keep the following questions in mind:
Prior to testing this new idea:
- What do I want this strategy to help my students (or me) to do better?
- How will I know if I reached these goals?
- What aspects should I pay attention to during implementation?
After testing this new idea:
- What went well? Did I reach my goals or get closer to them?
- How could this be improved next time around?
- What is a new opportunity this strategy creates?
4. Bring Students Along with You
All of this work is to help your students grow and learn, so make sure they’re along for the ride. Building a student-centered classroom culture can help you build relationships with students that can support you and your students when trying something new.
Take some time to think about the following questions:
- What are the key values you want to model and nurture in your classroom, the pillars that will help you build the rest of this house? For me, for example, the idea of celebrating student growth and giving and receiving feedback was essential.
- What are the norms that support these values? For example, if growth is a key value for you, then it is important for you to norm with your students on what members of the classroom should and shouldn’t do when someone makes a mistake.
- What are the systems and procedures that make these values come to life on a daily basis? To stay with the example of a growth mindset, think about a system you could implement to support students to believe that mistakes are learning opportunities. It’s one thing to say this beautiful phrase, but it’s another to have a system that supports it. The fill the gaps strategy that I shared earlier is an example of a system that makes this concept come to life on a regular basis.
Educators truly do have one of the hardest and most important jobs in the world—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! As you return to your classroom for the school year, make sure you give yourself the time and space to reflect on the past and create a vision for the future. You’ve got this!
This blog was inspired by a conversation with the TransformEd Collaborative. To read the original interview and learn more about how the organization is working to achieve educational equity in school communities, visit their website.